Archive for the ‘Nuclear Deterrence’ Category


The article Taking disarmament seriously, as with many arms control advocacy pieces, presumes what it sets out to prove.

That doesn’t work for me.  I can’t take disarmament arguments seriously without serious arguments.  Arms controllers tend to be full of “we gotta” while ignoring the “and here’s how we’re gonna” part.

So in the “we gotta” regard, the article attempts to build a sense of crisis regarding nuclear war while attributing the lack of nuclear war to luck, which, sans evidence, is a hard thing to do.  The “we gotta” also always assumes the efficacy of arms control treaties. (more…)


Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

The Tactical versus Strategic Distinction: It’s A Big Deal, Right?

By Mark Stout

While the wise old owl discovered it took three licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, students of national security might wonder about the arithmetic of nuclear deterrence.  For example, how many tactical nuclear weapons does it takes to equal a strategic nuclear weapon?

An apples-to-apples comparison is fine if you’re discussing apples, but nuclear weapons are but one part of the grand and cumulative smorgasbord (more…)

Thinking Through Nuclear Security

By Mark Stout

Note: this article originally appeared in the 15 April 2010 edition of Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

While nuclear weapons are not our future, they are in our future and will be for a very long time.  Nuclear weapons–ours and others–will go away when their value is at or approaches zero, which is unlikely unless  these weapons  are: a)  rendered obsolete by defensive nuclear weapons technology—technology that has yet  to fully emerge—that makes offensive nuclear attacks impotent; or are b) superseded by superior weapons, neither of which are on the horizon.   If today’s nuclear weapons are overcome by some yet-to-be determined technology, it may mean even more terrifying (chemical or biological?) or powerful (cyber or directed energy?) weapons have become available, or because we’ve succeeded in making the world safe for full-on conventional war. (more…)

This article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

The Toyota – Air Force Nuclear Enterprise Analogy

By Mark Stout & Larry Chandler

Although Toyota is one of the world’s premier manufacturers, they are now dealing with an intense threat to their credibility.  At the heart of the issue are concerns about the quality and safety of Toyota products.  In the U.S., at least 52 people have died in accidents thought to be related to unintended and sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.  These problems have resulted in public apologies in both Beijing and Washington by Toyota’s President, Akio Toyoda, and worldwide, over 8 million Toyotas have been recalled.

In the Air Force, there is an analogous credibility challenge which thankfully hasn’t killed anybody, but is none-the-less significant.  That challenge remains the USAF’s nuclear enterprise.* If the efficacy of the AF’s nuclear endeavors are being accurately measured by Air Force and Department of Defense inspection teams, the nuclear enterprise remains in a very unhealthy condition.

While the details and specific errors have not been announced, the Air Force Times relayed a statement that Malmstrom Air Force Base’s 341st Missile Wing and the its 16th Munitions Squadron both failed their February 2010 nuclear surety inspections.  The Air Force response, as reported in the Washington Post, was that “There were no critical deficiencies noted. The wing is still fully able, in the eyes of the inspector general team, to conduct its mission safely, securely and with credibility” and that the public is in no way endangered by these failures.  OK, I’ll accept the later, but if there were no critical deficiencies, why didn’t they pass?

The not-critical-but-somehow-unqualifying errors at Malmstrom were preceded by a different unsatisfactory performance at Kirtland Air Force Base in November 2009.  There, both the 377th Air Base Wing and the 498th Nuclear Systems Wing received unsatisfactory grades for problems in the personnel reliability program, nuclear weapons maintenance operations, and nuclear weapons security procedures.  In late January 2010, while preparing for its obligatory 90-day recheck inspection, a HQ AFMC staff assistance team found the unit had not corrected the problems from their failed November NSI.  This was so unexpected that HQ Air Force Materiel Command conducted a separate “Over-watch” of the staff assistance findings, which were validated. As a result, the Kirtland (Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center) leadership took the very unusual step of a sort of ‘self-initiated nuclear decertification.’ Strange days, indeed.

So how do the problems at Toyota and in the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise fit together?  Toyota watcher and author Robert Cole, writing in the Harvard Business Review, has detailed several of the manufacturer’s problems which appear to have direct applicability to the USAF’s nuclear enterprise.  Broadly, these problems have to do with organizational goals and incentives and (forgive the cliché) unintended consequences.

