U.S. Strategic Command

 

The Nuclear Force Revival

By Michael C. Sirak | Air Force Magazine | February 05, 2009

With the release last October of the strategic planning document"Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise," USAF unveiled acomprehensive plan to strengthen its handling of ICBM forces andnuclear-capable bombers. The service says that implementing this plan is toppriority.

Now under way are numerous projects that seek to transform Air Forceorganizations, operations, and culture. They include the mammoth task ofestablishing a new major command, Air Force Global Strike Command, to bringtogether oversight of nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles and B-2A andB-52H bomber units.

The goal is to restore high-quality, Cold War-style stewardship to USAF'sdaily execution of its nuclear mission and, in the process, remove anylingering doubts about the service's dedication on this score. Indeed, thestandard by which airmen are judged will be nothing less than perfection.

According to Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, assistant chief of staff forstrategic deterrence and nuclear integration, "The roadmap is not about justovercoming deficiencies that have been exposed. It is about making sure thatwe are on this pathway to excellence that is our legacy. "

Alston, who spoke with Air Force Magazine in a November interview, heads thenewly activated Air Staff A10 office that now serves as the focal point fornuclear matters at the headquarters level.

Several high-profile problems in the past several years caused the AirForce's nuclear stewardship to come under extreme scrutiny, and shook theservice. Centered on the mistaken shipment of Minuteman III noseconecomponents to Taiwan in August 2006 and the unauthorized transfer ofnuclear-armed cruise missiles on a B-52 flight from North Dakota toLouisiana one year later, these missteps were considered by Secretary ofDefense Robert M. Gates as "serious lapses" of oversight. They were cited asprincipal reasons for firing Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and theChief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley.

The roadmap is the Air Force's way of showing how it is applying lessons ofthose disconcerting events. It incorporates insights and recommendationsfrom senior-level internal and external reviews led by notables such asretired Gen. Larry D. Welch, a former Chief of Staff; James R. Schlesinger,a former Defense Secretary and Energy Secretary; and Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion.

Creating Strike Command is one of three pillars of the roadmap and isprobably the action most visible to the outside world. In some ways, the newcommand harkens back to Strategic Air Command, the organization that oversawnuclear bombers and ICBMs until June 1, 1992, when it was shut down.

Establishing the A10 office is the second pillar of the plan, and is alreadyin place.

The third pillar is consolidating all nuclear sustainment functions underthe Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) at Kirtland AFB, N.M. Together,these three initiatives are seen as critical for the overall success of thereinvigoration efforts.

Supporting these pillars are activities such as more robust training forairmen, a stricter nuclear inspection regime, and new educational curriculaand career opportunities to attract a new cadre of airmen in nuclear-relatedfields.Merging Initiatives

Some corrective activities were already in progress prior to the roadmap'srelease on Oct. 24, 2008, such as strengthening the AFNWC's role andinstituting nuclear-only wing rotations for the B-2s and B-52s under aconstruct called the Global Deterrence Force. But the document merges newinitiatives with the earlier activities, many of which are now strengthened,and shows how they all fit together.

"This is long-term work, where success will be measured in years and notweeks," said Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley, in a Novemberspeech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,D.C.

However, the impact is already being felt, even by Gates. "Based on everything I have seen, heard, and learned in recent months," saidthe Pentagon chief, "I strongly believe that the Air Force is now moving inthe right direction to reclaim the standards of excellence for which it wasknown throughout the Cold War. "

Gates made these remarks to an audience of airmen at Minot AFB, N.D. , onDec. 1, about five weeks after the roadmap's release. Minot was the startingpoint for the errant B-52 flight with the cruise missiles in 2007.

The standup of Strike Command, to be led by a three-star general, will bephased, according to service officials involved in the process. In December,the Air Force leadership announced that Bolling AFB, D.C. , will host thecommand's provisional headquarters, which will be led on an interim basis byBrig. Gen. James M. Kowalski.

Initial operations of Strike Command are planned to commence at the end ofSeptember 2009, and the command is expected to be fully operational aboutone year after that.

The permanent headquarters location is undetermined, but members of Congressfrom states that host bomber bases or ICBM fields-such as Louisiana andNorth Dakota-have already begun lobbying hard to attract the HQ.

The headquarters could have upward of 900 personnel billets, includinghundreds that transfer over from Air Combat Command and Air Force SpaceCommand. These two commands are relinquishing their nuclear-capable bombersand ICBMs, respectively, to Strike Command.

