Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shaping up America's nuclear deterrent

Atomic Bombshells. WSJ Editorial
Shaping up America's nuclear deterrent.

The Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff lost their jobs last year after two incidents involving the misuse of nuclear materials. In one, nuclear-armed cruise missiles were loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown across the country without anyone noticing for a day and a half. In the other, nose cones fitted with nuclear triggers were erroneously shipped to Taiwan.
Neither of those mishaps ended badly, and in retrospect the nation can say thanks for the wake-up call. The blunders focused attention on a problem that might otherwise have gone undetected until catastrophe struck: the neglect of U.S. nuclear forces and -- even more dangerous -- a lack of understanding at the Pentagon about nuclear deterrence.

These are the key findings of the Pentagon's task force on nuclear weapons management, which recently released its final report. The task force was appointed by Defense Secretary Bob Gates in the wake of the Air Force scandals and was led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Its initial report, last September, examined the Air Force's errors in its stewardship of nuclear weapons and made several recommendations. These mostly have been implemented, and the latest report commends the Air Force for its swift action.

The task force has now cast its eye more broadly and concludes that the "lack of interest and attention have been widespread" throughout the Pentagon's leadership. The exception is the Navy, which is responsible for submarine-launched nuclear weapons. Even there, though, not all is well. While the report finds the Navy's handling of nukes acceptable, it says there is evidence of some "fraying around the edges."

The Schlesinger panel makes a series of recommendations aimed at improving oversight and policy. They include establishing a position of assistant secretary of defense for deterrence, reducing the nonnuclear related responsibilities of U.S. Strategic Command, and beefing up inspections.

But the task force's most worrisome finding will require a new mindset. The panel finds a "distressing degree" of inattention to the role of nuclear deterrence among senior civilian and military leaders, especially regarding its psychological and political value. It proposes educational measures to "enhance understanding" of why we have a nuclear deterrent -- which, put simply, is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. If adversaries believe the U.S. deterrent is weak, they might be tempted to use nukes against us or threaten to do so.

But there's a proliferation point too. The U.S. provides a nuclear umbrella for 30-plus countries. If our allies lose confidence, Mr. Schlesinger said at a press conference announcing the report, "five or six of those nations are quite capable of beginning to produce nuclear weapons on their own." This is precisely the opposite of what the nuclear-free-world types like to argue: If only the U.S. would get rid of its nukes, other countries would follow suit.

It's now up to the Obama Administration to move on the task force's findings. But adopting the management and personnel changes the report recommends won't be enough. "Strengthening the credibility of our nuclear deterrent should begin at the White House," the report states. If the new President makes clear his commitment to the U.S. nuclear deterrent, that attitude will echo down the chain of command.

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