An often unspoken but ever-present organizational goal is to be relevant— after all, an irrelevant organization will soon cease to exist.  In 1992, the Air Force faced new challenges to its relevance, shaped in large part by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, and in no small part by the AF’s own success in Desert Storm earlier that same year.  Following these events, USAF leaders attempted to make the Air Force ever more relevant by focusing additional organizational effort and resources on conventional capabilities (like stealthy aircraft, “smart munitions”, and the space-enabled successes demonstrated in Desert Storm) and less on its nuclear enterprise.   In many ways, 1992 can be summed up in what Robert McNamara observed following the Cuban Missile Crisis: conventional forces were the spear and nuclear forces the shield, although in the 1990s, the shield was certain to get a lot smaller.

Between Desert Storm and the fall of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush unilaterally de-alerted the USAF’s nuclear bomber fleet along with 450 Minuteman II ICBMs in September 1991, providing the Soviets, in the words of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney “the incentive they need to shift their country away from the business of cranking out nuclear weapons and toward the work of building democracy.”  With the Department of Defense expected to pay much of the anticipated “peace dividend,” something had to give and one of the bill-payers would be the USAF’s nuclear enterprise.

The flip side of the story of this rapid contraction and associated de-emphasis on the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise was Toyota’s rapid expansion.  In 1998, Toyota set off to enhance its relevance in the global automotive industry with the aim of doubling their global market share.  As an organizational goal, this large increase in market share would entail a number of things: more people working on a broader product line; selling more; manufacturing more (and in different places); bringing products from development to market more quickly; and, sustaining the famous Toyota reputation for quality.  Additionally, the market-share goal could be easily measured, observed, and tracked, but as Cole notes, Toyota’s traditional mantras like “Customer First” had a way of yielding when in conflict with the primary target of increased market share.  After all, what gets rewarded is what gets done.

Instead, Toyota’s rapid market expansion diluted the experience levels of its managers just as the Air Force’s focus on conventional conflicts pulled human and fiscal resources away from a well-established and mature nuclear enterprise.  At Toyota, Cole observed these changes drove massive increases in engineering man-hours, particularly in integration and joint software development.  He adds that overworked people, engineers in this case, tend to make mistakes and that inside Toyota, it is said to take about ten years to develop a fully capable engineer.

As alluded to, the Air Force’s experience was Toyota’s in reverse: rapid contraction instead of rapid expansion.  With the USAF ICBM force, for example, the aforementioned 450 Minuteman IIs were depostured, including removing all weapons, ICBM components, the missiles themselves, and more.  Later, all 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs were also depostured and taken out of the inventory.  In between, 150 Minuteman IIIs from a BRAC’d base were depostured and moved from one base to a separate base in another state and repostured.  Throughout, the Minuteman III system went from a multiple warhead configuration to a single warhead configuration (including using recycled re-entry vehicles that once resided on Peacekeeper ICBMs).  Along the way, a huge Minuteman III life extension program refurbished or remanufactured the missile from “nosecone to nozzle.”  All these actions required a massive amount of effort, including literally millions of miles of travel, and work throughout the far-flung missile fields of Missouri, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado.

While all this was happening, the traditional ICBM maintenance required to inspect and repair missiles, weapons, facilities and support equipment continued unabated.  And what happened to Airmen manning in the missile maintenance and missile operations officer career fields?  You got it…it decreased.  If many hands make the load light, fewer hands are certain to make the load heavier, all other things being equal.

A separate but contributing move that reduced corporate nuclear knowledge was the 1991 merger of the munitions maintenance officer and aircraft maintenance officer career fields.  At the time, this move drove 250 munitions officers into a larger sea of 1750 “general purpose logistics” officers and clearly reduced the opportunities to develop comprehensive and in-depth munitions expertise.  Because the activities at a Weapons Storage Area comprise about three-quarters of the Nuclear Weapons Technical Inspection criteria, having experienced and capable munitions officers is essential.  This was eloquently forewarned by Major General (Retired) Lew Curtis, the San Antonio Air Logistics Center Commander, who in 1987 said “We have learned through long and bitter experience that nuclear logistics operations demand experience and technical expertise far beyond that required for general maintenance of even non-nuclear munitions.”