ACC and Space Command are forming detachments in their respectiveheadquarters at Langley AFB, Va. , and Peterson AFB, Colo. , to support thestandup of the command, including working out the detailed basing plans andunit-manning issues. They will support the Strike Command commander remotelyuntil the permanent HQ location is identified and Strike Command personnelmay begin setting up there.

"My No. 1 concern is making sure that we get the right people in the rightplace at the right time and that we take care of them," said Col. Sandra E. Finan, chief of Space Command's nuclear operations.The Real Challenge

Filling the new command's headquarters with personnel having nuclearexpertise is going to be a demanding task, noted Col. James Dunn, ACC'snuclear enterprise director, in a December interview. "The real challengefor us," he said, "is not in the spaces," referring to the billets. "It isgoing to be in the faces-making sure that we have well-qualified people toactually go in there and perform the duties. "

Strike Command will oversee the nation's 450 nuclear-tipped Minuteman IIIICBMs, its 20 B-2As and soon-to-be 76 B-52Hs, and their subordinate units. This oversight will eventually include all of the functions for organizing,training, and equipping these forces. In addition to conventional munitions,the B-52s are capable of delivering nuclear-tipped cruise missiles andnuclear gravity bombs, while the B-2s can carry nuclear and nonnuclearbombs.

The Minuteman IIIs fall under 20th Air Force, headquartered at F. E. WarrenAFB, Wyo. This numbered air force manages the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren, 91st MW at Minot, and 341st MW at Malmstrom AFB, Mont. Each wing has150 Minuteman IIIs.

The B-2s and B-52s fall under 8th Air Force, headquartered at Barksdale AFB,La. The lone exception is Air Force Reserve Command's 93rd Bomb Squadron, acombat-coded B-52 unit at Barksdale that is transitioning to become the AirForce's B-52 training squadron. Eighth Air Force's B-52s are divided betweenthe 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale and the 5th BW at Minot. Its sole B-2 wing,the 509th BW, is located at Whiteman AFB, Mo.

While all of 20th Air Force is transferring over to Strike Command, not allelements of 8th Air Force will join the B-2s and B-52s. Eighth Air Force'sintelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft will not transfer. Neitherwill its command and control platforms nor its cyber functions. ACC willredistribute them to other organizations. The cyber mission will move underSpace Command's 24th Air Force, a new organization.

While a transfer of fielded forces is anticipated at or around the timeStrike Command begins initial operations, the Air Force is movingdeliberately because the nuclear mission is so critical, the officials said.

"This is the nuclear business," said Alston, architect of the roadmap, andnow a leading figure in its implementation. "We are not going to transferresponsibility to operate forces in 20th Air Force and 8th Air Force untilthe commander of Global Strike Command says he is ready. "

In the case of the bombers, for example, not all command functions willshift from ACC until perhaps the time when Strike Command reaches fulloperational capability, said Dunn. This means that, upon assuming initialoperations, Strike Command would focus primarily on its duties as acomponent major command to support US Strategic Command, while ACC stillhandles the administrative elements of the bombers' operations.The 2018Bomber?

The Air Force wants to field a new nuclear-capable bomber around 2018. Rightnow, ACC is establishing the requirements for the aircraft. But as StrikeCommand comes on, its commander will play a leading role in the process,just as he would be expected to be at the forefront of advocating any otherAir Force nuclear program, said Alston.

Strike Command's role will not be strictly nuclear; it will also beresponsible for supporting STRATCOM's conventional global strike missions. Unlike Strategic Air Command, the new command will not have embedded ISR,command and control, or tanker assets. While Air Force Space Command anticipates eventually relinquishing allfunctions related to the ICBM force, Air Combat Command will retain somefunctions tied to the bombers. Among them, Dunn said, ACC will remain thelead for ensuring that the B-2s and B-52s can continue to integrate with thecombat air forces in nonnuclear roles to support theater commanders andcontingencies.

"There is no doubt that . . . our priority is on the nuclear mission of thosebombers, but they also have immense conventional capability that we want toretain," he said.

The Air Force has F-15E and F-16 fighters that can strike with nuclearweapons, if called upon. These will not be moved under Strike Command,however. And USAF's B-1 bomber force, capable today only of conventionalmissions, will remain under ACC.

Strike Command will be supported by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center,which opened in 2006, but is being expanded under provisions of the nuclearroadmap.

From 1950 until 1995, the Air Force maintained one central hub for nuclearsustainment at Kelly AFB, Tex. A base-closure decision in 1995 led to theshutdown of the base, and sustainment functions thereafter have beendispersed.

In the early 2000s, the Air Force realized that nuclear sustainment hadbecome too fragmented and could lead to problems. This led to creation ofAFNWC to be the center of excellence for these activities and primaryinterface with the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons.

