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Task Force Recommends New Air Force Nuclear Command

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 12, 2008 – A Defense Department task force has recommended the Air Force Space Command be re-designated as Air Force Strategic Command and be home to the service’s nuclear mission.

Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger briefed the press on the task force’s conclusions during a Pentagon news conference today.

The new command would be a major command and include all of the service’s assets from missiles to bombers. Known as the Schlesinger Panel, the task force came into being as a result of revelations that the Air Force mistakenly had sent nuclear missile components to Taiwan in 2006, and inadvertently had flown nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in 2007.

As a result Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked Schlesinger to look into ways to fix the situation. A previous report authored by Navy Adm. Kirkwood Donald said the Air Force culture needed to be changed to stress the importance of the nuclear mission.

For his part Schlesinger gave a short history lesson to frame the problem.

“The nuclear mission has altered substantially since the days of the Cold War,” he said.

During the Cold War, the NATO allies were fearful that the Warsaw Pact countries held a conventional force advantage over the Western allies. The nuclear umbrella America provided deterred the Soviet Union and its allies from attacking.

“That mission has gone by the boards,” Schlesinger said. “The nuclear deterrent role today is quite different, and it is much more circumscribed than it was in the days of the Cold War. However, it is no less important, despite the fact that the domain of the nuclear mission has shrunk.”

By treaty, the United States still holds the nuclear umbrella over the NATO countries, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. “The confidence that they have in that umbrella will determine whether or not they themselves may seek to acquire nuclear weapons,” Schlesinger said. “Some (nations) have expressed increasing misgivings about whether or not they feel comfortable under the umbrella.

Part of the Air Force and Defense Department task is to “resuscitate their confidence in the credibility of the nuclear umbrella,” he said.

The service has to change its culture, the former secretary said, because Air Force interest in the nuclear mission has atrophied. “This goes back to the disestablishment of the Strategic Air Command in 1991,” he said.

SAC, as it was called, was a specified command reporting directly to the defense secretary. It was the home of the Air Force legs of the strategic triad: the intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. In 1991, the command split with the missiles going to Air Force Space Command and the bombers to Air Combat Command.

Both commands had other priorities and the nuclear mission lost money over the years. “As a result, the nuclear mission has been underfunded and this has resulted in a shrinkage of billets for units and even those shrunken billets remain unfilled in many cases,” Schlesinger said.

“There is a shortage of security personnel. There is a shortage of maintenance people. There is a shortage of those who supervise the nuclear establishment and there … has been a very noticeable lack of nuclear expertise,” he said.

The Air Force has moved to change, Schlesinger said. Currently, the service has 180 corrective actions in the works. “It is a highly commendable response on the part of the Air Force,” he said. “It has established a solid basis for change, and all of the Air Force leaders are saying the right things. The real question is whether there will be follow through on what is now being said.”

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