So, just as at Toyota, it seems there were too few experienced people doing too much in too short a time and both the Air Force and Toyota underestimated the challenges of these highly complex endeavors.  Airmen may have become experts in depostures and repostures while perhaps losing the habits of mind and the knowledge and experience required to achieve daily and sustained excellence in aircraft, missile and nuclear weapons operations.

These complex problems are reminiscent of Steven Covey’s law of the farm, that is, you reap what you sow.  When Toyota placed market share as a pre-eminent goal, a cascade of unintended consequences followed.  In hindsight, it seems obvious Toyota’s rapid expansion might well affect the quality of its product.  Similarly, when the Air Force de-emphasized nuclear weapons maintenance and operations while concurrently increasing the nuclear weapon systems’ maintenance workload, a weakening of the entire enterprise was bound to occur.

Many nuclear-experienced and capable Airmen could read the writing on the wall and pursued other career opportunities.  For bomber crews and staff, this became a focus on conventional capabilities.  For many ICBM crews and staff, the focus often moved to positions in the space arena.  For ICBM maintenance, nuclear weapons, and security personnel, it meant separating from the Air Force or training into other specialties, especially those involved with the flight line, fighter aircraft, and deployments.  For the Air Force, it appears to have taken about fifteen years to reach a nuclear enterprise “Tipping Point” marked by the inadvertent movement of six nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale AFB in 2007 and a separate event involving incorrectly shipping nuclear-related ICBM components to Taiwan.  Through most of the interim years from the end of the Cold War until these times, despite benign neglect, a loss of experience combined, and expanding workloads, the nuclear enterprise was still managed effectively by the experienced officers and NCOs who had resisted or avoided the career enhancing push to “career – broaden,” remaining in the nuclear weapons career fields. But when these Airmen finally left the service, the safety net of experience and expertise unraveled.  Still, if this is now so obvious, why did it happen?  Perhaps it relates back to something attributed to Winston Churchill: no job is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it.

After an Air Force Chief of Staff and a Secretary of the Air Force were relieved following the Minot to Barksdale and the disassociated-but-relevant Taiwan incidents, new leadership established the goal of “Reinvigorating the AF Nuclear Enterprise” asthe Air Force’s top priority.  Recently, that goal was subtly changed and is now described as Continue To Strengthen The Air Force Nuclear Enterprise.    Based on the recent inspection results at the nuclear units, it appears we can legitimately question if we are addressing the underlying root causes of the Minot and Taiwan incidents.   While Toyota is important, a compliant (that is, safe, secure, and reliable) USAF nuclear enterprise is essential.

Mark Stout is a researcher at Air University’s National Space Studies Center.  Mr. Stout sometimes posts at the blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  Larry Chandler is a retired Air Force Colonel working on the effort to revitalize the USAF Nuclear Enterprise.  The opinions expressed here are those of the authors’ alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

* Even though the term ‘nuclear enterprise’ lacks total precision, it is intended to represent the totality of what the Air Force does regarding anything nuclear to include operations, logistics, security, modernization, delivery vehicles, and weapons.

Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

The lesson of remaining engaged—of always keeping your brain in the game (and sometimes your voice)–is made manifest daily and was epitomized by a recent Boston Globe article entitled US nuclear arsenal a dangerous remnant.  The article, written by James Carroll, is simply inconsistent with reality.  Carroll’s fundamental position is that the U.S. possession of nuclear weapons is not only dangerous, but is literally insane. 

As the article puts it, callow politicians and the defense-industrial complex have conspired to sustain “the demonic structures of the Cold War.”  Similarly, the nation’s nuclear deterrent force is manned by “prisoners to the past, condemned to carry out an earth-shattering mission that makes absolutely no sense in the 21st century.”  That deterrent effort includes “young missile officers who, season in and season out, stand ready to wreck the earth” and are “poised to kill millions of people.”    

First and foremost, Carroll either ignores or does not understand that nuclear weapon release is authorized by the President and the actual assignment is carried out by military personnel.  Instead, his article leads the reader to believe military members are both authorized to and carry out the task of executing nuclear weapons.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The actuality is today’s nuclear operators fall under civil control, just as they always have and just as they always will.  Those missile, bomber, and nuclear submariners who execute Presidential nuclear commands are fulfilling the orders of those who hold the legal authority to do so.  Moreover, military members lack not only the authority to release nuclear weapons by themselves, but also the lack the physical ability to do so unless properly authorized. 

