Thursday, January 2, 2014

The state of nuclear forces

Back in 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakingly armed with six nuclear air launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and flown from Minot, ND to Barksdale, LA.  The missiles were being sent to be decommissioned but why they were armed with live warheads was the beginning of the real state of our nuclear forces in the USAF.

The events back in 2007 led to the standard stand-down of forces and firing of all of the usual suspects (munitions squadron commander was summarily fired, ground crews and aircrews were suspended).  This led over the next several years for articles to appear questioning the readiness of our nuclear forces.

For those unfamiliar, US nuclear forces consist of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), manned bombers and sea-launched ballistic missiles.  Two of the three triads then are assigned to the US Air Force.  Nuclear forces really came to forefront because of one man, Gen Curtis LeMay who believed a war could be won by delivering all nuclear weapons in an overwhelming, decisive blow.  This belief allowed him to turn the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into the premier command of the United States Air Force during the Cold War.

LeMay's focus made SAC the benchmark for operational readiness inspections (ORI).  SAC units were constantly testing their readiness to support LeMay's (and subsequent SAC commanders) vision of an ability to decisively strike the enemy with no-notice.  LeMay very much was an advocate for a pre-emptive strike and designed SAC around that vision.  One of the core competencies of the USAF is air-refueling which was created specifically to support the long range bomber fleet.  To put this in perspective, at the height of his tenure as commander of SAC there were 2,000 manned bombers, 800 refuelers and 224,000 airmen just in his command!

The Vietnam War, and the noticeable lack of nuclear weapons, did not take away from the power SAC held in the USAF because of the nuclear weapons and the tankers (which even C-141s and later C-5s of the Military Airlift Command depended on the tankers in order to accomplish their global mission.  The fighters of the Tactical Airlift Command absolutely could not move without SAC).  As the Cold War continued, SAC would continue to have dominance in the USAF and in the national defense strategy.

Then several things changed that made the events in 2007 almost inevitable.  First, the Soviet Union fell and with it the perceived need for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.  Second, the tankers were taken from SAC (something unthinkable in LeMay's day) and given to the new Air Mobility Command (formerly  the Military Airlift Command).  Strategic Air Command ended in 1992 with it other resources being sent to the other commands (including Air Combat Command which did not emphasize nuclear readiness over its other missions).  The HQ remained under the US Strategic Command.

Finally, Desert Storm brought back the "antiquated"notions of desert warfare with large tank units maneuvering in the desert and the intense use of pre-emptive "conventional" strikes.  Nuclear forces were thought of as a legacy from the Cold War days.  Many people don't understand that at the same time as Desert Storm was being fought, then President Bush had already started a huge drawdown of forces.  Those cost-cutting measures also translated into fewer and fewer dollars to be spent on readiness for nuclear forces.

Airmen assigned to missile units don't deploy as part of the expeditionary forces.  Same for nuclear ground crews, their skillets just aren't needed in theater.  Imagine then when you are competing against other airmen for assignments or promotions but keep falling short because your mission isn't valued anymore (i.e. you don't get campaign ribbons and medals for sitting at home station).

It was inevitable then that something like the B-52 flying with live warheads would happen.  In response, the USAF in 2009 resurrected SAC under the new banner "Air Force Global Strike Command".  The mission of Air Force Global Strike Command is to "Develop and provide combat-ready forces for nuclear deterrence and global strike operations --Safe --Secure --Effective to support the President of the United States and combatant commanders."

Then on Dec 20, 2013 the USAF Inspector General's Office found the former commander of 20th Ai Force (the Numbered Air Force under AFGSC), Maj Gen Michael Carey,  had violated Article 133-conduct unbecoming an officer-during a trip to Russia back in July 2013.

According to Air Force Magazine: While having drinks with his team in the executive lounge of the Marriott lobby on July 15, Carey boasted “of the importance of his position” and complained “that his group had the worst morale and that the leadership wasn’t supporting him,” according to a chronology of events included in the report. 

Carey and a civilian member of his team left the Marriott around midnight that night, heading to the Ritz Carlton where they “met two foreign national women.” Carey stayed out with the women all night, returning to his own hotel room as late as 5 a.m. Consequently, he was 45 minutes late to the initial briefing with the Russian Federation, states the report. 

During a lunch banquet on July 16, Carey made inappropriate comments about Syria and National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden “that were not well received.” 

During a tour of a local monastery, also on July 16, Carey was so drunk he was slurring his words, interrupting the tour guide, and even attempted to give the guide a “fist bump” at one point. 

The rest of the article you can read here.

It is beyond comprehension how a general officer in charge of nuclear deterrence could behave like that, especially in the one country that was the genesis for his command!  Furthermore, I doubt that the general's behavior was anything new.  The ease with which he drank and hung around the ladies is not a one time event.

The general was rightly relieved of command but it is the aftermath that is most interesting.  Almost without fanfare, the Congressional Budget Office announced upgrades and expansions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal could cost as much as $355 billion over the next 10 years.  According to an article on the Motley Fool website, the nuclear upgrade spending will take place over a 10-year span, from 2014 to 2023 at a rate of around $35 billion per year.  The spending will go into maintaining nuclear warheads, maintaining the nuclear reactors that produce weapons grade material, Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs, and command, control and communications systems.  Read the rest here.

Perhaps this is why Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has warned that Russia will use nuclear weapons if it comes under an attack, adding that this possibility serves as the main deterrent to potential provocateurs and aggressors. “One can experiment as long as one wishes by deploying non-nuclear warheads on strategic missile carriers. But one should keep in mind that if there is an attack against us, we will certainly resort to using nuclear weapons in certain situations to defend our territory and state interests”  Source:  Russian Times

The refocusing on our nuclear deterrence may also be why North Korea has restarted it's nuclear reactor and why Iran continues to pursue its nuclear enrichment program.  It would also mean that President Obama's effort to reduce nuclear weapons isn't so sincere.

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