Air Force creates new command for nuclear mission

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley Air Force Secretary Michael Donley Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

On Friday the Air Force formally established a new command dedicated to nuclear deterrence and global strike missions.

The creation of Global Strike Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is the latest and perhaps most significant step the service has taken to reassert control over its nuclear mission after a string of debacles and investigations in 2007 and 2008 revealed a significant erosion in expertise and capability within the Air Force.

"Our nuclear forces and our whole enterprise lacked clear lines of authority and responsibility," said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley at a Pentagon briefing. "This command will bring together our strategic nuclear forces, our [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and our nuclear bomber forces under a single command."

The new organization is one of 10 major Air Force commands and eventually will have 23,000 airmen, primarily from the 8th Air Force at Barksdale and the 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, who has commanded missile units at several levels and has a background in arms control, will lead the new command.

Global Strike Command essentially re-establishes a single organization within the service accountable for all aspects of the nuclear deterrence mission with responsibility for nuclear missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. The Air Force had such an organization for decades during the Cold War in the form of Strategic Air Command. But in 1992, to focus more effectively on conventional missions and space operations, service leaders abolished the organization and moved its elements to other commands across the service.

As a Defense Science Board examination found later, "The end result is that the strategic nuclear mission was dispersed among three major commands, none of which had strategic nuclear forces or operations as a central focus or body of expertise."

That lack of focus came to a head on Aug. 30, 2007, when a B-52 crew unknowingly flew nuclear weapons across the country. Six months later, Pentagon officials discovered military officials had mistakenly shipped nuclear missile components to Taiwan in 2006. A series of internal and external investigations revealed widespread erosion of nuclear expertise and discipline within the Air Force, prompting Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire the Air Force secretary and chief of staff in June 2008.

"The focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates said at the time.

Establishing a new command that would be accountable for all nuclear capabilities within the Air Force was a key recommendation of the task force Gates appointed to examine the problems and potential remedies.

Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz have focused intensely on restoring accountability for nuclear stewardship and laying the groundwork for rebuilding expertise within the service. In addition to the new command, they established a headquarters directorate for nuclear issues; a nuclear panel to advocate for resources in the service's budget process; and an executive-level nuclear oversight board.

The Air Force also has consolidated all nuclear maintenance and sustainment activities under the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

"Our expectation is high for [Global Strike Command's] focus on precision and reliability and compliance in all matters nuclear," said Schwartz at the Pentagon briefing.

The new command will have a headquarters staff of about 900 people, including an inspector general office.

"We have made a special effort to make the inspections more demanding, more invasive, more challenging, in a sense, to assure that commanders in the field are getting good feedback on how healthy their organizations actually [are]," Schwartz said.

During the next several months the Air Force will transfer operational responsibility for all intercontinental ballistic missile forces and B-2 and B-52 bombers, which can use both nuclear and conventional ordnance, from Air Force Space Command and Air Combat Command to the new organization.

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