Panel Seeks New Single Air Force Nuclear Command

WASHINGTON -- A panel commissioned by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that the Air Force should consolidate all its nuclear weapon systems within a single command and shift more than 1,500 personnel into the mission (see GSN, Sept. 11).

The task force, chaired by former U.S. Defense Secretary and Central Intelligence Director James Schlesinger, issued a report saying that the "nuclear deterrence mission demands an uncompromising standard of accountability and responsibility and that consolidation of Air Force nuclear forces in a single major command will set the stage for a revitalized nuclear culture."

Accountability for performing the nuclear mission has suffered because "today no senior leader in the Air Force ‘owns' the nuclear mission," the task force stated.

Gates supported the idea of consolidation but indicated the specifics would have to be sorted out.

"I'm not sure what the right answer is," he said at a Friday press conference, "but … one of the principal actions that needs to be taken is to address this question of unity of command."

The Schlesinger group issued its recommendations in response to two major lapses in Air Force nuclear weapons management. 

The first incident to surface was an August 2007 bomber flight from one air base in North Dakota to another in Louisiana during which the air crew was unaware the plane was carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles (see GSN, Sept. 5, 2007).  Then, in March, Defense Department officials revealed they had discovered that nuclear weapon fuses had been mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006 (see GSN, March 25).

The Air Force immediately took a number of corrective actions, including disciplinary measures and changes in its weapons training.  

The service anticipates asking Congress for roughly $1.5 billion in its fiscal 2010 budget for management, training and other initiatives aimed at tightening controls over nuclear weapons, Schlesinger said at the press conference.

Following the initial efforts, Gates in June announced the resignations of the service's two top officials, Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Michael Moseley.  He cited the nuclear incidents as the primary justification for the dismissals.

The same day, Gates announced the creation of the Schlesinger panel, which was to report back in 60 days with its Air Force findings (see GSN, June 6). 

"Clearly I think we have the attention of the Air Force," Gates said at last week's media briefing.

The task force this fall will also issue a second analysis, focused on defense-wide nuclear management issues.

The group's Air Force findings support the type of consolidated command over nuclear weapons that the service itself began openly pondering in March (see GSN, March 27).  Schlesinger's eight-member panel, which includes retired Air Force and Navy brass, said the service should "redesignate Air Force Space Command as Air Force Strategic Command and vest it with appropriate authority and accountability," according to the report.

The Air Force manages more than 2,800 nuclear weapons, according to Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  As it stands, nuclear weapons oversight by the service's Space Command, located in Colorado Springs, Colo., is limited to ICBMs.  Air Combat Command manages nuclear-armed bomber aircraft at its Hampton, Va., headquarters more than 1,500 miles away. 

Air Combat Command is also responsible for conventional aircraft and missions.  Although nuclear bombers were assigned to that command in 1991, its "culture became centered on the employment of conventional missions using fighter aircraft," states the report.  Conventional-force pilots also began dominating the highest Air Force positions.

"As a consequence," states the document, "the special culture that had surrounded the nuclear enterprise dissipated" and the level of discipline in its operations dipped, according to the document.

Schlesinger noted that an Air Force Strategic Command would also serve as a single Air Force nuclear component for the multiservice U.S. Strategic Command.  Based in Omaha, Neb., U.S. Strategic Command is the Pentagon's overarching combat organization for nuclear and space missions.  Services including the Air Force and Navy provide personnel, equipment and training.

The changes would also give the Air Force sole responsibility for the movement of its sensitive weapons components, bringing the service more in line with Navy nuclear weapons practices, said task force member Michael Carns, a retired Air Force general.  The erroneous fuse transfer to Taiwan occurred when Defense Logistics Agency workers at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, mistook the nuclear weapons parts for helicopter batteries.

The report also describes how nuclear-related jobs in the Air Force have been reduced over time, so that resources could be shifted to conventional weapons procurement programs regarded as higher priorities. 

Making the personnel shortfall yet worse, positions that remained in the nuclear field have only been partially filled, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing hundreds of airmen away from nuclear responsibilities.

"The task force was told by one bomb wing commander that the wing's assigned crew chief manning was only at 67 percent of its authorized level -- resulting in an inability to fly approximately 20 percent of the [fiscal 2008] training sorties -- limiting air-crew proficiency and severely impacting combat readiness," states the report.

At the press conference, Schlesinger said his group estimated that to fill the most pressing shortfalls, the Air Force should move between 1,500 and 2,000 airmen into the nuclear arms sector.  Additional personnel shifts might be needed beyond that, Carns said.

The retired general would not venture an estimate of additional personnel needs because over time, "these manning [slots] have been reduced, and we therefore need to go back and … make sure the number is right," he said.

For example, "reductions have resulted in the removal of all intelligence officers from missile wings," Carns said.  "So it isn't a matter of sending an intelligence officer back; it's a matter of re-establishing that position and manning it."

Air Force leaders are to meet Sept. 18 in a "nuclear summit" in Washington, where they might initiate new actions based on the Schlesinger panel findings, officials said.

September 15, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- A panel commissioned by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that the Air Force should consolidate all its nuclear weapon systems within a single command and shift more than 1,500 personnel into the mission (see GSN, Sept. 11).