Last week, the Department of Defense published its long-awaited review of the U.S. nuclear enterprise. The review and renewed Russian nuclear threats to NATO attracted new attention to weapons that in 2009 the President promised both to maintain and to rid the world of. This conflicting rhetoric from the highest level of the government has led to confusion about the nation’s and the leadership’s commitment to the nuclear mission.
Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel ordered a review after a string of Air Force and Navy scandals earlier this year. This was not the first review of U.S. nuclear forces since the Cold War, as the review noted. As the panel urged in the report, this time, the government’s response needs to be “sustained and effective.”
The review found:
- A significant gap between the soldiers who operate the nuclear system and the leadership. Thedisconnect between leadership intent and the soldiers’ daily experiences needs “to be addressed quickly and effectively.”
- Shortfalls in manning, equipment, documentation, and guidance. For example, three intercontinental-range ballistic missile bases were forced to share one maintenance tool.
- Nuclear activities are often embedded in a wide range of non-nuclear activities. There is no single Department of Defense nuclear enterprise.
- The perception that U.S. modernization plans are uncertain and rather unreliable, contrary to nuclear weapons modernization plans in other countries.
- A deeply flawed risk-assessment process. The process leads to a 100 percent expectation in every operational and administrative action, regardless of how those actions actually contribute to the nuclear mission. In some cases, this expectation detracts from fulfilling the nuclear mission.
Some of these issues are not new and were identified in previous Air Force and nuclear mission reviews.
The Panel’s Recommendations
The panel recommended:
- Raising the public profile of nuclear forces and within the national security apparatus,
- Refocusing the services on the nuclear mission as opposed to micromanagement and activities that are detrimental to the nuclear mission,
- Restoring mission confidence and credibility, and
- Ensuring accountability.
The Importance of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent
In announcing the results of the review, Secretary Hagel stated: “Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in ensuring U.S. national security, and it’s DOD’s highest priority mission. No other capability we have is more important.”
So far, the cost of implementing recommendations is unclear, although Bob Work estimated that fully funding nuclear infrastructure would require about a 10 percent increase above the current level of $15 billion to $16 billion—a minor expense in the context of the federal budget.
The visibility of the U.S. leadership’s commitment to the nuclear mission is critical. In addition to the steps identified in the review, the Defense Department should ensure that nuclear weapons strategy is taught at U.S. war colleges and should strengthen across-the-force understanding of the importance of the nuclear mission. Nuclear weapons are still essential to U.S. national security; it is an imperative for the U.S. to get this mission right.