Washington Watch

May 1, 2006

Strategic Strike: Fund It or Lose It

Unless steps are taken to create new programs and attract new expertise, US strategic missile capabilities will soon become extinct, warns a Defense Science Board task force.

In a March report titled “Future Strategic Strike Skills,” the DSB task force said the Defense Department has failed to make long-term plans for strategic systems or adequately fund their modernization. This neglect, the DSB said, has already rendered the industry and government talent base in these endeavors “marginally thin.”

So grave is the situation, said the task force, that today’s generation of rocket engineers “may not be able to cope with unanticipated failures” in the inventory of strategic missiles if the fixes require “testing and redesign.”

Aggravating the problem is the fact that a large percentage of industry experts are retiring or are expected to do so in the near future. Without new missile programs on the books, industry will have no reason to recruit replacements.

Funding is simply “not sufficient to maintain skills,” and there might not be enough qualified engineers “available for potential next generation systems,” according to the report.

Attracting what the DSB called a “new talent base” already will be tough. Even now, defense companies are struggling to compete with faster growing and more lucrative telecom, computer, and nanotechnology industries. Working on strategic weapons no longer has the cachet it had in the post-Sputnik days. Moreover, few—if anyone—now in the business have had experience actually working on the design of a new ICBM. The last such missile, the Peacekeeper, was designed in the 1970s.

The task force study was chaired by Walter E. Morrow Jr., director of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories from 1977 to 1998. The study was launched in 2004 by Michael W. Wynne, then the acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and now the Secretary of the Air Force.

“Experienced personnel are nearing retirement with few replacements. This situation could lead to the potential loss of critical strategic strike systems knowledge,” the group asserted.

The task force argued that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should give “direction” on what the next generation of strategic strike systems will be and how the government and industry should work to provide it.

The group also wants Rumsfeld to create a special office within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It would be “charged with defining and funding the exploratory development of future strategic strike concepts, to include the application of new technologies.” This office would report annually.

Because critical design skills are “rapidly disappearing,” the task force wants a concerted effort to make young engineers, early in their careers, knowledgeable about the area of ballistic missiles. The group wants Rumsfeld to direct the Navy and Air Force to fund advance development projects that would support design of new ballistic missiles, even if there’s no formal program to develop and produce a next generation missile. Such initiatives have “not been fully funded” for 15 years.

To address the problem of attracting new talent, the DSB wants strategic strike offices to fund internships and co-op programs that include mandatory work with either the Defense Department or industry, encourage graduate studies, and make full use of the National Defense Education Act, which provides assistance to colleges to fund scholarships and research into areas of interest to the defense industrial base.

Finally, the task force suggested new programs to create and maintain a base of relevant skills in all the affected agencies.

The task force noted that, overall, the US is experiencing a decline in engineers, with a 10 percent reduction since 2001. There also has been a drop in bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering at US universities since 1990. About 70,000 engineers and scientists graduate every year in the US, compared with about 200,000 each in India and China.

Graduations in engineering master’s and doctoral programs have increased since 1990, but “the percent of US citizens graduating with advanced degrees has significantly declined since 1994,” the DSB said. Only citizens can work on secret US defense programs.

Making things even harder is the long time needed to obtain a security clearance, which for the most compartmentalized and secret programs now takes from one to two years. As a result, prospective experts who might work on strategic systems tire of waiting and accept jobs in other fields.

… And On Cue, Nuclear Update Plans

Even as the Defense Science Board was warning about the withering away of the nation’s strategic strike expertise, the Bush Administration announced plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal.

Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces March 1 that “we will … adapt an existing weapon within 18 months, and design, develop, and begin production of a new design within three to four years of a decision to enter engineering development.”

A full plan for modernizing the nuclear force by 2030 was to be delivered to Congress this spring, Brooks told the House panel. He acknowledged, however, that it could “take a couple of decades” to build the infrastructure required for sustained capability in nuclear weapons.

Modernization will depend on the Reliable Replacement Warhead, Brooks said. The RRW program will design new components for previously tested nuclear weapons to “reduce the chance [of] resuming nuclear testing,” which is dangerous and expensive. If the capability can be developed to build new nukes “on a time scale in which geopolitical threats could emerge,” the US would not have to retain large numbers of old warheads as a hedge against the rise of a peer nuclear competitor, he said.

The number of warheads in the US arsenal also will be reduced to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, Brooks noted.

Defense officials have previously stated that the US seeks to maintain about 2,000 warheads in a strategic reserve, not mounted on any operational aircraft or missiles. If the RRW program pans out, this strategic reserve could be reduced.

Brooks also wants funds to build a facility that can produce “pits,” or plutonium triggers for thermonuclear weapons.

A facility has already been built at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., but its capacity to build 30 to 40 pits a year by 2012 is insufficient to meet RRW needs. The defense consensus, he said, is that such triggers have a usable lifetime of 45 to 60 years, but recent tests and simulation have thrown that assumption into doubt.

Iran, North Korea Top New Threats List

Iran poses the greatest near-term security threat to the United States, followed by North Korea, according to the latest version of the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

New names have been added to the list of nations hostile to the interests of the US, but China is not among them.

The new 49-page strategy document, which by law is supposed to be updated annually but hadn’t been revised since 2002, appeared in mid-March and carries the signature of President George W. Bush.

“We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” Bush said, noting Iran’s 20-year effort to obtain nuclear weapons while insisting it is doing no such thing.

The regime’s “true intentions” have been revealed by its unwillingness “to negotiate in good faith” about nuclear arms or to comply with international demands to open its nuclear activities for inspection, and its leader’s threat to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth.” Iran must yield to diplomatic efforts to curtail its nuclear weapons program “if confrontation is to be avoided,” Bush said.

Referring to Iran, Bush said, “We will continue to take all necessary measures to protect our national and economic security against the adverse effects of … bad conduct.” Besides developing illicit nukes, Iran sponsors terrorism, tries to thwart peace in the Middle East, “disrupts democracy in Iraq,” and denies “the aspirations of its people.”

America’s strategy will be to “block” Iran’s threats “while expanding our engagement and outreach to the people the regime is oppressing.”

The document expressed a tacit acceptance of North Korea’s claims to possessing nuclear weapons, and Bush said the regime in Pyongyang “poses a serious nuclear proliferation challenge,” but he did not specify any steps to remove North Korea’s nuclear capability. Rather, he noted that in six-party talks last fall, North Korea “agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons and all existing nuclear programs.” Regional cooperation, he said, offers “the best hope” for a peaceful resolution to the situation.

Bush also cited North Korea as guilty of counterfeiting American currency, trafficking in narcotics, and threatening the security of South Korea. He said it is a nation that “brutalizes and starves its people.” The US will take steps to protect itself from Pyongyang’s “bad conduct,” but Bush did not lay out a more aggressive course of action.

Besides Iran and North Korea, Bush named Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Syria, and Zimbabwe as “tyrannies,” some of which—he did not specify which ones—are pursuing weapons of mass destruction or sponsoring terrorism and, in so doing, “threaten our immediate security interests.” These nations threaten their neighbors either directly or by causing instability and provide a breeding ground for ideologies of hatred and a base for terrorists.

While not elevating these other nations to the status of the “axis of evil,” as he had previously labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Bush said the nations of the world must “summon their collective action against the dangers tyrants pose” to world security. The nation will commit itself to take any measures necessary to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Bush said.

The US and the World’s Big Powers

The strategy takes note of China’s expressed desire to “walk the transformative path of peaceful development.” Bush called on that nation to be a “responsible stakeholder” that “fulfills its obligations and works with the United States and others to advance the international system that has enabled [China’s] success.”

If it does so, the US will “welcome the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.”

However, Bush scolded the Chinese on a number of counts, admonishing them that they can’t expect to reap the economic rewards of capitalism without granting its people personal liberties.

He also said China worries the rest of the world by holding onto “old ways of thinking and acting.” These include continuing the expansion of its military capabilities “in a nontransparent way,” meaning that China does not publish a complete account of its military spending and is expanding its military more than self-defense would suggest is necessary.

Bush also chided China for “expanding trade, but acting as [if the country] can somehow ‘lock up’ energy supplies around the world or seek to direct markets rather than opening them up,” a form of “mercantilism borrowed from a discredited era.”

China also supports “resource-rich countries” that have poor records on domestic human rights or peaceful international relations—an apparent dig at China’s warm economic and political relations with Iran.

Bush also insisted that China resolve its differences with Taiwan “peacefully, without coercion and without unilateral action” by either party.

“Our strategy,” Bush concluded, “seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities.”

Russia has “great influence” in Europe and the nations that surround it, Bush said, and the US wants a stronger relationship with its former Cold War enemy. However, he noted a backsliding there away from democracy, saying that these adverse moves hinder Russia’s relationships with other countries worldwide.

“Recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions” in Russia, Bush said, no doubt referring to moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate regional leadership under his own authority, among other power grabs, such as taking increasing control of national media.

“We will work to try to persuade the Russian government to move forward, not backward, along freedom’s path,” Bush said, though he did not imply any consequences if Russia doesn’t clean up its act, other than the displeasure of the US and other Western governments.

“Efforts to prevent democratic development at home and abroad will hamper the development of Russia’s relations with the United States, Europe, and its neighbors,” he said.

Bush congratulated his Administration for its delicate balancing act in maintaining relationships with both India and Pakistan.

“For decades,” he said, “outsiders acted as if good relations with India and Pakistan were mutually exclusive.” His Administration has shown that “improved relations with each are possible and can help India and Pakistan make strides toward a lasting peace between themselves.” He noted, though, that the US relationship with Pakistan “will not be a mirror image” of US dealings with India. India is the world’s largest democracy, and the US has recently agreed to overlook India’s development of nuclear weapons, while Pakistan, also a nuclear-armed nation, remains a dictatorship.

The Strategy’s Ways and Means

The strategy also reasserts Bush’s belief—first stated in the 2002 edition of the document—that the US has a right to take preemptive action to thwart an attack or if its vital security interests are threatened.

The US will protect itself with a “new triad” of “offensive strike systems (both nuclear and improved conventional capabilities); active and passive defenses, including missile defenses; and a responsive infrastructure,” Bush said. Such an approach will offer more meaningful deterrence as well as add realistic defensive measures, he added.

Bush restated his goal of promoting democracy—both in terms of personal rights and liberties as well as economically—as the best weapon against terrorism and rogue nations.

Bush also outlined a four-step strategy to combat terrorism.

He pledged that the US will unceasingly track down and kill terrorists, who he said “cannot be deterred or reformed.” The network of terrorism, he said, must be “disrupted and disabled by using a broad range of tools.”

Secondly, the US will deny weapons of mass destruction “to rogue states and to terrorist allies who would use them without hesitation.” He pledged closer cooperation with other countries on this aspect, softening the “go it alone if necessary” tone of the 2002 strategy document.

The US will deny terrorists “the support and sanctuary of rogue states,” Bush said, asserting again that the US makes no distinction between terrorists and those who support or harbor them. Nations such as Syria or Iran, which choose “to be an ally of terror,” will be held to account, Bush maintained.

Fourth, the US will “deny the terrorists control of any nation they would use as a base and launching pad for terror.” The US, he added, “must prevent terrorists from exploiting ungoverned areas.”