However, in the wake of the 2006 errant shipment of Minuteman III componentsto Taiwan-a slip-up that came to light only last March-the Air Force decidedto do even more with the center to streamline the sustainment.

"We are totally involved," said Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas, AFNWCcommander, of the center's strengthened role during a November interview. Thomas assumed his post in April 2008.

This involvement starts from the very first inkling about sustaining anuclear weapon system, Thomas said, referring to this comprehensive approachas "lust-to-dust" vigilance.

The center is now the hub for ensuring the safety, security, and reliabilityof Air Force nuclear weapons as well as the certification of nucleardelivery systems and integration of their equipment. (ICBM sustainment movedfrom Air Force Space Command under AFNWC's authority last May. )

To support this oversight, the center is adding about 280 personnel,including growing its professional staff from 14 to 98, he said. Theexpanded staff will have expertise in areas such as contracting, plans andprograms, requirements, systems engineering, and logistics.

The center is also taking over responsibility from the Defense LogisticsAgency for all Air Force nuclear weapons-related materials and will exercisepositive inventory control over them. Lack of PIC was cited in reviews suchas Donald's as a contributing factor in the errant shipment of Minuteman IIIcomponents to Taiwan.

Further, to bolster the sustainment chain, the commander of Air ForceMateriel Command is now "the single voice for nuclear sustainment" and thebiggest advocate for its funding across the Air Force, Thomas said.More ToCome

Some changes are yet to come. For example, Alston said, when the time comes,any new-start nuclear-related major acquisition programs likely would bemoved under the authority of the AFNWC as opposed to residing in an AirForce product development center, as they have in the past.

Now that the A10 office has stood up-its formal activation date was Nov. 1,2008-the focus is on fortifying its role, said Alston. The office reportsdirectly to the Chief of Staff. Creation of the office elevated nuclearmatters to the highest levels of the Air Force, replacing the post-Cold Warorganizational construct in which no general officers across the Air Forceoccupied themselves daily with nuclear issues.

The A10 will always be closely integrated with other functions on the AirStaff, but it is "growing more organic capacity," said Alston. For example,he intends to build a robust capacity in-house for generating nuclearrequirements. Functions such as nuclear security will also come under thecontrol of his office.

Alston said there is "a sense of common purpose" across the Air Staff inreinvigorating the nuclear mission. "I have got nothing but great supportfor everything that I am doing," he said, adding that he has had "fantasticaccess" to Donley and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, USAF Chief of Staff.

The A10 head will also be the executive secretary of the new NuclearOversight Board that is chaired by the Air Force Secretary and Chief ofStaff, and includes members such as USAF's inspector general and the headsof the major commands with nuclear responsibilities. The board is expectedto meet quarterly; its inaugural session took place Dec. 10.

"Job 1 is to implement the roadmap, and . . . this is also going to be a keybody by which we expose progress," Alston said of the NOB.

Alston's office is also solidifying relationships with the Air Force'sdefense and interagency partners in the nuclear mission such as the DefenseThreat Reduction Agency and Department of Energy's National Nuclear SecurityAdministration. And it is ironing out how to best support Strike Command andthe Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, he said.

The A10 will also partner with the senior-level civilian who will occupy thepost that is being created in the Office of the Undersecretary of the AirForce with responsibility of policy oversight for nuclear matters in theSecretariat.

The Air Force spends about 3.5 percent to five percent of its annual budgeton the nuclear mission. This amount is expected to grow. But Alston saidright now it is difficult to look at dollar figures and draw meaningfulconclusions as to how they reflect the Air Force's commitment to the nuclearmission.

This is because the service's forthcoming Fiscal 2010 multiyear budget planfocuses on accelerating existing programs and standing up a fourth B-52operational squadron for the GDF. "We are not advocating for new starts ofprograms at this time," he said. Observers will be able to glean better insights in the next full budgetcycle when the Air Force is able to take "a more proactive stance withregards to nuclear requirements," he said.

Just as finding headquarters personnel for Strike Command will be achallenge, so, too, will be finding qualified personnel to populate the A10and the expanded AFNWC fully, Alston said.

Nuclear specialties will receive new authorizations as the Air Force growsfrom an active duty end strength of 316,000 to 330,000.

"The authorizations do not become the challenge. It is the talent and thenuclear expertise that becomes the challenge. We need to ensure that we havethe right guys in the right jobs," said Alston.

