In the cold war, they were certainly not. U.S. nuclear forces were almost continually on a state of high alert, with land- and submarine-based missile crews always preparing for imminent action and B-52 pilots readying to take off at a moment’s notice. The men and women involved in maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons were a uniquely important force, with a high sense of purpose and élan. They understood that their mission was strategic deterrence and that success at maintaining a state of readiness would help ensure that their terribly destructive weapons would never be used in anger.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. nuclear forces, including the units responsible for care of the weapons, have been reduced in size, there have been no modernization programs, and responsibility for nuclear forces has been dispersed throughout the Pentagon; there is no one command with overall authority over the weapons.
These factors helped to underpin the “Broken Arrow” episode of August 30, 2007, in which the Air Force essentially lost control of a handful of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, with a B-52 flying them across the country under the mistaken belief that the warheads were disarmed or carried conventional explosives.
The immediate cause of the incident was a breakdown of procedures at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. But a study by the Defense Science Board suggests that even if tight procedures are put back in place, the safe care and maintenance of these fearsome weapons is going to be a difficult long-term challenge. Since the end of the cold war, it reports,
there has been a marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear mission. The decline in focus took place gradually as changes were made to policies, procedures, and processes. Now, when comparing the current level of focus to that of 1990, the aggregate change is dramatic. The Task Force and several of the senior DoD people interviewed believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable. The decline is characterized by embedding nuclear mission forces in non-nuclear organizations, markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise, and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission.
This is frightening stuff. And doubly frightening because there is no quick fix. The Defense Science Board has offered a whole series of recommendations designed to change the culture of U.S. nuclear forces and restore to them a sense of mission. But the inescapable truth is that with the end of the cold war, the primary task of U.S. nuclear forces is no longer deterrence but keeping accidents from happening within our own arsenal. This is an essential mission, but it is not a glorious one, and it will remain difficult to attract the most talented men and women in our armed forces into this branch of service.
The problem is triply frightening because if U.S. nuclear forces are suffering from such difficulties, what is going on elsewhere in the world, in Russia, say, or in Pakistan?
In light of all this, I have a question for readers. Which of the following problems is most worrying?
1. Global warming.
2. The Bush administration’s alleged violations of FISA.
3. Loose nuclear weapons.