Panel finds erosion of nuclear deterrence mission widespread at Defense

A special task force reviewing nuclear weapons management across the Defense Department found a "distressing degree of inattention" to the nuclear deterrence mission among senior military and civilian officials, said James Schlesinger, a former Defense secretary and chairman of the panel.

In a briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, Schlesinger and other panel members released the Phase II Review of the DoD Nuclear Mission, the final report of the Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management. An earlier report released in September 2008 focused on shortcomings in Air Force nuclear stewardship.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates created the panel in June 2008 to uncover systemic problems in the handling of nuclear weapons and materiel after highly publicized failures in which Air Force pilots unwittingly flew nuclear bombs across the country and the Defense Logistics Agency erroneously shipped nuclear-related components to Taiwan.

U.S. allies have been especially concerned about the erosion of nuclear capability, Schlesinger said. Without confidence in U.S. capability, some of those allies could develop their own nuclear weapons, which raises the risk of nuclear proliferation, he added.

Leadership on nuclear deterrence must come from the White House and senior officials at Defense and the Energy Department, Schlesinger said. The task force recommended that the Obama administration "develop a strategic framework defining the unique role of nuclear weapons in deterring threats to the United States, our key interests and our allies." Such a framework could provide a foundation for the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review and Quadrennial Defense Review.

According to the report, "The decline in management attention to nuclear matters is evidenced by a dramatically reduced workforce, fragmentation of nuclear policy and guidance responsibility across the office, dilution of organizational focus because of proliferating missions, and relegation of nuclear-focused organizations to positions of lower authority."

"The remaining workforce lacks both depth and breadth of nuclear experience," the panel reported.

Among other things, the task force recommended that Gates establish an assistant secretary of Defense for deterrence in the policy office to consolidate nuclear oversight, which is now spread among dozens of Defense offices.

While Gates has not yet made any decisions regarding the recommendations, Schlesinger said, "I think that is very likely to happen and that there will be a concentration of authority in that office."

The task force also recommended that Gates review the mission portfolio of U.S. Strategic Command, the joint military organization that has responsibility for the nuclear mission. The command has nine major program areas, which limits the organization's ability to maintain a focus on nuclear deterrence.

The panel didn't prescribe how the command's mission portfolio should be restructured, but it did recommend that the command retain the nuclear deterrence, global strike and space missions, suggesting that other responsibilities could be moved elsewhere.

In its report on the Air Force, the task force pointed out that after the Cold War, the service reorganized in such a way that degraded the deterrence mission by shifting nuclear assets away from a single command organization. Within the new components the nuclear mission was diluted and lacked high-level advocates. The erosion of capabilities and expertise followed. A similar degradation of nuclear capability occurred Defensewide during the last decade, the panel noted. Only in the Navy, where the nuclear mission remained focused within a single organization, has the commitment held relatively steady, Schlesinger said.

Even so, there has been "some fraying around the edges" of Navy capability, he said. "With all remaining nuclear weapons concentrated in the fleet ballistic-missile submarine force, a significant future challenge for the Navy will be an inevitable decline in nuclear weapons and policy expertise at the flag officer level among officers from other branches," the task force found. It made a number of recommendations aimed at compensating for the service's shrinking experience base.

Schlesinger and retired Air Force Gen. Michael P.C. Carns, a panel member, both made a point of praising Air Force leaders for taking significant steps to improve the service's nuclear capability.

"The value of our deterrent is not primarily a function of the number of our warheads, but rather of the credibility of our nuclear capabilities in the minds of those we seek to deter, dissuade or assure," the report said.

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