Who's Minding America's Nukes?

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Mark A. Leonesio / U.S. Navy / Getty

Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine USS San Francisco.

Another reason we were better off during the Cold War: The nation paid a lot more attention to the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were poised to blast each other to atomic smithereens. It was that lack of vigilance, last August, that allowed six nuclear-armed cruise missiles to be loaded on to a B-52 bomber for a flight from North Dakota to Louisiana without anyone even knowing they were there. There is a "perception at all levels in the nuclear enterprise that the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission," retired general Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Welch had chaired a Defense Science Board inquiry into last summer's snafu. The 27-page report (available online) says the Pentagon has been ignoring the problem. "The Defense Department has received authoritative and credible reports of declining focus and an eroding nuclear enterprise environment for at least a decade with little in the way of effective and lasting response," the report says. Pentagon officials interviewed by Welch's panel "believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized, and too extreme to be acceptable," it added.

While full-time nuclear-weapons work used to be done by generals, admirals and senior civilians, today it is being performed by colonels, captains and "mid-level civil servants." Welch told the senators that more senior officers need to be put in charge of the nation's nuclear forces. "If you restore that level of focus, then you have gone a long ways towards having a long-term reliable fix on this discipline issue," he said.

And, if you're going to have nuclear weapons — whether it be the 9,000 warheads deployed during the Cold War, or the 2,200 envisaged to be in the U.S. arsenal by 2012, or even a single one — the security must be airtight. Part of that is a function of perception, which is where Welch said the Pentagon is also falling short. "If you search the Internet, or any place else you might like to search, for statements from the senior leadership emphasizing the importance of the strategic nuclear mission, I think you will search in vain," Welch said. Instead, today's young nuclear-weapon handlers only hear calls to rid the world of nuclear weapons. "You hear that drumbeat," Welch said. "That drumbeat is widely publicized, and you don't see counter from leaders that say, 'Yes, it is important. Nuclear deterrence remains a key issue.' I don't think it's any more complicated than that."