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Nuclear Woes Drive $7.5B Increase; DepSecDef Work Takes On Nuke Oversight

Posted by Colin Clark on


PENTAGON: It isn’t official but Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work hinted today that the United States will undertake a fundamental reordering of its national security budget by paying for new nuclear submarines, new nuclear bombers and new ICBMs in new accounts set aside just for them.

“This is something we have discussed in the department,” Work told reporters during a briefing on the Pentagon’s response to the string of major scandals involving the Air Force and Navy nuclear forces. This year it was drugs and cheating for the Air Force; the Navy had cheating too. Before that, the Air Force lost track of some nuclear weapons in 2007 and mistakenly flew them across the United States. And, of course, there were the nuclear fuses and other parts mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006 that we didn’t notice for a while.

“We think this is going to be a president’s budget ’17 discussion,” Work said. The decision will be driven in part, he seemed to imply, by whether sequestration comes back into effect next year. “f you go to sequestration level cuts, you will not be able to make what we believe are the prudent investments that you would have to do to make sure we have a safe, secure and effective deterrent. We are going to have to address that forthrightly.”

One of the attractions of creating these new accounts is that they would not be part of the regular budget division between the services so the military could not take money from the nuclear force to pay for conventional weapons, as has happened in the past.

Those new accounts, which Work said would not be officially decided until the 2017 budget, would appear to effectively take budget authority for these national nuclear assets away from the Navy and Air Force so that funding for them would not eat up the money for the conventional weapons that they buy. Among the billion dollar questions this raises is, would the services still be able to control the money, or would it become joint money or Office of Secretary of Defense money controlled by those officials.

The new means of paying for the nuclear force is something some in the Navy, in particular, have advocated for several years, arguing their replacement for the Ohio class nuclear submarines will be so expensive that it will negate the service’s attempts to maintain the size of its conventional fleet. We’ve heard from several senior Air Force officials that they are sympathetic to such a move for the Long Range Strike Bomber and the ICBM replacement.


What’s Different This Time?

But all this begs a larger question: we’ve all heard at least three defense secretaries declare they were going to fix the nuclear force and it simply hasn’t been fixed. What’s different this time? I asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just that. He talked about the causes of past problems — the department’s intense focus on two land wars for the last 13 years and several other issues.

Work took up the question. “This is why I think this is different. One, the senior leadership is involved.” Work and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. James Winnefeld now oversee the nuclear enterprise and report directly to Hagel. That appears to have happened because he and Hagel were “punched between the eyes” when the outside review, led by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch and retired Adm. John Harvey, told them, “you don’t have a senior person keeping their eye on this” and you need one. Work also said the intelligence review of the nuclear force said those senior leaders had to be looking across the nuclear enterprise instead of focusing on subs, bombers and ICBMs.

Finally, the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation gurus d(CAPE), part of the Office of Secretary of Defense, will track a detailed punch list of issues to make sure things actually change.

Hagel approved an additional star for the Air Force general in charge of its nuclear forces, putting him on an equal footing with the four stars at Air Combat Command and other Air Force commands. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson currently holds that job, commanding the 450 Minuteman ICBMs and the nuclear bomber force. The top nuclear officer at Air Force headquarters will rise from a two-star to a three-star.

Also, the nuclear enterprise’s budget will get boosted by about 10 percent over the next five years, Work said it gets about $15 billion to $16 billion a year, so that works out to roughly $7.5 billion over the next Future Years Defense Plan. Much of that will go to hiring more people and improving aging facilities.

The independent review by Welch and James said it’s not just the American public who wonder why these problems keep popping up within the nuclear force. The sailors and air men executing the mission wonder as well, the report says: “While the forces are aware of relevant and appropriate actions taken in response to prior reviews, they also perceive that many key recommendations from previous reviews have had only marginal impact.”

One close observer of the nuclear force was not impressed.

“It’s unlikely that these problems can be solved by more money, more stars, more organizational changes, reducing burdens on airmen, or recommitting to the importance of nuclear deterrence without addressing the underlying problem,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association said in an email. “Similar changes were recommended and promised in the wake of the last round of mishaps within the nuclear Air Force in 2007 and 2008 and obviously the problems continue.”

The poster child for the malaise in the nuclear force, which American military leaders have said time and again is the most important mission done by the US military, will be the one lonely tool set that got sent around between the three ICBM missile bases. “It’s indicative of the depth of what has happened the last few years,” Hagel said. “It wasn’t just resources.” Crews had tried repeatedly to get more so they could do their jobs but they were ignored. So they came up with a fix. They FedEx’d the wrench kit around. The tools are required to access warheads on Minuteman 3 missiles. There is now one tool set at each base and there will be soon be two sets, Hagel told reporters.

The other problems that have dogged the Air Force nuclear force in particular is the perception that being a missileer is not rewarded by promotion or with medals. And who the hell wants to live in Minot, N.D.? It’s small, remote and cold as hell? Welch said senior leaders have to make it clear to the troops that this is real by visiting the bases, telling the troops they are appreciated and that their mission is the number one military mission for the United States of America. At the end of today’s press conference, Hagel and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James headed out to get on a plane for Minot, where it was a sunny 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

What do you think?