Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Kirtland To Watch Over U.S. Nukes

By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          First, the Air Force mistakenly shipped nose-cone fuses for Minuteman III missiles to Taiwan. Then, it accidentally hauled six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads across the U.S. in a B-52 bomber.
        The two major nuclear security breaches shook the Air Force to its roots and led to the ouster of its top civilian and military leaders.
        It also breathed urgency into a new mission at Kirtland Air Force Base, which will play a critical oversight role for the Air Force nuclear weapons program.
        The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland is tasked with making sure that the USAF Global Strike Command has safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons available — if, when and where they are needed.
        In short, the center is the steward and logistics manager for the Air Force nuclear arsenal.
        "I'm going to be the Wal-Mart for all nuclear weapons for the United States Air Force," Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas said in an interview last month.
        Economic boost
        The Nuclear Weapons Center has been authorized to bring in 288 new personnel, including about 180 civilians. The positions range from nuclear engineers to clerical workers.
        "By and large, bringing the personnel on with the right experience will be my biggest challenge," Thomas said, adding that he hopes to have all 288 positions filled within 30 months.
        "You know, you can't walk out on the street and find all the nuclear expertise you need, so that's why being here (in Albuquerque) is so great," he said, adding the center initially can draw talent from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Labs and the Air Force Research Lab.
        "Of course, my gain is their loss, so we have to be very careful with that," Thomas said. "We can also bring in contractors, prior military and retired civilians who have done these jobs."
        Thomas, who assumed command at the center on April 17, said he hopes to hire about 60 people immediately into leadership roles and have them assist in finding other qualified employees.
        Nuke security failures
        The Nuclear Weapons Center was set up in March 2006 — just six months before the Department of Defense mistakenly shipped four nose-cone fuses, which help trigger nuclear warheads on Minuteman III missiles, to Taiwan.
        The shipment should have been boxes of 1.2-volt nickel-cadmium batteries for use on Taiwanese UH-1 "Huey" helicopters.
        The error, which wasn't discovered until March 2008, put Air Force stewardship of its nuclear weapons in Congress' cross hairs.
        Congress pulled the trigger when it was discovered that an Air Force B-52 had flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., on Aug. 30, 2007, carrying a dozen AGM-129 cruise missiles — six of which were mistakenly armed with nuclear warheads.
        The 12 supposedly unarmed missiles were being flown for storage at Barksdale until they could be decommissioned.
        The flight marked the worst known violation of U.S. nuclear security rules in 40 years.
        A flurry of investigations, accompanied by Congressional outrage, prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to take drastic corrective steps.
        Gates announced in June that an internal investigation found a common theme in the B-52 and Taiwan incidents: "a decline in the Air Force's nuclear mission focus and performance" and a failure by Air Force leaders to respond.
        Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley resigned that day.
        The new Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, last month announced the creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command to control all of the Air Force's nuclear-capable bombers and missiles — functions previously split among various Air Force commands.
        "We lost our focus. ... I don't think that's even open to interpretation," Thomas said. "There was a loss of focus, and now we have to get it back."
        Setting up the Global Strike Command and giving oversight of all of the Air Force's nuclear weapons to the Nuclear Weapons Center are first steps in that process, Thomas said.
        Though the center will remain under the Air Force Materiel Command, it will work closely with the Global Strike Command that the Air Force plans to "stand up" in September 2009.
        "The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center sustains bombers, ICBMs and cruise missiles," Thomas said. "We're going to let them (Global Strike Command) concentrate on operation, training and equipping of the force that delivers the weapons. We're going to concentrate on getting the weapons to them."
        The center doesn't have the people it needs to fulfill that responsibility, Thomas said. At least not yet.
        "The problem was, we stood it (the weapons center) up lean. And like a lot of things when you stand up lean, you figure out that if it works, and it works well, then folks will give you more resources to make it better," Thomas said. "And that's what's happening."
        Nuclear stewardship
        Given hesitation by Congress to fund new nuclear weapons research — a step many critics say can only be geared toward development — most of the Nuclear Weapons Center's resources will be spent maintaining existing nuclear weapons.
        "We haven't produced a nuclear weapon since the early '80s, so we're now looking at all of the systems we have," with an eye toward modernizing them, Thomas said.
        Modernization means finding technologies that can be applied to existing weapons — most of which were built in the 1960s.
        Another challenge is modernizing a nuclear weapon without actual testing, which is prohibited by treaty.
        "Right now, I don't think we need testing," Thomas said. "But, eventually, we will because, no matter what you do, a 1957 Chevy is not going to drive right in 2030. I don't care how many pieces and parts you replace, you will eventually have to replace that 1957 Chevy — unless you just want it as a historic relic where people can come by and see it. That's the analogy, absent testing."
        For those who think the world could get along nicely without 1957 Chevys, Thomas said deterrence still has its place in a post-Cold War world where some groups push for elimination of all nuclear weapons while others rush to acquire them.
        Nuclear weapons, he said, provide insurance, a guarantee and a hedge.
        "Nuclear weapons are insurance to our allies who don't have the funding, the technological know-how or the desire to have nuclear weapons," he said. "We're an insurance policy to them; they rely on us for that.
        "We're also a guarantee to countries that have the financial wherewithal and intellectual and technological capabilities to produce nuclear weapons — but who choose not to. We're their guarantee" against outside aggression, he said.
        "And they're a hedge," Thomas said. "Since we can't predict what international relations are going to happen in the next 10 years, we have to keep our weapons to hedge off those international mergers, as some people call them."
        Despite the need for deterrence, the United States continues to reduce its nuclear arsenal, Thomas said.
        It has limited the B-1 to the role of a conventional bomber, reduced the number of strategic submarines and deactivated the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles.
        "We also made a unilateral decision to deactivate the Peacekeeper missile," Thomas said. In accordance with the Moscow Treaty, the United States will reduce the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012.
        "With these actions, the U.S. will have reduced our arsenal of strategic weapons by 75 percent," he said, and demonstrated that the United States is serious about nuclear arms reduction.
        Those reductions, however, make it imperative that our remaining nuclear weapons remain viable, Thomas said. "Accordingly, Kirtland plays a very critical role in national security."