The former US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, ordered an overhaul of the American nuclear weapons programme, referred to as the US Nuclear Enterprise by the Pentagon. A review of the nuclear force revealed numerous glaring issues with mismanagement and security breaches which kicked off a string of firings, demotions, and other disciplinary actions within the air force.
This all may sound familiar since, earlier this year, the US Navy was hit with similar charges. The navy operates the nuclear-armed submarine fleet and it was found to have carried on a nuclear reactor exam cheating ring, which spanned a period of seven years. In a press conference Hagel stated, “We’ve taken our eye off the ball”. Some of the evidence presented in the review included the sharing of a wrench between all three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Maintenance crews at these bases had access to only one tool set and shared it via the mail. Even though this tool was originally used for the now-defunct peacekeeper missile, it was required recently during the upgrade of the Minuteman III’s weapon system. Hagel reported that each base now has a tool set of its own and will have two in the future.
Secretary Hagel stated that micro-management and over-inspection were some of the main culprits, along with lack of communication and accountability up the chain of command in the nuclear force. The micro-management and over-inspection mainly occurred due to perhaps the worst nuclear scandal in recent history. In 2007, half a dozen nuclear missiles were lost track of for more than a day after being mistakenly loaded onto a plane at Minot Air Force Base and subsequently flown across the country.
The ensuing review concluded that the structure of the US nuclear forces is incoherent and overburdened by the administrative process. It also stated that the programme faces numerous challenges as a result of understaffing and lack of resources. Some of the key steps taken by Hagel to address these issues include posting a four-star general in charge of the nuclear forces, a position currently held by a three-star general. Hagel had mentioned the need for the Pentagon to increase the budget of the nuclear forces by 10 per cent over the next five years from $15 billion to $16 billion. It is unclear how Hagel’s departure will affect this request, especially at a time when the current administration is planning on modernising strategic weapons over the next decade, which is estimated to cost around $355 billion.
While a review was welcomed by some, as it brought fresh attention to the nuclear forces, others were critical of the decision. The biggest concern was with spending more money on Cold War-era atomic weapons. Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, stated that “throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come”. This quote sums up the consensus amongst experts that no amount of money will solve the US ICBM’s main problem of being a thing of the past. The sense is that these weapons will never be used and the unlikely scenario in which they are used is even more discouraging to those charged with the programme’s upkeep.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2014.