Inspections to gauge the operational readiness of the nation’s nuclear forces have grown lax, just one example of the “dramatic reduction” DOD-wide in a dedicated focus on the nuclear mission, retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch, told lawmakers last week. “Our report found that the problem with the inspections is the scope is too thin,” Welch, who led a Defense Science Board investigation of the DOD’s nuclear enterprise, told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Feb. 13. “Over time, the scope got more and more limited, to the point where they don’t really demonstrate operational readiness.” Welch briefed the committee publicly for the first time on the findings of the DSB review, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates chartered in the wake of the inadvertent transfer of six nuclear weapons in August 2007 from Minot AFB, N.D., to Barksdale AFB, La., on a B-52H. To counter the trend, Welch recommended creating an assistant secretary position within OSD to oversee the nuclear enterprise. This official, who would report directly to the Secretary, would insure all aspects of nuclear weaponry development, movement, surety, and command and control would receive continued attention, he said. The Air Force already plans to appoint a two-star general on the Air Staff, whose sole duty would be nuclear mission oversight, Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy chief of staff for air, space, and information operations, plans, and requirements, told the Senate panel at the same hearing. Darnell said that the Air Force still has confidence in its inspection framework, but is considering changes, such as limiting the notice prior to conducting nuclear surety inspections. (Read No More Bent Spears)
The Air Force will begin its 71st annual Operation Christmas Drop on Dec. 4. The weeklong exercise is a yearly tradition that delivers supplies such as food, fishing equipment, school books, and clothes to remote islands in the Pacific. It is the longest-running Department of Defense humanitarian mission.