Pentagon Review To Fix Nuclear Problems – Again

Less than a decade after the Pentagon conducted a major review to fix problems in the nuclear management of U.S. nuclear forces, the Pentagon today announced the results of yet another review.

The new review identifies more than 100 fixes that are needed to correct management and personnel issues. The fixes “will cost several billion dollars over the five-year defense spending program in addition to ongoing modernization requirements identified in last year’s budget submission.” The Pentagon says it will “prioritize funding on actions that improve the security and sustainment of the current force, ensures that modernization of the force remains on track, and that address shortfalls, which are undermining the morale of the force.”

That sounds like a strategy doomed to fail without significant adjustments. The Pentagon is already planning to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on modernizing submarines, bombers, missiles, warheads, and production facilities over the next decade (and even more later).

Those modernization plans are already too expensive, under tremendous fiscal pressure, and competing for money needed to sustain and modernize conventional forces. So who is going to pay for the billions of dollars extra needed to fix the nuclear business? 

Previous Fixes

This is the second major nuclear incident review in less than a decade, following the unauthorized flight across the United States in 2007 of a B-52 bomber with six nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and the discovery that ICBM reentry vehicle components had mistakenly been shipped to Taiwan.

In 2008, the Air Force completed the Blue Ribbon Review and the Office of the Secretary of Defense completed the Schlesinger Task Force Review. Those reviews resulted in significant reorganization, infusion of money and personal, and pep talks by military leaders in an attempt to reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise and boost proficiency and morale of nuclear personnel.

Organization changes included the consolidation of all bomber and ICBM operations into Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which officially stood up on January 12, 2009. There were many other changes too, including in the management of nuclear weapon storage sites.

These changes followed numerous other updates during the 1990s, including the creation of U.S. Strategic Command in June 1992 to create a single overall command in charge of strategic nuclear planning and operations.

The continuing incidents of cheating and other misconduct that triggered the latest review show that these previous efforts failed to fix fundamental problems. Indeed, the review apparently concludes that the current structure of the nuclear forces is so incoherent that they cannot be properly managed. Fixes will include increasing the rank of nuclear leaders to give them more bureaucratic power to manage nuclear forces, and increased funding.

SSBN Problems

Part of the investigation for the review, according to the New York Times, reportedly found major problems at SSBN bases, where staffing was so short and parts so scarce that the SSBNs were kept in port longer between deterrent patrols.

Some will probably use that to argue that the SSBN mission is in jeopardy, but as I have reported on this blog before, the number of SSBN deterrent patrols conducted each year has already declined significantly over the past decade – by more than half.

While shortage of staff and parts may have affected submarine availability in some cases, the reduction in patrols appears to have been caused by changes in nuclear targeting requirements and deployment strategy.

Conclusions and Recommendations

First, it is good that Defense Secretary Hagel authorized the review and has now put forward the recommendations to try to fix the morale and management problems in the nuclear force. At the outset, though, Hagel’s review is an acknowledgement that the 2008 reviews did not fix all the core problems despite infusion of money, restructuring, and pep talks by military leaders.

Throwing more money after the problems may fix some technical and management issues, but it is unlikely to resolve the disillusion that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come.

The problem is that the United States has too much nuclear force structured too much like the Cold War force structure for a declining (although still important) mission that is increasingly competing with non-nuclear missions over decreasing funding. Realigning mission priorities, force structure, fiscal realities, management, and personnel morale issues will be a monumental task that requires more than adding stars to the shoulders of generals and money to their budgets (more about the specific recommendations later).

Unfortunately, if earlier efforts are any indication, the risk is that the Hagel review, continued turf protection by the military Services and nuclear establishment, and a more conservative congress will react to the problems and deteriorating relations with Russia by boosting spending on the existing force structure to demonstrate commitment and resolve without fixing the underlying mission, structure, and cost issues arising from maintaining an unaffordable and bloated nuclear arsenal that is in excess of what’s needed to meet U.S. and international security commitments.

Instead of throwing even more money after the nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon needs to reduce the force structure to reduce modernization costs and instead use the reorganization and savings to fix the underlying management and personnel problems. Otherwise I bet we’ll need yet another review in a few years.

This publication was made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.