Monday, August 11, 2014

Do we still need nuclear forces?

I attended a retirement over the weekend of a close friend from the Army National Guard.  It gave me the occasion to chat with a senior Army officer and learn the Army Guard is facing the same reductions the Air Guard went through about 10 years ago.  All of this is part of the drawdowns being implemented by the White House and Department of Defense.

This morning the AFA Magazine Daily Update stated the Air Force Global Strike Command  (AFGSC) will add 848 airmen to its missile and bomber wings beginning this fall.

"We've been saying that the nuclear enterprise is the number one mission, and the Air Force is putting its money where its mouth is," said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. "We must show airmen that there's value in this mission by making the appropriate investments in people, weapon systems, and infrastructure." James said the Air Force "will continue to work to identify and rearrange funds to make important improvements within our missile and bomber force." AFGSC boss Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson said the changes being made in the nuclear enterprise are designed to empower airmen and ensure they have the resources they need for this priority mission.--AFA Magazine

At first glance, it would seem this is a long overdue re-investment in the nuclear forces highlighted by the recent cheating scandals of nuclear launch officers.  But the USAF is facing huge budget shortfalls right now and plans to eliminate 500 aircraft from its inventories.  The Air Force will reduce its end-strength from 503,000 to 483,000 in FY 2015 (Stars and Stripes).  Adding manpower to nuclear forces in this austere budgetary environment can't seem to be driven merely by a desire to finally recognize the "value" of a long neglected part of the Air Force. (Note:  the USAF is still flying UH-1s to support the nuclear forces.  How much "value" does the nuclear forces have if they are only worth of a 43 year old helicopter?)

A far more likely reason for this sudden re-investment in USAF nuclear forces is found in this article from the Washington Times.  According to the article, over a period of 10 days US airspace was incurred but Tu-95 bombers 16 times.  Earlier last week, a R-135 Rivet Joint was chased by a Russian fighter and forced into Swedish airspace without clearance (RT).  Then over the weekend, Russia claims its never chased away a US submarine (WSJ).  The reports said the fleet sent several vessels and an anti-submarine Il-38 aircraft to drive the submarine away.

Ever since Russia moved forces near Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the rhetoric between the US and Russia have taken a serious turn.  Obama tried to strike first by claiming Russia shot down MH-007 but in typical fashion, did not release any facts to support his allegation.  Putin struck back by saying the US is trying to turn the world against Russia.

It appears that Putin knows Obama is loathe to go into any kind of direct conflict.  Putin and Russian intelligence agencies had to have seen the recent cheating scandals by nuclear officers as a confirmation that the US was no longer serious about maintaining its nuclear weapons.  But this is not a new trend.

The weakening of US nuclear forces started 25 years ago when then Secretary of Defense Cheney as part of his 1990 budget postponed the buying of a new long range bomber and cut the "Star Wars" missile shield (Chicago Tribune).  Cheney and George H. Bush then ordered that long-range bombers and some long-range missiles end their 24-hour alert, and that several nuclear missile programs be canceled. Cheney then ordered the military today to put into effect President Bush's plan to eliminate about 2,400 short-range nuclear weapons on land and sea in Europe and Asia.  (NY Times)

All of this was done in the name of saving money and in seemed prudent with the imminent fall of the Soviet Union.  But what everyone pretended to forget was that though Soviet Union may have fallen, their nuclear inventory didn't go anywhere.

Bush and Cheney emphasized their reduction of nuclear weapons by aggressively emphasizing the use of conventional weapons in Desert Storm.  President Clinton continued the focus on small contingencies with conventional forces (Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo).  When George W. Bush and Cheney took office, they continued what Cheney and the first Bush had started to included the expanded use of contractors.  Nuclear forces were not part of the "Global War on Terror" and as such their facilities and equipment upgrades took a back seat to conventional forces.

One of side-effects of war, especially protracted ones like Iraq and Afghanistan, is on who gets promoted.  "War-fighters" with silver and bronze stars become the new golden children.  As they become senior officers and NCOs, they start to pick other war-fighters for promotions and assignments.  Those without the requisite combat time are passed over.  Nuclear personnel, especially those in the USAF, didn't stand a chance.

Despite running on a campaign promise of "bringing the troops home", President Obama has kept US military forces busy.  Taking a note out of President Clinton's playbook, Obama has preferred drone strikes as his way of dealing with contingencies.  The new found "value" of our nuclear forces comes as somewhat as a surprise given President Obama's position back in 2009.  In a speech at Prague, Czech Republic he said:

"The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. No nuclear war was fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, but generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light...So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.

First, the United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.

To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies

To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia this year. President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding, and sufficiently bold. This will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor." (Arms

No, it does not appear that the increase in airmen to the AFGSC wings is a signal of better times for the missile and bomb wings.  Rather, it appears to be a band aid fix to the increasing aggression of Russian forces.  Crimean was annexed and Ukraine is still under threat from Russia without any sign of US forces increasing their readiness posture (after 12 years of continuous operations and projected manpower cuts that may not even be possible).  Syria crossed the "red line" without so much as a drone strike.  It took weeks of repeated images of the atrocities being committed by ISIL before Obama authorize the use of airstrikes and resupply missions for the Iraq Yazidis.

Obama has to do something to show he and his predecessors haven't completely gutted our nuclear forces.  Putin took lessons learned from the failed Georgian campaign in 2008 and has modernized his conventional forces, including ditching the cumbersome Soviet era command and control system.  Russian assessments may show that after 12 years of continuous ops, Russian forces could defeat US forces in a limited conflict.  A weakened US nuclear deterrent does not help matters.  Russia upgraded its forces after the fall of the Soviet Union to compensate for the disastrous state of its conventional forces.  

The other problem is the state of the USAF.  The Air Force and Navy are the only two branches that can project power.  From what John Q. Public has been saying recently, the state of the airlift community may be even more toxic than that in the missile wings.  Obsequious officers only seeking their next promotion seemed to have become the norm in Air Mobility Command (AMC).  Airlift is the life blood for deployed US forces.  If it fails, then sending US forces anywhere becomes problematic.  The Navy then becomes the only service with a nuclear force and is the only means to project power.  Great for the USN, bad for the US.  If the US gets engaged in a conflict with Russian forces, it will only have to contend with the carrier strike force.  Russian attack subs and surface skimming missiles will give the US Navy much to worry about.


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