USAF has come a long way but needs to continue its push to re-energize its nuclear force and keep a wary eye on the state of nuclear weapons.
—Marc V. Schanz
Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the head of strategic deterrence and nuclear integration on the Air Staff, acknowledged during a panel discussion on the nuclear enterprise that much of the "muscle movement" involving USAF's nuclear mission has been accomplished—the standup of Air Force Global Strike Command, transformation of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, and creation of a new position on the Air Staff dedicated to nuclear matters and other organizational changes, including adding about 2,500 more personnel to the field.
The panel members agreed that next steps include the continued improvement and strengthening of the institutional fiber of the USAF's nuclear mission. Basically, USAF must address continuing human capital issues, modernizing the weapons systems, and bolstering the institutional culture that has eroded since the days of Strategic Air Command.
Several of AFGSC's systems need a "significant influx of resources" and the expertise needed to maintain and operate these systems needs to be preserved, said Chambers.
In light of the just-completed nuclear posture review and action on the New START treaty, the attention to be paid to the mission will only grow, said Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, AFNWC commander.
"If we are going to shrink our nuclear structure, everything we have to do has to be perfect," he said.
The panel members, which in addition to Chambers and Thomas, included Gen. Roger Brady, commander of US Air Forces in Europe; Maj. Gen. Donald Alston, 20th Air Force commander; and Maj. Gen. Floyd Carpenter, 8th AF commander, expressed confidence in the US stockpile of nuclear warheads—despite the ban on testing in place since 1992.
Thomas said he had no reason to doubt the reliability of the nation's nuclear warheads—both the B61 gravity bomb and the W78 warhead equipping the Minuteman III ICBM fleet. He said that USAF has developed a very close relationship with the national laboratories charged with certifying the health of the nation's nuclear stockpile, noting that the Minuteman III fleet alone has received upward of $8 billion in investment over the last several years to address modernization issues from the rocket boosters to the avionics and the physical infrastructure of launch pads.
Carpenter said that an analysis panel reports to US Strategic Command every year with recommendations on whether leadership should request renewed nuclear testing to insure surety of the stockpile. And, for the last three years, he said that Chilton has been able to sign off on the recommendation for no further live tests.
"Today, we are confident the weapons will work," Carpenter said.
Brady said the reliability of the nuclear deterrent has not been harmed due to lack of testing. "I don't think anyone wants to gamble they [the warheads] won't work," he quipped.
That said, he warned that airmen should not give in to "group think" on this issue and that professional military judgment should be held to a high standard.
Brady added, however, that if the need emerges, USAF nuclear leadership should be prepared to recommend a change of course.
"If we get up one morning and decide we need to test, we should be able to say that," he asserted.
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