Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nukes in the News: Time to Adapt

If you want to sleep well at night, you may want to stop following the news about nuclear weapons. It appears that the U.S. military is unsure exactly where all of ours are. According to some sources, more than 1,000 sensitive nuclear missile components currently inventoried in the U.S. arsenal have been misplaced.

This is but one – albeit major – additional step in a series of very public and very serious nuclear blunders by the Air Force in recent months (not including other defense-related criticisms). First, there was the accidental B-52 flight of six armed nuclear cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana. Then, it was discovered that the U.S. accidentally shipped nuclear missile nose cone fuses instead of helicopter batteries to Taiwan, a mistake only caught seventeen months later. In response to these two foul-ups, Secretary of Defense Gates requested and received the resignation of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley– a quite un-Bush-administration-like public display of accountability.

A day after this unprecedented step, Gen. Mosley questioned whether the mistakes were "just an isolated case of a human frailty" or "systemic bigger issues that we have to find and fix." Gates sided with the latter, stating that the follow-up report from Admiral Kirkland Donald indicated both incidents originated from the "gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by air force leadership."

Just ten days later, another internal Air Force report revealed yet another nuclear mishap that seems to validate this claim. Hans Kristensen obtained a partially declassified version of the full report and shared,

An internal U.S. Air Force investigation has determined that “most sites” currently used for deploying nuclear weapons in Europe do not meet Department of Defense security requirements.
The report – the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures - found that,
Host nation security at overseas nuclear-capable units varies from country to country in terms of personnel, facilities, and equipment… inconsistencies in personnel, facilities, and equipment provided to the security mission by the host nation were evident as the team traveled from site to site….Examples of areas noted in need of repair at several of the sites include support buildings, fencing, lighting, and security systems.
That's a significant problem for the 300-ish nuclear weapons stored by the U.S. in six NATO countries across Europe. Since the release of the report, numerous voices have echoed the call for at least a revision of the current status of U.S. nuclear forces. Germany wants the weapons removed, and NATO wants nothing to do with it – especially when it comes to blame. Even Sen. John McCain has discussed reducing "and hopefully eliminat[ing]" deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Larry Korb published an article in response to these recent foul-ups, "The U.S. Air Force's indifference toward nuclear weapons," where he identifies that these grave mistakes are not surprising, given the poor evolution of U.S. nuclear forces to the post-Cold War world. He argues that historically, the Air Force's dominance arose from its Cold War leadership in the development and deployment of strategic nuclear weapons. But,
As conventional weapons became smarter and more lethal, it became clear that nuclear weapons had little military utility… [After the Cold War] strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of the policy makers in general and the air force in particular began to shift elsewhere.
The recent mistakes are not surprising, "given this lack of attention to nuclear weapons." But, he argues,
The bigger issue is why the Pentagon still needs to keep so many nuclear weapons in its inventory nearly two decades after the Cold War--particularly when just about everyone in the military believes they present minimal strategic utility… Today, Washington continues to maintain nearly 10,000 warheads. Reducing that number to no more than 1,000 (600 operational and 400 in reserve) would be more than enough for deterrence.
Korb's article seems to provide the answer to Mosley's question about "systemic issues" in the Air Force's approach to nuclear security, to Gates' acknowledgment of an "erosion of nuclear standards," to the Blue Ribbon Review's findings of lax security at our nuclear sites, and to the numerous blunders over the past year. That answer will be a massive overhaul of current U.S. nuclear policy, and – as many groups and prominent leaders call for - the eventual elimination of those weapons.

Kristensen reminds us of the billions of dollars put into homeland security to increase security at our nation's nuclear weapons sites since 9/11, and the Bush administration's use of allegedly ensuing "safety and control" as justification for building new nuclear weapons.

That justification certainly seems to fall through in light of the mistaken flight of armed nuclear weapons, the mistaken shipment of their parts to a foreign country, 1,000 additional mis-placed parts, and lax security guarding our nukes in Europe. All that in less than a year.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't need mistakes like those mentioned here to make or even to suggest necessary adaptations to nuclear policy – a changing international environment and some logical reasoning (maybe we don't need enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over) would be enough. And we certainly wouldn't need the increased lethality of conventional forces to convince ourselves that it was okay to quit playing around with so many nuclear weapons – an awareness of their devastating impact on human life, international relations, the environment, and even defense budgets would be enough. But we all know the world's nuclear circumstances are far from ideal.

The outcomes from these recent mistakes could have been far worse, and the one good outcome seems to be that new voices and the Air Force itself are publicly acknowledging the need for for a different U.S. nuclear policy.

1 comment:

Russ Wellen said...

It seems the nuclear will is waning. Maybe it's time for us to re-focus on who exactly, besides the industry, remains pro-proliferation and to spotlight them and their motives. They may be a dying breed, but no less powerful for it.