Since the Cold War ended, the nuclear deterrence force “has sometimes been neglected within the Department of Defense, as a whole,” James R. Schlesinger, chairman of the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
To better assist Gates with oversight of nuclear weapons issues, the department should have an assistant secretary of defense for deterrence to work in the Pentagon’s policy shop, Schlesinger said.
That new assistant secretary, according to the report, would “provide a single [Office of the Secretary of Defense] voice and a single point of engagement for Joint Staff, U.S. Strategic Command, the military services, and other combatant commands on nuclear and weapons of mass destruction matters.”
The assistant secretary, the report continued, would be assigned a deputy from the military acquisition realm.
The report also recommends that the purview of the Nuclear Weapons Council be expanded to include nuclear weapons, weapons systems, delivery systems, infrastructure, policy implementation and resources.
The NWC was established by Congress in 1986 to facilitate and coordinate activities between the Defense Department and the Energy Department as part of their dual responsibilities in maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
The Defense Department also should expand the staff that oversees nuclear deterrence issues within the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and place a general officer in charge of that effort, Schlesinger said.
The Pentagon and the armed services visibly reduced resources for nuclear deterrence missions following the end of the Cold War in 1991, Schlesinger told reporters. The resultant effect, he said, caused a perception among some leaders and rank-and-file servicemembers that the nuclear deterrence mission wasn’t so important any more.
“We emphasize that deterrence must start from the top — that the services, indeed, have picked up clues over the years since the end of the Cold War, that the interest in deterrence at the highest levels of DoD has diminished,” said Schlesinger, in explaining why the U.S. military’s interest in nuclear weapons matters had waned.
However, the U.S. nuclear deterrence mission remains a paramount endeavor that’s of vital importance to the nation’s national security and the welfare of America’s allies, Schlesinger said.
“And if deterrence is in the eye of the beholder,” Schlesinger said, “it is a political statement that must come from the very highest offices of the government, not only here in the DoD, but from the White House, from the Department of State and the like.”
Schlesinger also took time to praise the Navy’s nuclear deterrence mission.
“We were quite satisfied, generally, with the Navy’s performance,” Schlesinger said, noting that sailors who work in the nuclear-deterrence realm –- including submariners — exhibit high morale.
The enormous power and destructiveness of nuclear weapons creates “the desire to avoid the actual use of those weapons in combat, and is, therefore, a different kind of deterrent,” Schlesinger said.
“Nuclear forces, we hope, would not have to be used,” Schlesinger said. However, he said, many of America’s allies depend on U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities for protection.
Therefore, America’s allies “must retain confidence in the U.S. nuclear ‘umbrella,’” Schlesinger said. If that confidence evaporates, he said, some U.S. allies are quite capable of building their own nuclear weapons, which could ignite a nuclear arms race.
The strength and credibility of America’s nuclear umbrella “is a principal barrier to proliferation,” Schlesinger said.
In a statement issued today, Gates thanked Schlesinger and the panel members “for their very thorough and detailed report.”
“The U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and reliable; no one should doubt our capabilities or our resolve to defend U.S. and allies’ interests by deterring aggression,” Gates said in the statement.
“The report identified numerous trends, both recent and long-term, that may warrant corrective actions,” Gates’ statement continued. “The department will continue to review the panel’s recommendations while ensuring the long-term credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent forces and sustaining allied confidence in U.S. security commitments well into the future.”
Gates appointed the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management in June 2008, following two events involving the Air Force that indicated a deterioration of that service’s nuclear weapons management and control systems. The secretary tasked the panel to report back to him on Air Force-related issues in 60 days and on departmentwide nuclear weapons management measures in 120 days.
Some Air Force ballistic missile parts were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006. In August 2007, an Air Force B-52 bomber armed with nuclear missiles flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
In September 2008, the panel released a Phase One report that criticized the Air Force’s management of its nuclear weapons management programs.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters later today that Defense Department officials would thoroughly review the Schlesinger panel’s latest recommendations. Officials of the incoming Obama administration, Morrell added, also would study the report.
Schlesinger served as CIA director in the Nixon administration, as well as secretary of defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In the Carter administration, he served as the first energy secretary.
The task force chairman was accompanied at today’s news conference by fellow panel members Jacques S. Gansler, retired Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., Christopher A. Williams, retired Air Force Gen. Michael P.C. Carns, and Franklin C. Miller. Other panel members not present included J.D. Crouch II, and John J. Hamre.