Two U.S. Air Force officials got sacked Thursday — the top civilian and military officials, no less. This is an unprecedented and welcome example of holding people accountable for failures of leadership. But more importantly, it is an indication that the acute crisis afflicting America’s nuclear-defense efforts can no longer be ignored.
In an National Review Online article last week, I cited a “New Deterrent Working Group” convened by the Center for Security Policy, which recently released a white paper entitled “Toward a New Deterrent”:
To an extent largely unknown to the American people and even to many U.S. policy-makers, the nuclear deterrent that has been the backbone of our defense posture for fifty years is becoming obsolete, unreliable and potentially ineffective. This is the direct and predictable result of the practice of essentially “freezing” our nuclear weapons strategy and stockpile over the past seventeen years since the end of the Cold War.
Another key point from the paper:
Military Preparedness: The Defense Department must recommit to the need to maintain for the foreseeable future both an appropriate nuclear arsenal and the competencies required to field and exercise it. This will entail preserving America’s existing nuclear weapons platforms and capabilities. It will also mean planning, budgeting and performing the long-range actions needed to contend with an uncertain nuclear future.
The Working Group specifically called, among other things, for the armed services to place an “increase[d] emphasis on nuclear specialist personnel, on nuclear strategy and tactics and on nuclear exercises.” This recommendation was the result of a classified report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who Thursday cited it as the basis for firing Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley.
The report followed an investigation at Gates’s request, after several serious breaches of nuclear-security procedures. The SecDef gave that assignment to Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, the four-star head of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program — a storied organization that has, since its founding under Hyman Rickover, maintained an exacting standard for professionalism, performance, and accountability.
The Donald investigation seems to have reached the inevitable conclusion: With few exceptions, the U.S. military simply no longer treats its nuclear deterrent responsibilities as priorities.
Assignment to the few remaining nuclear units is often seen as banishment to the organizational equivalent of Siberia — a blight on one’s service record, if not actually a career-ender. Serious thinking about nuclear strategy, innovative work on changing deterrent requirements, even clear-headed intelligence analysis of the evolving threats from nuclear-armed adversaries are in desperately short supply. Improper weapons-handling procedures are but a symptom of a far larger, indeed systemic, problem that Secretary Gates properly thought warranted the firing of two top officials.