Washington Watch

Nov. 1, 2008

Son of SAC

The Air Force should create a new Strategic Command out of the existing Space Command, consolidate all bombers under a single organization, make 8th Air Force responsible exclusively for bombers and no other missions, and otherwise radically overhaul its nuclear enterprise after more than 17 years of “atrophy.”

These were among 33 recommendations offered by the Schlesinger Commission, impaneled by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in June after Air Force missteps with the handling of nuclear weapons and associated parts caused the service’s two top leaders to resign.

The panel, headed by former Defense and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, determined that the two incidents—in which live nuclear missiles were inadvertently flown from Minot AFB, N.D., to Barksdale AFB, La., and nuclear fuse components were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan—were symptomatic of waning prestige and resources for the nuclear mission in the Air Force.

Immediate action is needed, the panel said, not only to guarantee the safety of nuclear weapons, but to reassure worldwide allies under the American nuclear umbrella that the mission is taken seriously. Without such reassurance, those allies may seek their own nuclear deterrent, Schlesinger said at a Pentagon press conference to unveil the report.

The Air Force announced some of its responses to the Schlesinger panel in an early October message to Congress. The Air Force will indeed create a new major command, to be headed by a three-star general, with responsibility for the nuclear mission. The new organization will have authority over USAF ballistic missiles and “nuclear capable” bombers, but not the conventional-only B-1Bs. However, the new outfit, not yet named, would support US Strategic Command with both nuclear and conventional capabilities. Moreover, cyber operations will be placed under a new numbered air force under Air Force Space Command and not, as had been planned, a new major command. The Air Force said it planned to release its new “nuclear roadmap” giving details of the restructure later in the fall. The steps followed a September announcement that USAF would expand its Nuclear Weapons Center to oversee all nuclear sustainment and weapon storage.

The Schlesinger panel wants nuclear experience to again be a major factor in promotion of top leaders, and wants a return to teaching deterrence and nuclear concepts in Air Force schools. It also wants the Air Force to put back into the mission about 2,000 people who have migrated to conventional fields, and set up rigorous new policies for the maintenance, inspection, and exercise of nuclear forces.

The Air Force has taken steps in recent weeks to address many of these issues, Schlesinger said, and service leaders are “saying the right things.” He said he no longer thinks mistakes of the type that launched the inquiries can happen, and that it should take between six months and a year for USAF’s nuclear endeavors to get back up to speed.

“We have the attention of the Air Force,” Gates said at a briefing when the report was released.

The report was the first of two; the second, due in December, will offer observations about the nuclear enterprises of the Navy, Army, and other defense agencies.

Panelists included retired Air Force Gen. Michael P. C. Carns, J. D. Crouch II, former Pentagon acquisition chief Jacques S. Gansler, former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chair retired Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., former Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, Franklin C. Miller, and Christopher A. Williams.

The 33 recommendations offered by the commission covered leadership and culture, organization, and sustainment, and ranged from major force structure moves to inspections, publications, and professional military education.

The panel said USAF should, by September of next year, change Air Force Space Command to Air Force Strategic Command, which would in turn be the force provider to US Strategic Command. The new outfit would rehighlight the importance of the nuclear mission, promote nuclear specialists, and put greater focus on exercising nuclear systems and stepping up inspections. All bombers would be consolidated under 8th Air Force, which should give up any other functions, such as cyber operations, with those other functions reallocated elsewhere, the panel said. Bombers would still be available for conventional operations, but nuclear operations would be elevated to co-equal status. The reconstituted 8th Air Force would move from Air Combat Command to the new AFSTRATCOM.

Toward fixing the errant fuse issue, the panel suggested that the Air Force retain all sustainment of nuclear weapons through Air Force Materiel Command, and the Defense Logistics Agency be taken out of the chain of provenance for nuclear-related materials.

To highlight the importance of the nuclear mission, the nuclear field could no longer be raided either for Air and Space Expeditionary Force assignments or in-lieu-of assignments, and those people would be designated “deployed in-place” for promotion purposes.

Other panel recommendations regarded specifics of inspections, manning levels, and the development of a professional cadre of nuclear-rated officers.

Gates said the panel found no new “consequential examples of mismanagement,” but conducted a deeper analysis of the decline in the nuclear culture and mission since the end of the Cold War. He said he’s confident that getting the nuclear mission sorted out, and quickly, is “very high priority” for the Air Force, and he’s pleased with the progress, but “I won’t be completely assured until all of the corrective measures have been taken.” He also said he’s confident the mistakes that set the whole nuclear review in motion “won’t be repeated.”

