Politics & Policy

Disaster Deterred

Firing for our defense.

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.

The accountability Mr. Gates has exacted at the highest levels of the Air Force will be of enormous importance if it is but the beginning of a comprehensive, top-to-bottom reexamination and overhaul of what has passed for nuclear stewardship at the Defense Department over the past two decades. For example, Adm. Donald’s is but the latest of a series of inquiries to establish that there is a serious lack of senior-level management and oversight of the Pentagon’s nuclear responsibilities. That is true in the Office of the Secretary of Defense itself; thanks to an utterly inept reorganization a few years back, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict is in charge of nuclear-weapons policy. There is a similar lack of top-level attention to nuclear programs on the acquisition side of the house.

The message to the bureaucracy about things nuclear could not be clearer: Never mind.

To his credit, Secretary Gates has, with these firings, not only sent the most powerful signal imaginable to that Pentagon bureaucracy. According to the Associated Press, he has also asked one of his predecessors, James Schlesinger, “to lead a task force that will recommend ways to ensure the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained in Air Force handling of nuclear weapons.” It can only be hoped that Schlesinger — a true national treasure thanks to his unequaled knowledge of nuclear technology and policy accumulated over four decades of national leadership — will treat this as an opportunity to address the totality of what is broken in “the Building” with respect to nuclear forces, and not confine himself to procedures and protocols.

As it happens, Secretary Schlesinger is in a position to do so. He was recently appointed the co-chair of the new, congressionally chartered, bipartisan Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture. In that capacity, he will be able to document that a lack of seriousness and accountability is not confined to the Air Force, or even the Pentagon. To the contrary it is endemic, and contributing to the comprehensive unraveling of the ultimate guarantor of America’s security at the Department of Energy’s once-mighty nuclear weapons industrial complex and national laboratories.

Unless corrected throughout the U.S. government, the current trends will move us toward denuclearization. This is an actual goal of, among others, former secretary of defense William Perry, the chairman of Dr. Schlesinger’s commission. Such a course of action is irresponsible and reckless, especially at a time when our adversaries throughout the world are improving and enlarging their own nuclear arsenals, and rogue nations are moving rapidly to acquire nuclear weapons — all of which will enhance the likelihood of terrorist groups obtaining them.

The time has come to reestablish our commitment to maintain the world’s strongest and most credible, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent force — a commitment that has made the world safe from global conventional war for the past half-century. This will require developing an entirely new nuclear strategy for the 21st century and necessitate the development, testing, and production of new nuclear weapons capable of deterring the new threats we face. Since the lead-times to make these changes are measured in decades, we must start immediately.

If the upshot of Thursday dismissals is a long-overdue national reawakening to the need for and requirements of nuclear deterrence — inside the Pentagon, throughout official Washington, and across the nation — they will be among the most significant contributions to America’s security made by Messrs. Wynne and Moseley in their long careers of service to our country.

– Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy. He was responsible for nuclear forces and arms control policy in the Reagan Defense Department.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr.Frank Gaffney began his public-service career in the 1970s, working as an aide in the office of Democratic senator Henry M. Jackson, under Richard Perle. From August 1983 until November ...

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