Few things are as groan-inducing to the nuclear community as Carroll’s undead and zombie-like assertion that America’s nuclear weapons are on a “hair trigger.”  The more appropriate metaphor is that nuclear weapons are locked inside a bank vault that requires Presidential authorization (and codes) to open.  Inside that vault is a second locked safe which itself requires two people to open followed by a minimum of another two people (doing the same actions at a separate location) to launch.  The “nuclear hair trigger” oxymoron has exceeded its shelf life.  While I’m not in favor of euthanasia, I’m willing to consider it for the phrase hair trigger as it regards U.S. strategic nuclear weapons.

While it’s often impossible to prove a null or negative hypothesis (in this case, it cannot be proven that nuclear weapons have prevented nuclear wars), it is possible to observe history, and these observations show conflict between nuclear states since the advent of the atomic age has been limited and indirect.  About the closest serious non-nuclear conflict ever came between two nuclear states was the 1999 Kashmir clash between India and Pakistan. 

So did the Kashmir result in a nuclear apocalypse now?  Of course not.  Did the presence of nuclear weapons prevent a significant conventional conflict?  Perhaps.  Again, it’s impossible to rewind the events and play it out with different inputs.  However, consider India’s response following the Pakistani-hatched Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, which might be the very definition of restraint between nuclear states.    

With the bad-old-days of the Cold War now behind us, the United States is once again reviewing its nuclear forces.  When the soon-to-be –released Nuclear Posture Review is rolled out in a few weeks, it is certain to call for cuts, perhaps significant, in our current nuclear force.  That’s OK: when reality changes, policy should change as well.  That’s part of why the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative from the early 1990s deactivated or destroyed over 6000 nuclear weapons.  Its why even more stringent restrictions came with the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which limited the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1700 to 2200 operationally deployed warheads each.  

While Carroll focuses on America’s nuclear inventory, he conveniently ignores nuclear-related events around the world, most notably the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and their associated missile systems.  Also ignored is the fact that Russia, China, France, and Great Britain are all pursuing—especially the first three—nuclear modernization to include weapons and delivery systems.  Non-nuclear nations that are desirous of nuclear weapons seem to be so because they are ill-equipped to compete conventionally. 

As such, the idea of a naked and unilateral U.S. denuclearization simply does not pass the smell test.   Granted you may not need nuclear weapons that often, but when you need them, you really need them.  I’ll submit that if the U.S. today had no nuclear weapons and Russia, North Korea, and China (and others) did, that the American people would demand we embark on an aggressive program to develop just such a capability.

Still, there are plenty of things having a nuclear-weapons capability can’t do, and that’s part of the reason for a balanced force.  For example, nuclear weapons can’t keep other nations from pursuing their own.  Likewise, they’ve been unable to keep others from developing their own nuclear weapons delivery systems—missiles are the delivery vehicle of choice– as Iran and North Korea have been doing. 

However, existing nuclear nations are now modernizing their capabilities and are doing so because they see the inherent deterrent value and asymmetry of such these weapons.  Are there other ways to defeat nuclear weapons besides treaties and disarmament?  Yes, but they largely include the politically-disfavored idea of missile defense.  By the way, the Chinese just conducted a successful test of a missile defense “technology,” something they’ve complained about the U.S. doing for quite some time.  Similarly, Russian Prime Minister Putin has also spoken of his desire to linking strategic arms-control weapons reductions with limits on U.S. missile defense.

Ah, but back to Carroll’s original article: keeping your head—and voice–in the game, whether it’s at the tactical, operational, or strategic level is essential and rebutting errors is often a part of that responsibility.  The responsibility may include educating the public and the media as to actual truth, a sometimes painful thing.  It’s likely you’ve heard the expression “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”  Using that expression as a point of departure, see if you can agree with my proposal as to why military thinkers must remain engaged in the world of ideas and public debate: non-participation is way too expensive.

Mark Stout is an analyst at Air University’s Spaatz Center.  The opinions presented are his own and do not necessarily reflect the Department of the Air Force.

