Commentary

US Urged to Overhaul Nuclear Arsenal

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times on November 5, 2008.

It may seem plausible that with American troops busily engaged in fighting insurgents on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that Washington’s policies on nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence would take a lower priority. That would be an incorrect assumption.

The handling of US nuclear weapons and policy were recently center-stage due to two different events. First was the release on October 24 of a report billed as a nuclear weapons roadmap for the future by the US Air Force. Titled “Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise”, it called for the establishment of a global strike command and a headquarters for air force staff to handle nuclear assets.

This in itself is not a bad thing, and it is worth remembering what led to it. The secretary of the air force created the air force nuclear task force to develop a strategic roadmap after air force officials discovering three serious security miscues. First, in August 2007, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber mistakenly flew six warheads from Minot air force base, in North Dakota, to Barksdale air force base in Louisiana. Second, during the same incident there was an unauthorized transfer of nuclear cruise missiles munitions from Minot to Barksdale. Additionally, an inadvertent shipment of sensitive nuclear missile components, labeled as helicopter batteries, was shipped to Taiwan in 2006.

Even before the B-52 security misadventures at Minot had so badly eroded US nuclear security, things had already digressed to such a level that instead of using orange cones and multiple placards to distinguish racks of non-nuclear missiles from nuclear-tipped ones, the 5th Bomb Wing was using 8-by-10-inch sheets of paper placed on the pylons.

To improve current operations and properly train personnel, air force officials will undertake a series of action plans to address the root causes of the recent problems. The action plans implement approximately 100 recommendations, including:

  • Increase institutional focus and oversight by establishing an air force global strike command, led by a lieutenant general, and a strategic deterrence and nuclear integration staff office.
  • Consolidate sustainment functions under air force materiel command’s air force nuclear weapons center.
  • Implement a centralized nuclear surety inspection process.
  • Implement a global deterrent force approach for bomber operations that balances current global commitments with dedicated periods for personnel to focus on nuclear operations training and proficiency.
  • Consolidate planning, programming, budgeting and execution of nuclear enterprise elements.
  • Create strategic investment plans that address long-term nuclear requirements, including those for cruise missiles, bombers, dual-capable aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
  • Establish positive inventory control measures for nuclear weapons-related material.

It is intriguing to read the “roadmap” to see what officials believe is the reason for lax security over US nuclear weapons. In what could be described as Strangeglovian reasoning, many blame the Cold War, or to be more precise, the Cold War’s end. The executive summary reads:

“The primary cause of the systemic breakdowns in the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise was the failure of leadership at many levels to provide proper emphasis on the nuclear mission. The loss of focus stemmed from changes in the operating environment at the end of the Cold War, exacerbated by the profound changes in the security environment following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 1992, the Air Force implemented the largest organizational change since its inception leading to the organizational and supervisory fragmentation of the nuclear enterprise. This was reinforced by the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure decisions that dispersed depot support for nuclear systems and components. As a result, the Air Force’s nuclear sustainment system became fragmented, the pool of nuclear experienced Airmen atrophied, and nuclear expertise eroded as less time was allocated to maintain nuclear operational proficiency. The Air Force failed to properly resource many nuclear mission areas effectively relegating the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise to a “care-taker” status with limited modernization or recapitalization.”

Still, if the end of the Cold War was bad, the concept of nuclear deterrence is still good. The roadmap finds that, “Credible nuclear deterrence is essential to our security and that of our allies and friends”. In fact, it claims that “Many allied and friendly countries continue to depend on the security umbrella provided by the nuclear deterrence capability of the United States. In the absence of this ‘security umbrella’, some non-nuclear allies might perceive a need to develop and deploy their own nuclear capability.”

The other noteworthy recent event concerning US nuclear weapons and policy was an October 28 speech by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which he said it was important to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal as a hedge against “rising and resurgent powers” like Russia or China, as well as “rogue nations” like Iran or North Korea and international terrorists .

Gates argued for modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal because “as long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons - and potentially can threaten us, our allies and friends - then we must have a deterrent capacity”.

His speech was taken as the latest signal that the George W Bush administration was moving in its closing months to embrace more far-reaching notions of deterrence and self-defense.

Prior to this, the last public indication that the administration was expanding the traditional view of nuclear deterrence came in October 2006, following a test detonation of a nuclear device by North Korea. In a statement, Bush said North Korea would be held “fully accountable” for the transfer of nuclear weapons or materials to any nation or terrorist organization.

The president was not as explicit as Gates in saying that the administration would extend the threat of reprisals for the transfer of nuclear weapons or materials to all countries, not just North Korea. Gates also expanded the threat to nations or groups that provide a broader range of support to terrorists.

Gates also said that unless the United States modernizes its inventory of nuclear weapons and develops a replacement warhead, the atomic arsenal’s long-term safety and reliability will deteriorate.

However, Gates did break with the Bush administration by saying the United States “probably should” ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an international agreement prohibiting new testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty was signed by the Clinton administration in 1996, but is opposed by Bush and has not been ratified by the Senate.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq