Nuclear Weapons

Deficiencies in Deterrence Doctrine

10.06.11 | 7 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Darren Ruch, 1st Lt, MA ANG USAF*

In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States was armed with a stockpile of over 18,300 nuclear weapons.[1]  Since then, the US Air Force (USAF) has conducted a range of military operations while maintaining a nuclear deterrence capability.  Due to a nuclear warhead mishap in 2007, the Air Force reshaped its nuclear deterrence mission and created Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC).  While the establishment of AFGSC streamlined the effectiveness of US nuclear deterrence, Air Force doctrine still has failed to articulate its leadership requirements at the Non-Commissioned Officer and Company Grade Officer levels to successfully accomplish its mission.

Deterrence is defined as “the prevention from action by fear of the consequences.”[2]  Nuclear weapons are not the only deterrent that the US maintains, but it does underpin all other deterrent elements.[3]  In order for the nuclear strategic forces to employ an effective mission of deterrence, adversaries and allies must have a fundamental belief that the US has a credible nuclear capability.[4]  The US forwards its credibility by maintaining a modified nuclear triad, which includes strike capabilities, active and passive defenses, and responsive infrastructure.[5]

Accidents are inevitable in the military, and the handling and transporting of nuclear weapons is no exception.  During the Cold War, with the possibility of a nuclear-tipped missile launch at any given moment, the USAF experienced a number of accidents involving its arsenal.[6]  Since the Cold War, the USAF continues to experience occasional mishaps.

The most notable post-Cold War incident occurred in August 2007. A B-52 crew at Minot AFB was tasked to ferry AGM-129 cruise missiles 1,000 miles to Barksdale AFB for terminal storage.  Because of an ad hoc change, lack of communication, and failure to follow published procedures, some cruise missiles mistakenly contained W80-1 nuclear warheads.[7]  These warheads went unreported missing for nearly 36 hours.[8]  This was the first time in over 40 years that a nuclear weapon was flown over US airspace without special high-level authorization.[9]

This incident violated the principals of deterrence, specifically the passive defense corner of the triad mentioned above.  The warheads were vulnerable because of deficiencies to physical security and mobility.[10]  The credibility of the US’ ability to conduct nuclear operations was negatively impacted, and the Department of Defense (DOD) reacted with reforms.

The DOD and USAF conducted a series of reports, independent assessments, and studies into its ability to conduct nuclear deterrence.  One finding on the nuclear enterprise read: “The nuclear mission…has been dispersed from a single-focused strategic command to three operational commands that have had little or no focus on the nuclear mission.”[11]  Based on these and other findings, the USAF established AFGSC, a new Major Command under Strategic Command.

The principal mission of AFGSC is nuclear deterrence and global strike operations. Its assets include intercontinental ballistic missiles and B-52 and B-2 bombers.  Today, the USAF allocates about 23,000 personnel and $5.2B for nuclear deterrence operations, just over 3% of the FY12 USAF budget.[12][13]

Overseas, the deterrent impacts of AFGSC were nearly immediate and universal.  In August 2009, North Korean radio propagated, “the United States is heated up…a command in charge of nuclear forces was newly established.”[14]  Also, in the same month, a main Russian national press headlined, “Russia to Create New Strike Systems in Response to US Air Force Activity.”[15]  Adversarial states took note of the revamped US deterrence mission and responded to it.

The Air Force’s senior executives, however, did not address the fundamental problem from the 2007 incident: failure of low-level leadership.  A series of low-level leadership failures leading up to the mishap, rather than high-level leadership failures, led to the B-52 crew mistakenly ferrying a nuclear warhead over the US.[16]  The first error occurred when personnel of the Minot Munitions Maintenance Squadron made a last minute change of which cruise missiles were to be transported and failed to note this change in documents from the internal coordination process.[17]  After this first oversight, the breakout crew failed to notice that nuclear warheads were aboard one of the pylons of missiles.  The aircrew also failed to conduct a thorough pre- and post-flight inspection of their aircraft, as mandated in standard operating procedures, that would have revealed the presence of nuclear warheads.  Inspections of the bomber’s payload failed at three independent and subsequent steps.[18]  This series of incidents, all of which stemmed from a failure to follow standard operating procedures, occurred at or below the Squadron level, not because of actions taken by anyone at the General or Senior Executive Service corps.

This incident prompted resignations up the chain of command, from Squadron Commanders to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force.  But the central failure, which has yet to be addressed in nuclear doctrine or other studies, occurred because of the lack of leadership at the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and Company Grade Officer (CGO) levels.  Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, Commander of AFGSC, joked, “the newest B-52 is older than the pilots who fly it, and in some cases twice their age.”[19]  Nuclear doctrine, however, centralizes on executive leaders and others who are as old as the B-52.  Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 3-72, Nuclear Operations, does not make a single mention of leadership below the national level.  The AFDD references a wide range of doctrinal documents, from Basic Doctrine (AFDD 1) to Joint Targeting (JP 3-60), but fails to refer to AFDD 1-1, Leadership and Force Development.[20]

In the first paragraph of its first page, AFDD 1-1 reads, “[there are] two fundamental elements of leadership: the mission, objective, or task to be accomplished, and the people who accomplish it.”[21]  While all supporting documentation that drive the deterrence mission is composed at senior executive levels, NCOs and CGOs are the Airmen who accomplish it.  Until doctrine addresses this actuality, billions of dollars can continue to reform structures but the US nuclear deterrence strategy will continue to operate at a deficit.

The principal functions of doctrine are to provide an analysis of past experiences, to forward lessons learned and best practices, and to provide a basis of knowledge and understanding that can provide guidance for actions.[22]  In the last week of August 2007, there were many lessons that should be passed on to the succeeding generations to provide a common basis of knowledge because of failures at the NCO and CGO levels.  By excluding the critical function of the NCO and CGO corps in the AFDD 3-72, the deterrence doctrine document sends a message to General Officers, Senior Executives, and subsequent ranks that the deterrence strategy is accomplished solely at the mission and objective level, not at the operational level.  As demonstrated by the August incident, this is inaccurate.

The Air Force underwent a major reshaping effort following the 2007 incident in which a B-52 mistakenly carried nuclear weapons across the country.  Assessments from this mishap culminated in the creation of AFGSC, a new Major Command.  Responses to those reports and studies failed to modify doctrine to address the critical importance of the NCOs and CGOs carrying out the deterrence mission.  Until AFDD 3-72 includes the importance of CGO and NCO leadership, US deterrence will not function at its true potential.

* Darren Ruch works at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and is a reservist in the US Air Force. As a homemade explosive specialist at JIEDDO, he primarily assists military units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, Ruch serves as a traditional reservist in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as an Officer in their Air Operations Center, a unit that falls under Air Force Global Strike Command. He can be contacted at



[1]. Natural Resources Defense Council, “Table of Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles, 1945-2002,” (accessed 11 June 2011).

[2]. Joint Publication (JP) 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 8 November 2010, 107.

[3]. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 3-72, Nuclear Operations, 17 September 2010, 2.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid, 6.

[6]. Department of Defense, “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980,” (accessed 11 June 2011).

[7]. Department of Defense, The Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety, Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons (Washington,  DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics], February 2008), 3.

[8]. Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus, “Missteps in the Bunker,” Washington Post, 23 September 2007,

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 3-72, Nuclear Operations, 17 September 2010, 6.

[11]. Department of Defense, The Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety, Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons (Washington,  DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics], February 2008), 13.

[12]. United States Air Force, FY 2012 Budget Overview, 34

[13]. United States Air Force, “Air Force Global Strike Command,” (accessed 11 June 2011).

[14]. “US Launches ‘Global Strike Command’ on 7 August,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station, 11 August 2009, in Open Source Center, KPP20090812104001, 11 June 2011.

[15]. “Russia To Create New Strike Systems In Response To US Air Force Activity,” Itar-Tass, 11 August 2009, in Open Source Center, CEP20090811950161, 11 June 2011.

[16]. Department of Defense, The Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety, Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons (Washington,  DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics], February 2008), 3.

[17] Department of Defense, The Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety, Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons, 3.

[18] Ibid.

[19]. Lieutenant General Frank G. Klotz, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command (presentation, Senate Arms Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Washington, DC, 17 March 2010), 7.

[20]. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 3-72, Nuclear Operations, 17 September 2010, 31.

[21]. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, 18 February 2006, 1.

[22] Drew, Dennis and Don Snow, Making Strategy: An Introduction to National Security Processes and Problems, Air University Press, 1988, 164.

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