The Pentagon will invest billions of dollars into its nuclear forces as part of an effort to improve the management and security of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday. Although reforming the troubled force is a welcome move, experts are skeptical that money can solve the military’s nuclear problem, which stems from questions about the mission itself.
Still, the Pentagon’s hope is that these reforms — which were generated from a set of reviews launched in February — will revitalize the force, improving the security of the weapons and the quality of life for those who man and maintain them.
In addition to spending more money — roughly 10 percent or $1.5 billion each year — Hagel is also striving to make the job less tedious and unnecessarily stressful. This includes reducing the administrative burden, hiring more people, and increasing pay for some positions.
The initiative will buy a replacement for the Air Force’s Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter fleet that helps provide security at Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) bases. It will also create new training facilities and hire more personnel.
At the Pentagon news conference on Friday, Hagel also said that morale must be addressed.
“We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era, so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value,” he said.
To do this, the Pentagon is going to put higher-ranked officers in a number of key jobs. For example, the Air Force’s Global Strike Command will now be led by a four-star general and Air Staff’s head of strategic deterrence and nuclear integration will switch from a two-star job to a three-star billet.
“This is [the Defense Department’s] highest priority mission,” Hagel said. “No other capability we have is more important.”
The problem is it doesn’t always feel that way to personnel, especially the crews who operate the country’s ICBM fleet in underground missile silos across the country.
Why? First of all, the number of ICBMs is being reduced thanks to nuclear weapons-reduction treaties with Russia. Under the New START treaty, the U.S. will have 400 deployed ICBMs but keep 450 silos.
At the same time, maintaining this leg of the nuclear triad faces sustainedcriticism, especially in today’s budget environment. Critics say there is no plausible scenario under which these weapons would be fired, so why keep them around?
“The problem is there is no mission; more money can’t invent one,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
By his count, the Pentagon’s most recent reviews are the sixth and seventh such reports since 2006.
Lewis says each investigation generally reaches the same conclusion, and yet, nothing seems to change because the mission is essentially obsolete.
Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said high-level Pentagon attention is urgently needed.
“However, 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,” he said. “The reality is that nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists.”
Others say the ICBM force is in decline because of the policy disagreement between Republicans in Congress and the Democratic White House.
“While more money is needed as part of the solution, this is much easier said than done,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “There is a reason the triad has basically stalled out in any maintenance, testing or investment in future capabilities over the past six years because Congress and the president are at irreconcilable odds over nuclear disarmament and strategic nuclear deterrence policies.”
To secure more funding to modernize the military’s nuclear forces would require Hagel to first win these policy battles with the White House, she said.
Meanwhile, cases of low morale and personal misconduct have repeatedly cropped up among the military’s missile launch crews and missile security forces.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force in 2008 after the U.S. accidentally shipped nuclear triggers to Taiwan. This happened after a B-52 bomber crew unknowingly flew six nuclear warheads across the country.
At the time, Gates said the Air Force had failed to focus on its nuclear mission, which is considered the military’s most sensitive, but also the least likely to ever be used in war.
With these scandals piling up, Hagel launched an internal and external, independent review of the Air Force’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, its nuclear bombers and tactical fighters, the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, and the infrastructure that maintains these assets to get to the bottom of the problem.
“The reviews concluded that while our nuclear forces are currently meeting the demands of the mission with dedication, significant changes are required to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of the force in the future,” a Pentagon fact sheet stated.
The reforms are long overdue, a former missileer told Foreign Policy. “It’s unfortunate it took these bad incidents to spur the Pentagon into action.”
He agreed that similar proposals and promises have been made before, but said the kinds of investments needed were never made.
“I’d like to think that this time they mean it,” he said.
The reviews led to more than 100 recommendations for how to make things better.
For starters, buy more wrenches.
During Friday’s briefing, Hagel admitted that there was one wrench — or toolkit — needed to attach warheads to 450 missiles at three bases.
To share the wrench with those who needed it, the missile crews used Federal Express to get the wrench from base to base, Hagel said. “They were creative and innovative and they made it work, but that’s not the way to do it. We now have a wrench for each location. We’re going to have two wrenches for each location soon.”
But the Pentagon acknowledges that money isn’t going to solve all of its problems. “While many issues will need additional investments, in many cases the necessary corrective actions are cultural and structural,” states a summary of the reviews’ findings.
For example, examiners said that the job can be stressful and tedious without offering great opportunities for career advancement.
“Missileers need to feel more connected to the Air Force and its core missions,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They need to see a career path ahead of them that is attractive and rewarding –it needs to lead to something better than sitting in a hole in the ground.”