This article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

I Know Why The Caged Bear Screams

About sixty days have passed since the administration decided to cancel the European ground-based missile defense program.  The cancelled program had been planned as ten ground-based missile interceptors to be based in Poland.  The interceptors would work cooperatively with other missile-warning sensors and a prominent missile defense radar system sited in the Czech Republic.  The arrangement had been established by the George W. Bush administration and was designed to mitigate the risk of a rogue missile launch (read Iran) against U.S. and European targets. 

The cancellation was rolled-out as a change in strategy based on revised intelligence assessments.  Under the new strategy, the missile defense effort would instead focus on better meeting near-term threats from Iran, which included a greater emphasis on addressing Iranian short and intermediate range missile systems versus the longer-range missile defense associated with the Bush administration’s approach.  Additionally, many viewed the cancellation as throwing a major “reset” bone towards Russia, who had vigorously complained about the program for a number of years. 

If so, it seemed the change of course reflected in the new missile defense strategy might benefit U.S. relations with Russia in general, as well as influencing their cooperation on Iran’s renegade nuclear program in particular.  In deciding to move away from the previous plan, the Obama administration may have removed the sharp stick of missile defense from the Bear’s eye, but why were the Russians snarling so much in the first place?  The proposed Bush Administration plan could never have stopped a full-scale Russian nuclear attack.   

Three themes come to mind.  The first is that Russia might be fearful of being ‘fenced in,’ NATO commitments notwithstanding.  Having strategic U.S. equipment and presence in both Poland and the Czech Republic would provide a clear and bright “red line” sign to the Russians in a part of the world where they feel they hold historical squatter’s rights.  Also consider that as Russia looks to their east, they may well anticipate future tensions with China.  A Chinese push for resources and “breathing room” may someday lead to conflict, so perhaps a bit of posturing regarding territorial encroachment was in play. 

This theme may require a paradigm shift from our traditional strategic Russian focus towards more regional Russian concerns.  For example, as the Cold War’s two most significant players, U.S. and USSR nuclear systems were major elements of the era’s calculus.  Today however, it’s easy to project the lessons of a generation ago into the present, even if they aren’t true.  The Air Force Research Institute’s Adam Lowther goes full-monty on this topic when he suggests “The United States must come to grips with the fact that it is no longer the center of Russian security concerns.”  In effect, Lowther says, they’re just not that into us. 

Lowther’s proposal warrants we examine the evidence and the findings should affect our view of Russia, including topical events that relate to their cumulative national power.  Included on such a list would be the issue of tactical nuclear weapons (which Russia will be disinclined to give up in the on-going START talks as they have significant regional deterrence effects), the aforementioned missile defense, territorial worries, and anything else Russia might be inclined to pursue to increase its regional power and standing.  Included in this last category would be Russian efforts to become the arbiter of Iran’s future.

A second theme is centered on a national Russian cognitive dissonance of sorts.  This can be seen in the vain-glorious desire to turn back the hands of time, typified by a statement made in 2005 by then-President Vladimir Putin.  At that time, Putin nostalgically described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” a perhaps indicative, if gruesomely inaccurate manifestation of Russian thinking.  The lost love for empire, when combined with today’s trend line towards Russian third-world status (driven by the graying/brain-drain affect of demographics and a massive dependence on selling its natural resources) have to be internally disconcerting to many Russian’s, including its leaders. 

A third theme is driven by elements of the second, that is, demographics and economics.  As nuclear weapons and delivery systems are difficult and expensive to develop, manufacture, and sustain, Russia will move towards fewer strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems (and they will want the same of the U.S.).  This, when combined with an ever-maturing U.S. missile defense capability of close proximity, could diminish the asymmetry of a smaller Russian strategic nuclear capability, greatly impacting the efficacy of Russian long-range missiles.  Over a period of years this could have a large deleterious effect on Russian power. 

Russia has a complex set of security challenges it will struggle to manage, but they can certainly be expected to deal with these issues in ways which are most beneficial to their own needs and desires.  As Russia has come to realize it currently has little to fear from the U.S. security-wise, these three themes all have explanatory power regarding the Bear’s snarling.  While Russia may not yet be fully backed into the metaphorical cage, it seems they understand they are well on their way.

Mark Stout is a defense analyst and researcher at Air University’s National Space Studies Center. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.