Panel Cites Drop in U.S. Attention to Nuclear Arsenal

"The decline in DoD focus has been . . . too extreme to be acceptable," said a nuclear arms report released by retired Gen. Larry D. Welch. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Defense Department is displaying a "precipitous decrease in attention" to the security and control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, according to a Defense Science Board task force that examined the broader causes behind the U.S. flight in August of a B-52 bomber that inadvertently carried six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

"The decline in DoD focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable," the task force said in a report released yesterday by its chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Welch, who served in the 1980s as head of the Strategic Air Command and later as Air Force chief of staff, told the senators about his concern that "the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission."

The six cruise missiles, which were mistakenly believed to be carrying dummy warheads, were loaded on an Air Force B-52 and flown 1,400 miles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

"No one knew where they were, or even missed them, for over 36 hours," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate committee. "This entire episode really is a wake-up call."

The Welch panel pointed out that Air Force colonels, Navy captains and mid-level civilians are now responsible for managing the Pentagon's nuclear programs -- a task that during the Cold War was handled by senior flag officers or senior civilians. One of the panel's recommendations is the appointment of an assistant secretary of defense for nuclear enterprise reporting directly to the defense secretary, as well as the naming of flag officers in each of the services who would focus solely on nuclear weapons.

The task force's findings were reflected in a statement made before the committee by three senior Air Force officers who had supervised two other inquiries after the B-52 flight. They said the Air Force's once-central focus on its nuclear mission "has diminished since 1991," after the end of the Cold War. At the same time, they said, "the Air Force began 17 years of continuous combat including conventional air power commitments" using aircraft, such as B-52s, once reserved for nuclear operations.

The Defense Science Board is made up of experts from the private sector and from research groups who are assigned by the defense secretary to study complex technology and research problems facing the Pentagon. It found that almost the entire B-52 bomber force is focused on conventional missions "as the accepted permanent or semi-permanent state of affairs." There is a "widespread perception in both the Navy and Air Force that a nuclear forces career is not the highly promising opportunity of the past era," the panel of experts said.

In the wake of the August incident, seven officers, including the wing commander at Minot and two group commanders, were removed from their positions; 90 airmen were decertified, some temporarily, from working on nuclear-related jobs.

The Air Force is also reviewing its inspection process for units charged with nuclear weapons maintenance; the unit at Minot Air Force base had received a favorable inspection rating shortly before the incident. Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel J. Darnell, deputy chief of staff for operations, told the Senate committee that the Air Force is considering reducing the advance notice that units receive before inspections.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Polly A. Peyer, director of resource integrations, said that nuclear safeguards were restored after the incident but that more funding will be sought in the fiscal 2010 budget.

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