Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Nuclear "Sell"

Serve your nation in one its elite military organizations! Chances for accelerated promotion and bonuses! Enjoy life in America's scenic northern tier! Be a part of the Air Force's most powerful command!

It's sounds like a recruiting brochure for Strategic Air Command, but
SAC was inactivated 16 years ago. Instead, the promotional pitch outlined above is aimed at a new generation of airmen, potential candidates for the USAF's Global Strike Command, which is now responsible for most of the service's nuclear mission.

Global Strike Command is an outgrowth of two, highly-publicized nuclear mishaps that occurred in 2007 and 2008. In the first incident, cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were mistakenly shipped from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. The error wasn't uncovered until hours after the Buff arrived in Louisiana.

Discovery of the mistake--and the factors the led to it--resulted in the firing of several Colonels at Minot and Barksdale and (ultimately) prompted the firing of the Air Force Secretary (Michael Wynne) and the service's Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley, who were replaced last summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates elected to dismiss the two officials because of widespread problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, including the errant transfer of ICBM fuses from a logistics depot in Utah to the Taiwanese military. The fuse incident preceded the Minot debacle--but wasn't reported until months later-- prompting even more scrutiny of the USAF's nuclear operations.

Two of the biggest problem, investigators discovered, was a lack of focus on nuclear problems and a shortage of trained personnel. Now, almost two years after that B-52 departed from Minot, the Air Force has implemented the required fixes. Global Strike Command will be responsible for the service's ICBM and nuclear-capable bomber units, and the new organization is trying to add 2,500 personnel to its ranks over the next year.

The new command is led by Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, a career missile and space operations officer with decades of nuclear experience. That's certainly a step in the right direction. But filling the rest of those slots with trained officers and NCOs may be difficult.

With the end of the Cold War (and the inactivation of SAC) nuclear expertise in the USAF withered, and there was no effort to rebuild it until recently. Building a cadre of highly-qualified specialists will take time and training; there is simply no short-cut to the experience problem. Assuming the Air Force maintains the proper focus on nuclear operations--and provides adequate funding--experience levels will begin to reach desired goals in 4-5 years, not overnight.

But "selling" the nuclear program to airmen may be difficult. Not everyone wants to serve in garden spots like Minot, F.E. Warren, Whiteman or Barksdale. Moreover, Global Strike Command must persuade Air Force members that their future won't be limited as a nuclear specialist. In recent years, working with nuclear weapons was viewed as almost a dead end, given the military's current focus on terrorism and asymmetric warfare.

According to Air Force Times, the new command is working on a "human capital roadmap" for its personnel. But many airmen will want proof before signing on: promotion board results, bonuses, and equitable assignment policies. Again, those are results that won't emerge overnight.

However, the biggest challenge facing Global Strike Command isn't recruiting or career planing. Somehow, the organization--and its superiors at U.S. Strategic Command and the Pentagon--must convince political leaders to re-capitalize our nuclear forces. As we've noted in previous posts, our nuclear weapons, delivery systems and the infrastructure that produce them are getting long in the tooth. Our "newest" ICBM (the Minuteman III) entered service in the 1970s; the last nuclear-capable B-52 rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1962. We haven't designed a new nuclear warhead in 20 years.

Maintaining a credible, land-based nuclear deterrent requires new warheads and delivery platforms. But so far, the Obama Administration has rejected calls for modernization. Indeed, with the White House now negotiating a large-scale cut in nuclear forces with the Russians, there will be even less incentive for nuclear re-capitalization.

And that brings us back to Global Strike Command and its recruiting effort. Given the current outlook for nuclear forces, do you think airmen will flock to work with aging (and increasingly unreliable) systems at remote, frozen bases? The answer to that one is obvious.

Good luck, General Klotz. You've got two, tough selling jobs on the agenda, and the toughest one is for politicians, and not the Air Force rank-and-file.

No comments: