In advance of this week's USAF "summit" on its troubled nuclear program, an advisory panel is recommending that the service put all its nuclear missions under Air Force Space Command, and call it "Air Force Strategic Command."
The Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, led by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, outlined its recommendations at the Pentagon last Friday. As Air Force Times reports, the proposed changes mean that Air Combat Command (ACC) would lose its nuclear bomber mission.
The task force recommended assigning a group of bombers to a numbered Air Force that would fall under AFSTRAT and have a sole nuclear mission.
Gates said his key concern remains the Air Force’s “lack of unity of command, and not having one person or organization accountable for the [nuclear] mission.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donley have had discussions about standing up a new strategic command or placing the nuclear mission under Space Command like the task force recommended, said an Air Force official.
Recommendations from the Schlesinger panel came after a tumultuous year for the Air Force nuclear enterprise, a period marked by high-profile mishaps and failed inspections. The problems began last August, when crews at Minot AFB, North Dakota mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 that flew to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The incident resulted in the firing of senior officers at both bases, and the temporary loss of nuclear mission certification for Minot's 5th Bomb Wing.
It took the B-52 unit six months to regain its nuclear certification, and a year to pass all required inspections. During that period, the wing failed two evaluations, raising more questions about nuclear security and training.
The Air Force's nuclear woes were compounded by a second incident at Hill AFB, Utah. Earlier this year, it was revealed that base personnel accidentally shipped ballistic missile nose cones to Taiwan. Fallout by the mishaps in Utah and North Dakota ultimately resulted in the firing of the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, who left their posts in early June.
Three months later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes the USAF's nuclear program is back on track, but said he remains concerned about the “lack of unity of command, and not having one person or organization accountable for the [nuclear] mission.” Putting those functions under the re-named Air Force Strategic Command will, presumably, allay those concerns.
While the "new" command will be responsible for the Air Force's strategic nuclear mission, we assume that tactical nuclear ops will remain in the hands of ACC and theater commanders, as they have for more than 40 years. If that's the case, then Mr. Gates' desired "unit of command" only goes so far.
In its assessment of the USAF's nuclear enterprise, the Schlesinger panel also had tough words for the inspection process:
“Over the past 10 years, inspection pass rates point to anomalies that indicate a systemic problem in the inspection regime. Something is clearly wrong,” the report read.
The passing rate for Nuclear Surety Inspections — inspections nuclear bases receive every 18 months — dropped to 50 percent Air Force-wide, then jumped to 100 percent three years later.
Schlesinger commended the Air Force Inspector General’s recent move to make all nuclear inspections no-notice, saying it was a “positive step.”
Like similar reports done into the nuclear incidents that plagued the Air Force last year, Schlesinger’s team found an erosion of standards and capabilities within the service’s handling of nuclear weapons. Schlesinger said he was “surprised,” and that the erosion went beyond what he expected.
While most agree that the report--and its recommendations--are a step in the right direction, we still wonder about the consolidation of nuclear functions under a re-named Air Force Space Command. What the panel describes, in terms of mission and responsibilities, is a latter-day version of Strategic Air Command, which handled the bomber and ICBM mission until the early 1990s.
Here's an idea: why not just call it SAC? Bringing back that venerable command--and its rich history--might be the right step in creating the "right" mindset for the nuclear mission.