how the air force manages nuclear weapons and deterrence

The U.S. Air Force’s indifference toward nuclear weapons

Article Highlights

  • During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force received a bulk of the country’s defense budget because of its significant role in delivering nuclear weapons.
  • But after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the air force became more interested in traditional air missions and the next generation of fighter planes.
  • This disinterest manifested itself in two recent nuclear-related mishaps that cost the air force chief of staff and secretary their jobs.
  • Generally, the military considers nuclear weapons costly and unnecessary, as conventional weapons can capably complete nuclear missions.

From its creation as a separate service at the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force was first among equals amid the nation’s three military departments and four armed services–whether measured by budget share or in public appeal. During the 1950s, for example, the air force received about one-half of the entire defense budget, leaving the other three services to argue over the remaining 50 percent and fumbling to co-opt some part of the air force’s mission. The army went so far as to try to develop a Pentomic Division designed to employ tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

The air force’s dominance was due primarily to its leading role in developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons, which were deemed key to the country’s survival. In 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur urged President Harry S. Truman to attack China with nuclear weapons after the Chinese intervened in the Korean War; President Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to end the Korean War in 1953 by threatening to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese if they did not agree to an armistice. Two years later, Admiral Arthur Radford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President Richard Nixon urged Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons to save the French at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. Although Eisenhower refused, he did adopt a strategy of massive retaliation–the threat to use nuclear weapons against any enemy that attacked the United States.

As the Soviet Union built up its nuclear arsenal, the United States adopted strategic nuclear deterrence, or mutually assured destruction, which relied on a triad of bombers, land-based nuclear missiles, and sea-based nuclear missiles, two-thirds of which the air force controlled. Consequently, the best and the brightest in the air force gravitated toward the strategic nuclear mission. From the flamboyant Curtis Lemay in the 1950s to the erudite Larry Welch in the late 1980s, the men who became air force chiefs of staff were the so-called Bomber Barons–that is, people who came from the Strategic Air Command.

But with the Soviet Union’s collapse, things began to change. Strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of the policy makers in general and the air force in particular began to shift elsewhere. Budget priorities and hard-charging officers in the air force began to flow toward traditional air missions. Rather than the Bomber Barons, the air force in the post-Cold War era was led by the Fighter Mafia. Even the B-1, B-2, and B-52 strategic bombers began to fly tactical missions, dropping conventional bombs in the Gulf War and the Iraq War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. The air force’s priority became developing the next generation fighter, the F-22, rather than building more B-2 bombers or more land-based missiles. In fact, in the early 1990s when Congress reduced the planned buy of B-2s from 132 to 21, there were few complaints from the air force hierarchy. Moreover, as conventional weapons became smarter and more lethal, it became clear that nuclear weapons had little military utility. Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded all air forces in the first Gulf War, said as much after hostilities ended when asked about using nuclear weapons in that conflict.

Even when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed Gen. James Cartwright from the marines, a service without any nuclear weapons, to head Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the air force leaders were silent. Similarly, when Congress canceled the new nuclear weapon, the “bunker-buster,” and delayed production of the reliable replacement warhead (RRW), the air force didn’t utter a peep. Only when current Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed stopping production of the F-22 at 182 planes did the air force roll out its propaganda machine.

Given this lack of attention to nuclear weapons, it’s not surprising that in August 2007 a B-52 accidentally flew six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles across the country, from North Dakota to Louisiana, or that four nuclear-missile fuses were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006. Gates was correct to hold Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne responsible for their lack of attention to nuclear weapons. But the bigger issue is why the Pentagon still needs to keep so many nuclear weapons in its inventory nearly two decades after the Cold War–particularly when just about everyone in the military believes they present minimal strategic utility. General Cartwright, who in 2007 moved from STRATCOM to become Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said as much. In Congressional testimony on March 8, 2007, he declared, “As good as [U.S. conventional weapons] are, we simply cannot be everywhere with our general purpose conventional forces, and use of a nuclear weapon in a prompt response may be no choice at all.”

At the height of the Cold War, the United States possessed more than 30,000 nuclear warheads in its inventory. Today, Washington continues to maintain nearly 10,000 warheads. Reducing that number to no more than 1,000 (600 operational and 400 in reserve) would be more than enough for deterrence; one of the last air force officers to command STRATCOM, Gen. Eugene Habiger, has actually suggested this number. Doing so would allow the air force hierarchy to direct its attention and resources to the challenges of the twenty-first century. According to the recently fired Secretary Wynne, the air force has a budget shortfall of $100 million over the next five years because the baseline defense budget is projected to decline in real terms over this period.

More importantly, reducing our own nuclear arsenal would enable the United States to gain the moral high ground in nonproliferation matters and in our increasingly tense relations with Russia. What better way to enhance our negotiating position with the North Koreans and Iranians than by our living up to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obliges us to reduce and eventually eliminate our nuclear stockpile in exchange for others not developing these weapons? And what better way to negotiate a new nuclear reduction treaty with Russia and enhance the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program than by reducing our own nuclear arsenal?

It’s no secret that Gates used the nuclear mishaps as justification for decapitating the air force leadership. His real reason for the joint termination was that Wynne and Moseley were lobbying Congress for more F-22s and then slow-walking the development of unmanned aerial vehicles and airlift capabilities. Thus, it’s unlikely that Gates will use the incidents as a catalyst for reducing or eliminating our nuclear arsenal. Hopefully, the next defense secretary installed by a new president will. As the recent mishaps demonstrate, when people and resources are turned elsewhere, trouble follows.

If the new defense secretary takes such a step, he or she will not only be applauded by the international community but also by the U.S. military, which sees this large nuclear stockpile as an albatross around its neck.

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