Chuck Hagel orders fixes to 'systemic problems' in US nuclear arsenal

Following reports of exam cheating, deteriorating facilities, and lack of oversight in the US nuclear arsenal, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a top-to-bottom overhaul. It’s likely to take billions of dollars as well as changes in the military culture.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a Pentagon news briefing Friday to announce reforms to the nuclear weapons program. Reviews of the nuclear arsenal show significant changes are needed to ensure the security and effectiveness of the force.

The focus on post-9/11 terrorists armed with light weapons and suicide vests, plus the break-up of the former Soviet Union, may make it seem like the days of the cold war with its bristling nuclear missiles, heavy bombers, and strategy of deterrence known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) are fading into history.

But the perceived need for such massive weaponry by current and former superpowers (and other countries as well) has never gone away.

At the Pentagon Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an overhaul of what the Pentagon calls its “nuclear enterprise.” This follows a series of incidents, including cheating on proficiency exams, deteriorating missile facilities, and a lack of oversight that already has resulted in missile crews being decertified and some senior officers being fired or forced to resign.

Prior to Secretary Hagel’s announcement Friday, the Pentagon conducted its own review of what were found to be systemic problems with operation and oversight of the US nuclear arsenal. It also ordered an external review conducted by retired senior Air Force and Navy officers.

The internal review reported “challenges resulting from being understaffed, under-resourced and reliant on an aging and fragile supporting infrastructure in an over-inspected and overly risk-averse environment.

“Both reports identified serious issues with potential real world consequences if not addressed – some of which require long-term and permanent cultural and structural changes,” according to the internal review.

Among such problems, according to the Pentagon: “A blurring of the lines between accountability and perfection … Inadequate facilities and equipment … A rapidly aging civilian workforce in Navy shipyards … Lack of promotion opportunities … career constraints resulting from nuclear specialization for both officers and enlisted personnel … Stress on submarine crews created by shipyard shortfalls … Unduly burdensome, overly technical, and excessively risk-averse implementation of the personnel reliability program.”

"The internal and external reviews I ordered show that a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon Friday. "The root cause has been a lack of sustained focus, attention, and resources, resulting in a pervasive sense that a career in the nuclear enterprise offers too few opportunities for growth and advancement."

"Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms," Hagel said. “Recommendations were implemented without the necessary follow-through to assess that they were implemented effectively.”

Among other things, Hagel directed that the top positions in nuclear forces be held by general officers of higher rank, giving them more clout in the competition for Pentagon attention and resources.

The Pentagon also reports that investments in upgraded facilities “will cost several billion dollars over the five-year defense spending program in addition to ongoing modernization requirements identified in last year’s budget submission.”

But it will take more than that to change a military culture that has seen the operation and maintenance of US nuclear forces fade in relative prestige.

"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," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told the Associated Press.

“The good news is that there’s nothing here we can’t fix,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. “But if we don’t pay attention to this, if we don’t fix this eventually, it will get to a point where there are some questions about our security.”

Following Friday’s press briefing, Hagel flew to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, home of a Minuteman 3 missile unit.

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