Air Force Nuclear Reviews Miss the Forest for the Trees

At a Nov. 14 press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the release of two reviews, one internal and the other external, on the Pentagon nuclear weapons enterprise.  Ordered in response to the revelations about troubling lapses and poor morale in the nation’s nuclear forces, particularly the ICBM force, the reviews found what Hagel described as “systematic problems.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announces a series of reforms to the nuclear enterprise during a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., Nov. 14, 2014. (Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr))Hagel attributed the root cause of these shortcomings to “a lack of sustained focus, attention, and resources, resulting in a pervasive sense that a career in the nuclear enterprise offers too few opportunities for growth and advancement.”

To combat these problems, Hagel announced dozens of steps, some of which have already been implemented. These range from improving oversight to restoring the prestige of the nuclear enterprise to providing a 10 percent increase in spending over the next five years on top of the $15-$16 billion the Pentagon says it currently spends.

Clearly, high-level Pentagon attention to the repeated management lapses and instances of personal misconduct within the nation’s nuclear arsenal, specifically the ICBM force, is urgently needed. It is a good thing that the Pentagon is taking steps to try to address these problems. 

However, it’s unclear that these problems can be solved by more money or more organizational changes. Similar changes were recommended and promised in the wake of the last round of mishaps within the nuclear Air Force in 2007 and 2008 and obviously the problems continued. 

The core issue goes beyond management and personnel, and is rooted in the fact that nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy. It’s hard to imagine a military mission today that would require the use of even a handful of nuclear weapons, let alone the 4,800 that the United States currently possesses. Such a bloated arsenal is irrelevant to the most urgent security challenges that the United States and its allies face today, including cyberthreats, weak and failing states, global pandemics such as Ebola, climate change, terrorism, and more.

These realities are especially true of the ICBM force. The United States currently retains 450 ICBMs, many of which are capable of being launched at a moments notice. One of the main rationales for such a large, highly alert force is to deter a massive strike against U.S. nuclear forces. Yet only Russia is capable of mounting such an attack, the likelihood of which is extremely low. According to a 2013 U.S. interagency review of U.S. nuclear policy, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries.” The review went on to note “the significantly diminished possibility of a disarming surprise nuclear attack” and directed the Pentagon to “examine further options to reduce the role…Launch Under Attack plays in U.S. planning.” This suggests that the United States could do with fewer ICBMs maintained at a lower readiness level.

In addition, a May 2012 report by the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission concluded that the United States is unlikely to use its ICBMs in a nuclear conflict not involving Russia because the missiles would have to fly over Russia to reach their targets. The report’s commission was chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright and included none other than Chuck Hagel.

There is also a disconnect between the rhetorical emphasis the Pentagon places on the importance of the nuclear mission and the resources it devotes to maintaining and modernizing the weapons on the one hand, and the attention it devotes to the mission and personnel on a day-to-day basis on the other. As detailed in the independent review, the ICBM force in particular is a backwater that “is not engaged in a wide range of operational activities that are common to other…Air Force and Navy operations” and its operators are focused almost exclusively on “maintenance and security.”

In other words, it shouldn’t be surprising that that the morale among those responsible for the world’s most dangerous weapons is low when the rationale of the ICBM mission is increasingly difficult to justify, the likelihood of using ICBMs is almost non-existent, and the Pentagon devotes far less attention to the mission than other nuclear and conventional activities.   

More Money, More Problems?

Hagel’s pledge to spend billions more on the Air Force nuclear enterprise without identifying where those additional resources will come from, may only serve to exacerbate the problems in the nuclear force.  Current U.S. plans to rebuild all elements of the nuclear triad and its supporting infrastructure could exceed $1 trillion over the next thirty years--not including Hagel’s promise of additional funds. A growing number of current government and military officials are warning that this price tag is likely unaffordable given the reductions to federal spending mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (also known as sequestration).

Peacekeeper, Minuteman I and Minuteman III ICBMs on display near F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Gate 1 Feb. 11, 2011. (R.J. Oriez/U.S. Airforce/Wikipedia Commons)The plans to build a replacement for the existing Minuteman III ICBMs are in particular limbo, since the replacement plans are far less advanced than those for the submarine and bomber legs of the triad. There is unlikely to be enough money left for a new missile given the extreme cost of the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine and Long-Range Strike bombers programs, which are top Navy and Air Force priorities, respectively.

Tough budget choices need to be made among the different parts of the nuclear arsenal and between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons--which address higher priority threats—in general. Billions could be saved [] by responsibly scaling back current nuclear spending plans and reducing unneeded weapon systems, thereby freeing up funds to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of the arsenal that remains. The current path is unsustainable and unnecessary, and changes to the arsenal forced by resource constraints, rather than reasoned planning, will do further damage to the mission and to morale.

More Nuclear Weapons Than Necessary

The troubled Air Force nuclear enterprise is also an important reminder of the grave danger posed by nuclear weapons, including to the security of their possessors.  As current deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command put it last year, “the greatest risk to my [Air Force nuclear] force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid. That puts my force at risk, more so than almost anything else out there I can think of.”

Both the United States and Russia retain well over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, far more than is necessary to credibly deter a nuclear attack. Hundreds of these weapons are capable of being launched within minutes.

After an extensive review of nuclear deterrence requirements, U.S. military leaders concluded last year that the United States could safely reduce the size of its deployed strategic arsenal by up to one-third below the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty level of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The Obama administration seeks to pursue such reductions with Russia, but so far Moscow has shown little interest in engaging.

Despite their current tensions over Ukraine, the United States and Russia are no longer adversaries like they were during the Cold War. Yet, the risks of unintended escalation due to military posturing remain unacceptably high. The European Leadership Network recently documented “11 serious incidents of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature” involving Russian and Western militaries and security agencies since the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier this year. Both Russia and the West must seek to deescalate current tensions and pursue continued reductions in their bloated nuclear arsenals.