Important article by the New York Times Editorial Board
What do a wrench, a blast door and an intercontinental ballistic missile have in common? They are part of an American nuclear weapons program plagued by operational, personnel and leadership problems. Evidence of dysfunction has been mounting since 2007 when six nuclear missiles went missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota mistakenly loaded them onto a plane and flew them across the country. Two recent Pentagon reports suggest that things have not improved.
Before his forced resignation on Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised that the problems would be fixed by spending several billion dollars over the next five years. But there is an even larger issue that whoever follows Mr. Hagel must address: the very future of the program itself and the arsenal of nuclear weapons, which far exceeds the country’s security needs.
The Pentagon reports follow a spate of grim revelations in the press about drug use, security violations and other failings at missile bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming that, according to one officer, showed “rot” at the heart of the Minuteman force.
The reports, based on visits to all operational nuclear bases, offered an unsparing indictment of “systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise” that have led to decay in weapons facilities, silos and the submarine fleet. Military inspectors ignored aging blast doors at 60-year-old silos that would not seal shut. Shortages of staff and parts forced nuclear-armed submarines to stay in port far longer than planned. Missile maintenance crews had only one special wrench to use to attach warheads, a tool that was sent from base to base.
Mr. Hagel said the investigations reflected a “consistent lack of investment” in the nuclear forces. He cited morale problems caused by “a lack of sustained focus, attention and resources, resulting in a pervasive sense that a career in the nuclear enterprise offers too few opportunities for growth and advancement.”
The Pentagon should obviously be investing in routine fixes and making sure its force is disciplined and alert. But Congress has cut military spending sharply, and Mr. Hagel never said where the money to correct these problems would come from.
One underlying issue is that it is becoming harder to convince the service members responsible for the nuclear arsenal that their mission is vital as the weapons become less central to security. The arsenal simply does not play a role in defending the country against big threats, like terrorism and cybersecurity. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, many of the missiles are still kept on hair-trigger alert, even though they almost certainly will never be fired. The main target, Russia, is no longer the same military adversary, despite tensions over Ukraine.
President Obama knows this, and he once espoused a disarmament agenda that called for an eventual end to nuclear weapons. Yet he has pushed a massive modernization effort of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines, at an estimated cost of more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, on top of the short-term fixes promised by Mr. Hagel.
Mr. Obama still has time to advance the sensible disarmament agenda he once espoused. That will mean more honest discussion of the diminished importance of nuclear weapons. It will also require more spending on security and management of the existing program, and less spending on pointless new weapons systems.
Source: The New York Times / Nov. 28, 2014