Also in late September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and then-Acting Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley announced administrative action against 15 Air Force officers in response to the previous nuclear affairs investigation conducted by Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald. Among the officers were six generals. Some of the generals had already requested retirement, some will retire now, but others will be allowed to continue to serve in place, although the reprimands in their files may end their chances for promotion. Schwartz said those disciplined were “good officers” but “they did not do enough” to ensure the safety and effectiveness of nuclear functions under their command.

Agree To Agree on UAVs

The Air Force and Army have largely agreed on a new joint concept of operations for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and will reveal it in January, the Army’s doctrine chief reported in late September.

Gen. William S. Wallace, head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said he and his Air Force counterpart, Gen. John D. W. Corley, head of Air Combat Command, had resolved most of the issues regarding the combat use of UAVs after almost a year of work and top-level meetings, some of which included the Chiefs of Staff of the two services.

In a late September meeting, Wallace and Corley were expected to “solidify the concept of operations, for presentation to the two Chiefs … sometime right after the first of the year,” Wallace told defense reporters in Washington, D.C. The CONOPS is to spell out not only how UAVs would be employed in the current wars, but in future major combat operations as well.

Agreement had been reached, Wallace said, that the Army would cede high-altitude, “strategic” UAV operations, such as the use of the Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft, to the Air Force, while USAF would allow the Army to control tactical UAV operations below 10,000 feet.

The real dispute, though, was in the middle, where the Air Force operates the Predator and Reaper UAVs, and the Army operates the Sky Warrior and Shadow. Wallace said the two services had long been trying to determine “what is the common ground” regarding how to divide responsibilities in that area.

That common ground, Wallace said, is an agreement between the services that data collected in the medium-altitude regime—indeed, in any regime—should be available to all US users, and broadcast over the common network.

Procedurally, a last sticking point was in “dynamic retasking”—how to swing a medium-altitude UAV already in flight from a dedicated Air Force mission to an urgent Army request, or vice versa. Doing so raised all sorts of issues involving communications and ground systems, and even the types of specialists flying the aircraft. The Air Force uses rated officer pilots to fly its medium-altitude UAVs, while the Army uses noncommissioned officers with special training.

The joint force commander is “the ultimate arbiter” of who needs a UAV more in a pinch, Wallace said, but those decisions tend to be made “premission,” and there is a desire to work out a handoff procedure that doesn’t require going back to the joint force commander on the fly “and playing ‘mother may I,’ ” Wallace explained. He expected that the issue might be solved with a common set of standards and procedures.

The Army has long insisted that it needs its UAVs tethered to divisions so that commanders can have instant access to eye-in-the-sky views without having to wait for a dynamic retasking, while the Air Force has maintained that all UAVs should be under centralized control and dispatched as needed. The Air Force has said its method would make better use of all UAVs available, and that the Army’s plan would allow some to be idle.

An experiment earlier this year proved that the Army’s Shadow systems could be flown remotely from the US, the way the Air Force operates its Predators and Reapers. But the Army has resisted doing so because it fears an Air Force takeover of its UAVs.

Wallace could not specify a situation where Army forces had requested Air Force UAV support and were denied, but he said there is a “sensing” in the Army that its missions get short shrift in the apportionment process. “I can’t give you a specific,” Wallace admitted. But, “the anecdotal [message you get] from commanders in theater is that they want more UAVs.” He said he doubted it would have been a topic of negotiation “had there not been an issue.”

The Air Force is nervous about hundreds of UAVs operating in close proximity with manned aircraft, and has sought executive agency for the systems because, among other reasons, it wants to deconflict the airspace. But Wallace was unmoved by the argument.

“I don’t get it,” he said, adding that he’s unaware of a recent instance where a UAV and a manned aircraft were “bumping into each other.” He said that this must be because the “the folks in theater have solved the problem” through the use of procedural controls—such as limiting certain types to certain altitudes—and “our task is to take what the theater has learned about airspace control and make sure everyone knows it, and quit having pillow fights in the back room of the Pentagon.”

It isn’t necessary to create joint training facilities for Army and Air Force UAV operators, Wallace said. Publishing “a common set of standards” would do the trick, and be cheaper than setting up a joint school.