The Obama administration missed a chance to take a bold step to save money Thursday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. It is home to the 90th Missile Wing, where an estimated 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are on 24-hour alert.
If ever there was a costly relic of Cold War spending that needs a dramatic overhaul it's the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent, a program with a price tag of $355 billion or more over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Of that amount, some $89 billion will be used to modernize or replace the current intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and bombers, and add a new air-launched cruise missile.
Operating costs for nuclear forces this fiscal year are $18 billion, but with modernization efforts just beginning, taxpayers should add another $10 billion a year in costs, according to the CBO report.
Under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that goes into effect in 2018, the United States and Russia will have 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, more than half on 24-hour alert, deployed on 700 long-range delivery systems — the ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers.
Why so many — and ready to be fired — other than that has been the case for years?
For example, why does the United States have two Air Force officers in giant capsule-like underground bunkers buried some 30 feet below ground, sometimes working 12-hour stretches in Minuteman III launch control centers, like those near F.E. Warren Air Force Base? Down there, they control 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each with a warhead roughly 20 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima, ready for firing within minutes of a confirmed order through the chain of command from President Obama.
There are 44 other underground launch control centers located across the northern Midwest. For 50 years not one of the U.S. ICBMs has been launched at an enemy target.
They played their role in the Cold War, as Hagel pointed out during his talk at Warren AFB. “There are many things that have kept the world from a World War III, but I do think America's strong nuclear deterrent, second-to-none, has done as much to keep peace in the world since World War II as any one thing.”
Having prevented what he called “the big war,” Hagel said it was time “we look at the new challenges and threats that face the world today.” He mentioned cyber as “a huge threat,” and although he didn't say it, terrorism also must be on his mind.
What he also didn't mention, however, was fear of a massive first strike capable of knocking out the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the danger that was posed by the now nonexistent Soviet Union. The Soviets, in fact, allegedly justified the need in the first place for the U.S. nuclear triad of deployed land-based and sub-based ICBMs and bombers.
Hagel did refer indirectly to the troubles that have dogged the nuclear force structure in the past two years as its central role in Pentagon planning has receded since the Soviet Union's collapse.
In Wyoming, he told the troops, “Sometimes I suspect you feel maybe that no one cares or no one's paying attention to you, but we are, and also to re-emphasize how important your mission is, how important your work is, how we depend on your professionalism and how you do your work.”
That same day two Air Force missile officers — whose job it is to sit in those underground launch centers — were implicated in a narcotics investigation and lost their access to classified information.
An unpublished Rand Corporation study done between December 2012 and February 2013 found that those in the nuclear missile force “have low job satisfaction and often feel job-related 'burnout.'” The study, first disclosed in November by the Associated Press, also found that courts-martial in the ICBM force were 129 percent higher than the Air Force as a whole in 2011, on a per-capita basis, and 145 percent higher in 2012.
In May, the Air Force temporarily disqualified 17 officers from their duties controlling ICBMs at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after they received a D rating during an inspection. Then in October was the embarrassment caused by the firing of Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force and responsible for the three wings of U.S. ICBMs. An Air Force inspector general's report described him during a Moscow trip as being publicly drunk, socializing with women and being rude to his hosts.
Despite problems among the U.S. strategic nuclear force personnel, questions about the role of nuclear deterrence in the age of growing cyber and terrorist threats, and current budgetary pressures in defense spending, Hagel did not propose that the Obama administration would seek to reduce further the new START level of deployed warheads, cut the number of stockpiled warheads or eliminate one leg of the triad.
Instead, he said, “We're going to invest in the modernization that we need to invest in to keep that deterrent stronger than it's ever been.” He pointed specifically to “completion of a new study to determine the follow-on ICBM to the current Minuteman III. So we are continuing to invest our focus and our time and our effort in this — in this nuclear deterrent strategy.”
The administration had an opportunity to lessen the attraction of nuclear weapons by unilaterally lowering numbers, de-alerting some deployed systems and asking other nuclear powers to do the same. That's a far cry from Global Zero, a distant goal both Obama and Hagel have supported. Most Americans — and most nations — would approve such moves. The United States would save money and still remain by far the most powerful military force in the world.