In 2009, President Barack Obama stood before an enthusiastic crowd in Prague and proclaimed that he would make the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” a key administration foreign policy goal, though it may not be achieved in his lifetime. And while his is not the first administration to support this objective—the United States is formally committed to move toward disarmament as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—Obama was more emphatic than any other recent president of the United States that eventual global nuclear disarmament, and not just nonproliferation in places like Iran, should be a U.S. priority.
But recent lapses and scandals involving nuclear weapons personnel have forced the administration to confront a different commitment that Obama made during the same Prague speech, namely that the United States will “maintain a safe, secure and effective” arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons exist. Accordingly, last week the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was initiating a review of the U.S. nuclear deterrence enterprise.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced the review on Wednesday, saying that while Hagel has confidence in the operation of the U.S. nuclear force, the secretary believes it is necessary for the Defense Department “as a whole to place renewed emphasis on examining the health of the nuclear force, in particular those issues that affect the morale, professionalism, performance and leadership of the people who make up that force.”
Most of the lapses involved in recent months have involved the Air Force, and Kirby focused mostly on problems involving that service, though he mentioned that the Navy would also be involved in the review.
Kirby went on to say that the review was “mostly a personnel-related issue” and would not focus on issues like infrastructure, force modernization or next-generation strategic nuclear delivery systems like submarines.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates oversaw a similar review of the Air Force during his tenure in reaction to lapses in the handling of nuclear weapons and related components, an episode he discussed at length in his recent memoir. This investigation resulted in several high-profile resignations among the Air Force leadership.
During a welcome ceremony last week for the incoming Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, who will almost certainly play a role in the review, Hagel stated that “restoring confidence in the nuclear mission will be a top priority for all of us.”
Speaking with WPR, Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security says that it is uncertain how serious the personnel issues in the nuclear weapons force really are, but that there are “clearly a number of problems.” He points especially to lapses involving more-senior officials such as the deputy commander of Strategic Command, who was caught using counterfeit chips in an Iowa casino.
The Air Force nuclear force still strives for a “zero-defects culture,” according to Colby, but it has proved difficult to maintain standards given the reduced salience of the nuclear deterrence mission.
Colby says that the review itself probably “won’t dramatically rock the boat,” and that reviews of this kind can be useful. He argues, however, that the broader rhetorical focus on nuclear disarmament can potentially have a “corrosive effect” on the morale of nuclear operators and others involved in the nuclear weapons enterprise.
In contrast, prominent nuclear disarmament advocate Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund has written that the review as described doesn’t go nearly far enough; he likened a narrow focus on personnel problems to “rearranging the deck chairs on a nuclear Titanic” in an op-ed last week. The problem, he argued, is that ICBM operators work in “an outdated command, fielding obsolete weapons, for a meaningless mission.” Obama and Hagel should “see the current crisis as an opportunity to restart their stalled nuclear strategy reform efforts,” he wrote.
Part of Hagel’s push on nuclear operations is to convince skeptical Republicans that the administration is serious about nuclear deterrence. Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, wrote in an op-edearlier this month that Hagel’s visits to facilities associated with the nuclear weapons enterprise were a “good start.” He emphasized, however, that U.S. nuclear forces “cannot speak for themselves” and that a strong public message from the civilian defense leadership is necessary. Rogers referred to Hagel as “a one-time disarmament advocate.”
Every major foreign policy issue requires addressing the tensions between long-term goals and the crises at hand. In the case of nuclear weapons, the administration will need to ensure that they can be safely operated until they’re no longer needed.