Positive Inventory ControlThe Air Force has always maintained precise tabs on its nuclear weapons instorage, but with the end of the Cold War, let oversight of its nuclearweapons-related materials, or NWRM, wane. This is changing as positiveinventory control is being reinstituted in phases. At first, the processwill be manually intensive until greater automation is introduced.

Under Phase I, the service has already identified all NWRM items, about 160national stock numbers mostly associated with the ICBM fleet. They had beendispersed at various locations within the Defense Logistics Agency'sstandard supply chain, and there were limits on tracking their whereabouts.

The Minuteman III nosecone components sent mistakenly to Taiwan in 2006 areexamples of NWRM. Plans are to start moving NWRM early this year into a single facility, arefurbished 48,000-square-foot warehouse on the grounds of Hill AFB, Utah,that the Air Force will run.

"We are going to control every component . . . until it is released to themaintenance organization," said Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas, commander ofthe Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M. , in explainingwhat PIC will mean. In the case of an ICBM part, for example, "we will issueit, and when it is put on the ICBM, we will be able to tell you exactlywhich ICBM that part is on," he said.

In Phase II, several hundred so-called nuclear-related materials will beincorporated under PIC and tracking automation will be enhanced. NRM areauxiliary pieces and parts, like a shim on an ICBM.

Phase III is scheduled for completion in 2013. It involves migrating controlof the NWRM and NRM to the Expeditionary Combat Support System, a newlogistics electronic records program. This will allow for fully automatedPIC with real-time visibility and serial number tracking.

Global Deterrence ForceThree weeks before the Air Force in October issued its nuclear roadmap, theservice began the Global Deterrence Force rotation for its B-2A and B-52Hbombers.

The idea for the force came from a February 2008 recommendation of theDefense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety. TheGDF is designed to sustain nuclear expertise among the B-2A and B-52H unitsand create a balance between their nuclear deterrence mission and currentconventional operational requirements.

"We are using the GDF to provide a focused training venue so that we canincrease nuclear experience and the readiness of our force. . . . But weintend to retain conventional ability and credibility also," said Col. JamesDunn, nuclear enterprise director for Air Combat Command.

The GDF construct calls for the Air Force's two B-52H bomber wings, the 2ndBomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, La. , and the 5th BW at Minot AFB, N.D. , toswitch in and out of the GDF on one-year intervals. During the year in theGDF, the respective B-52H wing will focus primarily on training for thenuclear deterrent mission; each of its two operational squadrons will spendan interval of six months of that year specifically concentrating on thattraining.

The 2nd BW is now in the GDF with its 96th Bomb Squadron first up for thenuclear concentration. The initial GDF rotation of B-52s is not for a fullyear, as the 2nd BW will conclude its stint already at the end of March. When the 5th BW takes over in April, it will be for a full year.

The service's sole B-2A wing, the 509th BW at Whiteman AFB, Mo. , is part ofthe GDF at all times, but some of its elements will continue to supportconventional Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) deployments or thefour-month rotations to Guam, where the US maintains a continual bomberpresence to dissuade aggression in the Pacific.

The units of the B-52H wing outside of the GDF will continue to be a part ofAEF deployments to support conventional operations in places such asSouthwest Asia, or will deploy to Guam.

To support the GDF, the Air Force is bringing back to combat status aboutone dozen B-52Hs that had been maintained in a lesser state of readiness sothat it may establish a fourth B-52H operational squadron, for proposedbasing at Minot. Initial operations of the squadron are anticipated at theend of September, but are dependent upon the completion of the environmentalimpact analysis.

Regardless of SizeThe changes that the Air Force is making to bolster its nuclear stewardshipare meant to be equally effective regardless of any changes in the size ofthe service's bomber and ICBM forces.

"Indeed, I would argue that our commitment to this mission needs to beindependent of size," said Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley during aNov. 12, 2008 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studiesin Washington, D.C.

But if President Barack Obama does reduce the size of the nation's nuclearforces, he should keep in mind that maintaining the flexibility of optionsacross the deterrent "becomes even more important," Donley said.

That's why the nuclear-capable bomber leg would still have a valuable roleto play, along with the land-based ICBMs and submarine-fired ballisticmissiles, because it "complicates attack planning and allows the UnitedStates to signal, to deploy forces without fully committing [them]," hesaid.

Obama has said that his Administration will "maintain a strong deterrent aslong as nuclear weapons exist. " But it will otherwise "stop the developmentof new nuclear weapons," and "seek dramatic reductions in US and Russianstockpiles of nuclear weapons and material. "

The United States is already obligated under the 2002 Moscow Treaty toreduce the number of its deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012, but is expected to meet that goal by theend of 2010.