US Air Force seeks to fix nuclear mission

A new command and headquarters are part of the plan to refocus on its nuclear responsibilities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Heavy duty: The 4th airlift squadron of the 62nd Airlift Wing in front of a C-17 Globemaster III at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., last year. The squadron has the responsibility of flying nuclear weapons and parts around the world.
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The Air Force is moving forward with a "get-well plan" to restore its historic reputation for nuclear stewardship and create more accountability with the creation of a new command to oversee its nuclear mission.

High-profile blunders in recent years have shown that the service has been distracted from its nuclear operations, say senior officials, in part by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as senior leaders encouraged airmen to contribute overseas.

"The price we paid for that is we took our eye off our nuclear mission," says Maj. Gen. Donald Alston, director of nuclear operations, plans and requirements for the Air Force at the Pentagon.

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This week, the Air Force is expected to release a plan to refocus on its nuclear mission.

The new command, to be created within a year, will centralize all the Air Force's nuclear operations under one commander. Currently, nuclear weaponry and other "nuclear activity" falls under five separate commands. A new headquarters to oversee it all will be put in place within weeks, Air Force officials say.

Top Air Force officials may also revamp personnel policies to emphasize the importance of its custodianship of nuclear weapons and materials, which has been a traditionally important role for the service since the end of the World War II.

High-profile mistakes

Nuclear-related incidents led to the unprecedented firings of the service's two top officials earlier this year. In 2006, the Air Force mistakenly shipped nuclear missile nose cone fuses to Taiwan instead of helicopter batteries. And last year, a B-52 bomber flew from a base in North Dakota to one in Louisiana loaded with nuclear cruise missiles instead of conventional munitions.

Last month, the service announced that it had taken disciplinary action against 15 officers, including six generals and nine colonels, based on the findings of an investigation launched by Defense Secretary Robert Gates after the shipments of the nose cone fuse assemblies to Taiwan.

The service has retained three officers who were part of the process that led to the failures because they are in the best position to help fix the problems, said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the new Air Force chief of staff.

Top of the agenda is reinstilling the importance of nuclear deterrence within Air Force culture and once again making the nuclear mission something the service can be proud of.

Once, the face of nuclear deterrence

Fifty years ago, no one would have imagined the service's reputation as a nuclear custodian would be where it is now.

In the wake of World War II, soon after the Air Force itself was established, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command became the overseer of a large swath of US nuclear capability, from intercontinental ballistic missiles to bombers. The command was essentially the face of US nuclear deterrence and became a model of American military discipline and excellence.

"Readiness inspections" were taken very seriously and one small mistake could cost a commander his job. "If you were a wing commanding officer and busted during the [inspection], you were done," says C.R. "Dick" Anderegg, an Air Force historian and former fighter pilot. "It was very strictly controlled."

With the end of the cold war, the Air Force shuttered the command.

Subsequently, with little public focus on nuclear issues, the service's stewardship of nuclear materials "atrophied," according to the report by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger on the recent nuclear blunders.

Such stewardship requires constant vigilance. "It's not as if it's something that is on the shelf, it actually requires fantastic physical exertion to deliver deterrence on Tuesday and then wake up on Wednesday and deliver deterrence again," General Alston says.

Another reason for the dilution in the nuclear mission's importance in recent years are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the Schlesinger report.

As tens of thousands of service members deployed to war zones, Air Force leaders, eager to give airmen an opportunity to contribute and show the public that the Air Force, too, was vital to the war effort, encouraged its force to deploy.

The report, released last month, recommended that the Air Force "review its deployment, assignment and promotion policies To ensure that it develops personnel and future leaders who are nuclear qualified and that nuclear-focused careers provide opportunities for professional development and promotion to senior ranks."

Air Force officials say about 7 percent of the personnel from four bases where nuclear activities occur deployed to Iraq in December 2007. In addition to the monetary and career incentives for airmen to deploy to a war zone, there are numerous "intangibles," like the experience of going overseas, that may lure them.

"Even I am conflicted in the sense that I appreciate how much we need to respect the [nuclear] mission ... at the same time, I know the professional and personal benefits to pitching into the fight," says Alston.

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