Schlesinger’s Second Bite

Feb. 1, 2009

On Jan. 8, former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger and other members of a blue-ribbon task force publicly identified a slew of failings undermining the US nuclear deterrent. This time, though, the target was not the US Air Force.

Schlesinger’s “Task Force on DOD Nuclear Weapons Management,” empaneled by Pentagon chief Robert M. Gates in June, found lack of focus, inattentiveness, and other ills. Gates thanked the panel for identifying problems “both recent and long-term.” What he could have said, but did not, is that these shortcomings existed within his own senior leadership.

Schlesinger’s report was unsparing. Nevertheless, Gates declared that America’s nuclear deterrent force “remains safe, secure, and reliable.” He disciplined no one, unlike on June 5 when, citing nuclear weapons problems, he dismissed Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff.

When Mr. Gates took that unprecedented action, his stated rationale was their failure to ensure proper control over nuclear arms. The point, he said, was to “underscore the importance of accountability.”

Now, we have Schlesinger’s Phase II report. (Phase I, examining USAF, ended in September.) It makes for somber reading. It cites “a serious lack of attention to policy formulation and oversight of nuclear deterrence within the OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense].” Some officials, it went on, lack the foundation of experience for understanding nuclear deterrence.

The problem has been building for some time. In the past two decades, the panel reported, nuclear offices and personnel have dispersed widely. There has been a downgrading and dilution of the authority of nuclear officials. Franklin C. Miller, a panel member, noted that, today, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has some 40 offices dealing with nuclear issues and programs.

Schlesinger said that, since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have declined in US military thought. This is reflected in a sharp reduction in the numbers of weapons. In fact, the number of warheads has been reduced by about 90 percent since the height of the Cold War. The average age of weapons in the stockpile has tripled since cessation of testing in 1991. Spending on nuclear capabilities has shrunk and now consumes just two percent of the Pentagon budget, said Schlesinger.

Zeroing in on OSD, the task force noted that there is no long-range roadmap for ensuring sustainment and modernization of nukes and their delivery platforms. There is a “legitimate near-term concern” about US ability to design and build warheads, given the loss of highly skilled workers. Moreover, the panel warned of “a significant shortfall” in the DOD nuclear surety inspections.

OSD’s lassitude has spread to the joint world. In the panel’s view, the Joint Staff is now a “minimal contributor” to nuclear deterrence. JCS-sponsored exercises rarely entail nuclear training. The Joint Staff no longer conducts offensive nuclear analysis. The Joint Staff recently halted the development of joint nuclear operations doctrine, the most recent version of which was published in 1993. The top Joint Staff nuclear officer used to be a general; now, he’s a colonel.

US European Command, once a big nuclear arms proponent, has essentially checked out. It no longer recognizes a political role for US nuclear weapons in NATO, and it has allowed its nuclear planning staff to wither away to “unacceptable levels.” For its part, US Strategic Command has been “overloaded.” Retired Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., a panel member, said the command has been weighed down with nine major missions, and has difficulty focusing on deterrence issues.

The upshot, in short, is that the Pentagon for many years has paid lip service to demands of nuclear deterrence. The effect was predictable. “The services, indeed, have picked up clues over the years … that the interest in deterrence at the highest levels of DOD has diminished,” said Schlesinger. As a result, they reduced their own interest accordingly.

Retired USAF Gen. Michael P. C. Carns, another panel member, pointed out that Washington in 1991 ordered bombers off of alert and set about re-orienting B-52s, B-1s, and even B-2s to conventional missions in a smaller force structure. Said Carns: “The sense was this [nuclear deterrence] was not an important mission.”

The Navy gets high marks for doing more than just keeping up nuclear appearances. Even so, the panel found some “fraying at the edges.” The Navy has not adequately inspected its E-6B nuclear command post aircraft. Though ordered to maintain a nuclear cruise missile program, it has not done so.

The panel set forth 82 specific suggestions. Among them: Send senior leaders to deterrence classes, ramp up nuclear training, consolidate authority over nuclear missions. Members called for Gates to name a new high-level nuclear deterrence czar.

More important than any specific item, however, are two points that emerge from the Schlesinger report.

First is the importance of senior leadership. “We emphasize that deterrence must start from the top,” Schlesinger said. “It is a political statement that must come from the very highest offices of the government.” The decline of US credibility—if indeed that has occurred—must be laid to a large degree at the feet of the last three Presidents and their SECDEFs, all of whom have been in the most influential positions since the end of the Cold War.

The second point is that accountability is in the eye of the beholder. When he decapitated the Air Force’s leadership in June, Gates sought accountability. What, however, if the fault, or much of it, lay within the vast and confused DOD system itself? Who, then, should be held accountable? The answer might not be so easy and clear-cut. Failing to find the right answer could have harmful consequences.

Understanding these factors will go far to determine whether the US deterrent will long remain “safe, secure, and reliable,” not to mention credible.