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Air Force Admits to Nuke Flaws         12/20 12:43

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Faced with one of its biggest challenges in years --- 
repairing a troubled nuclear missile corps --- the Air Force has taken an 
important first step by admitting, after years of denial, that its problems run 
deep and wide.

   Less certain is whether it will find all the right fixes, apply them fully 
and convince a doubting force of launch officers, security guards and other 
nuclear workers that their small and narrow career field is not a dead end.

   The stakes are huge.

   The nation's strategy for deterring nuclear war rests in part on the 450 
Minuteman 3 missiles that stand ready, 24/7, to launch at a moment's notice 
from underground silos in five states.

   Some question the wisdom of that strategy in an era of security threats 
dominated by terrorism and cyberattacks. But whatever their role, those 
intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, will have to be safeguarded for 
years to come.

   The responsibility is enormous, the cost of mistakes potentially colossal. 
The business end of these missiles can deliver mass destruction with 
breathtaking speed. Accidents, though rare, are an ever-present worry.

   That's why it can be disquieting to hear missile officers describe their 
unhappiness and lack of faith in nuclear force leaders.

   In sworn testimony to investigators looking into allegations that two ICBM 
commanders at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, were mistreating their 
subordinates, one officer spoke of deep pessimism.

   "I go about most of my days wishing I was in another place, in another Air 
Force field," the officer said, according to a copy of investigation testimony 
provided in September and obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of 
Information Act. The officer's name was removed from the document by Air Force 
censors citing privacy protection.

   The belated admission by the Air Force and the Pentagon's civilian leaders, 
after a series of AP stories revealing the issue, that the nuclear force is 
suffering from years of neglect, mismanagement and weak morale has yielded 
opposing interpretations of what it means.

   Some, including experts who are critical of the Air Force, say it makes more 
obvious the need to invest billions to modernize the force. The flaws are 
fixable, they say. They cite a resurgent Russia and a belligerent North Korea 
as reasons to make the added investment to ensure that America's nuclear force 
is revitalized.

   Subscribing to this view, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Nov. 14 
that the Pentagon would make top-to-bottom changes --- more than 100 in all --- 
in how the nuclear force is managed and operated. He said the Pentagon would 
spend up to $10 billion more over six years to improve the force. Ten days 
later Hagel announced his resignation, leaving questions about follow-through.

   The opposing view is that this moment presents an opportunity to reconsider 
and restructure the nuclear force, possibly eliminating the ICBMs while 
enhancing the remaining sea- and air-launched nuclear forces. That view, 
however, is not predominant in the Obama administration, which favors the 
policy embraced by its predecessors, that the decades-old nuclear structure 
must be preserved for the foreseeable future.

   What that leaves is a risk of reverting to past practices, perhaps with 
additional failures.

   Eric Schlosser, author of "Command and Control," a highly regarded 2013 book 
on the ICBM and nuclear risk, said there is little doubt that the Pentagon 
needs to update the nuclear missile force's basic infrastructure.

   "But that's a short-term solution," he said in an interview. "The bigger 
question is: How many land-based missiles do we need in the 21st century? How 
should they be deployed, and do we need them at all?"

   Schlosser and others have expressed concern about morale problems in the 
force --- an issue the Air Force had been slow to acknowledge even after the AP 
wrote last year about an unpublished RAND Corp. study that found evidence of 
"burnout" and hopelessness among missile crews and other members of the ICBM 
workforce.

   Paul Bracken, a Yale University professor and author of "The Second Nuclear 
Age," says he finds it unsettling to read about neglect of the ICBM force and 
the turmoil in the ranks of those who operate the missiles.

   "If things are so bad, if for some reason we did want to fire an individual 
nuclear weapon, could we? Would the weapon take off?" he asked in an interview 
this month with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "With all of the 
problems in our nuclear force, it seems to me that there'd be some real doubts. 
You really wouldn't want to use one of these weapons, because you don't know 
what is going to happen."

   Bracken added that in the event of a massive nuclear attack by Russia, "I'm 
sure we could retaliate --- we've got enough weaponry at our disposal. If we 
fire enough of them in a mass counterstrike, some are bound to work."

   Evidence of what some would call the Air Force's willful disregard for its 
nuclear force is not hard to find. Michelle Spencer, for one, documented it in 
a little-noticed research paper she wrote for the Air Force in 2012. Her study 
team found examples of Air Force decisions to deemphasize nuclear training and 
education.

   "At times the signs were clear that expertise and culture had declined to 
the point that the (nuclear) enterprise was in danger of catastrophic failure," 
she wrote.

   Spencer put particular emphasis on nuclear expertise --- how to expand it, 
how to maintain it and how to reward it.

   "Without answers to these fundamental questions, the Air Force nuclear 
enterprise remains on the same trajectory as it has been for the last two 
decades - in ever-increasing decline," she wrote, adding that at some point it 
may be unable to sustain a nuclear mission that is supposed to be central to 
U.S. defense strategy.


(KA)


 
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