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Sept. 15, 2008— Morphing Air Force Space Command into a new authority called Air Force Strategic Command to oversee the service’s nuclear-capable bombers and ICBM units is not a panacea, admits James Schlesinger, chairman of the Defense Secretary’s task force on nuclear weapons management.

“There is, in the view of most people, no perfect solution,” Schlesinger, chairman of the eight-member gray-beard panel, told reporters Sept. 12 while discussing the proposal during a briefing in the Pentagon. At the briefing, the task force, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates chartered in June, issued its Phase-one report (caution: large file) containing its 33 recommendations on how the Air Force can improve its nuclear stewardship. The AFSTRAT concept is one of the main suggestions.

“I think that there will possibly be some concern on the part of Air Force officers with regard to the movement of all the bombers into Air Force STRAT,” acknowledged Schlesinger, who had stints as CIA director, Defense Secretary, and Energy Department czar, all in the 1970s. In fact, while the Air Force has been “quite receptive” thus far to the task force’s recommendations, this issue has been the “principal” one “on which reservations have been expressed, to this point.” he said.

Currently USAF’s nuclear-capable B-2s and B-52s reside under Air Combat Command and they have the dual role of carrying out conventional bombing missions. The Schlesinger panel advocates combining these bombers in a new numbered air force and moving them under the authority of the proposed AFSTRAT. The new organization would be closely aligned with the missions of US Strategic Command.

Schlesinger, said the task force estimates that establishing AFSTRAT would require the movement of between 1,500 and 2,000 airmen into the new command above AFSPC's current personnel level.

Ultimately, Schlesinger said the Air Force’s new leadership will have to decide upon the AFSTRAT proposal. But the task force made very clear in its report that a drastic change of this nature is necessary to reverse the “atrophy” within the service regarding the nuclear mission since the end of the Cold War and the demise of Strategic Air Command in the 1990s. Schlesinger noted that the nuclear mission has been chronically “underfunded” within the service, leading to a “very noticeable lack of nuclear expertise.”

Indeed, “less comprehensive organizational changes would fail to address some of the main root causes of the nuclear mission’s decline in priority,” the task force writes.

Schlesinger said the fact that ACC “has been focused primarily on conventional activities” has been “part of the problem” that has led to the erosion of standards within the service in the nuclear arena.

“It will be up to the Air Force, if the Air Force chooses not to move the bombers to Air Force STRAT, to see to it that the bombers pay attention to the nuclear mission, which has not been the case over the course of most of the last decade,” he said.

Michael Wynne, former Air Force Secretary, and retired Gen. Michael Moseley, ex Chief of Staff, proposed earlier this year creating a new nuclear-only Air Expeditionary Force rotation for B-52 units as one measure to re-emphasize the nuclear deterrent mission. Gates subsequently sacked Wynne and Moseley in June over what Gates cited as unsatisfactory stewardship of the service’s nuclear weapons.

What about the impact of creating AFSTRAT on the space mission? Schlesinger doesn’t think this would be a showstopper. “I think that space has gotten some of the glamour and that that has led to a desire on the part of some to separate themselves,” he said when asked about past reports that some in the Air Force space community wished to break off from the missileers. He continued, “I think that some of the glamour will now move back to the nuclear mission and that the desire to separate will be diminished.”

Schlesinger commended the Air Force for its actions to date to address the concerns that have surfaced over its nuclear stewardship, noting the 180 corrective measures thus far. “It has established a solid basis for change, and all of the Air Force leaders are saying the right things,” he said. “The real question is whether there will be follow through on what is now being said.” 

The nuclear mission is “no less important” today than it was during the Cold War, although its domain has shrunk, Schlesinger said.

“One needs to be aware that the United States holds a nuclear umbrella over the other NATO nations, over our allies in the Western Pacific, as well as Australia and New Zealand, some 30-odd nations,” he said. “Some have expressed increasing misgivings about whether or not they feel comfortable under the umbrella.”

Accordingly, “part of the task of the Air Force and of the Department of Defense will be to resuscitate their confidence in the credibility of the nuclear umbrella,” he said.

With the release of the phase-one report on the Air Force, the task force’s attention is shifting to phase two of its mandate: examining the entire DOD nuclear enterprise and recommending improvements across it. Schlesinger said he anticipates the panel’s phase-two report being published in December.