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How should the U.S. deal with decaying nuclear arms infrastructure?

November 14, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a shake-up of the management of the American nuclear weapons stockpile after concluding that the country's aging nuclear infrastructure needs more support. Margaret Warner explores the some of the lapses, and Hari Sreenivasan discusses the potential overhaul with former Defense Department official David Trachtenberg and Bruce Blair of Princeton University.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier today, the nation’s top defense official said there are systematic problems in the management of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile, adding that without billions of dollars for improvements, the safety and security of the force could be undermined.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: Our nuclear enterprise is foundational to America’s national security and the resources and attention we commit to the nuclear force must reflect that.

MARGARET WARNER: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the shake-up after two reviews that began in February. They found the country’s aging nuclear infrastructure, including facilities, silos and its nuclear submarine fleet, has decayed markedly and will cost billions of dollars to fix.

CHUCK HAGEL: The internal and external reviews I ordered show that a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses.

MARGARET WARNER: Among other things, the findings revealed equipment problems, including the fact that crews maintaining the nation’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles shared a single specialized wrench that’s been shipped from base to base, and blast doors atop 60-year-old silos that no longer seal.

These lapses were attributed to a culture of micromanagement and bureaucracy that left top-level officials unaware of problems and personnel shortages and poor career advancement opportunities in the infrastructure force.

A series of embarrassing incidents led to the reviews. In 2007, six nuclear warheads, still attached to missiles, were flown across the country, in a violation of safety rules. In 2013, the Air Force decertified 17 launch officers in North Dakota for poor performance. And this year, a cheating scandal involving nuclear launch officers erupted at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The head of the nuclear wing there resigned last March, and nine other officers were removed.

In the meantime, the Navy had its own exam cheating scandal involving reactor training instructors.

Today, Hagel said the Pentagon took its eye off the ball in recent years, and has to act quickly.

CHUCK HAGEL: If we don’t pay attention to this and if we don’t fix this, eventually, it will get to a point where there will be some questions about our security.

MARGARET WARNER: Estimates are the fixes would cost nearly $10 billion over the next five years. To give the Air Force nuclear ranks more clout, Hagel authorized putting a four-star general in charge, instead of a three-star.

The secretary later flew to Minot Air Force base in North Dakota to meet with nuclear personnel manning a Minuteman-III missile unit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We take up the proposed overhaul now with Bruce Blair. He is a research scholar at Princeton University. He was once an intercontinental ballistic missile officer in the Air Force. He’s also co-founder of Global Zero, the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. And David Trachtenberg, he focused on nuclear weapons at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration and served on the House Armed Services Committee’s staff. He now has is own consulting company. So, Bruce, let me start with you. You have heard from the secretary today. You read through the report. Do you agree that there are systemic problems with what we consider a nuclear force?

BRUCE BLAIR, Princeton University: Oh, absolutely.

We have had systemic problems for decades, going all the way back to my service. And I think the report did a fine job of identifying the short-term problems in aging hardware and personnel and in offering fixes to those problems at a reasonable cost, which I think would — was projected to run around $8 billion over the next five years.

So, we obviously have to maintain properly and man properly our existing nuclear arsenal, or else risk a catastrophic failure in security or safety.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David, do you agree that there are systemic problems here?

DAVID TRACHTENBERG, Former Defense Department Official: Well, I think the report was a good step toward identifying problems that need to be addressed and I welcome the administration’s commit to addressing them.

The difficulty that I have with the particular findings of the report is that they suggest kind of a culture and an attitude of neglect that has been apparent, not just within this administration, within previous administrations as well. However, I think it’s been much more pronounced during this administration for a variety of reasons.

And I think the difficulty that the Obama administration has is basically trying to square the circle between arguing the need to maintain the robustness and efficacy of our nuclear deterrent while at the same time advocating for the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bruce, that seems to be kind of a big philosophical difference here.

BRUCE BLAIR: Well, these problems have been longstanding.

I stay in touch with many former missileers, going all the way back to the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s, through all the administrations, and the problems have really been pretty much the same throughout this entire period.

My basic problem with the report is its attempt to link morale and leadership of our nuclear arsenal to the need for long-term massive modernization of our nuclear arsenal, which I think is a — is wrong, wrongheaded and misguided, for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that massive nuclear arsenals don’t deal with the real threats that keep presidents up at night worrying, like nuclear terrorism and cyber-attack on our financial institutions, et cetera.

This modernization is simply unaffordable. I mean, we’re really talking about a lot of dough here, on the order of $1 trillion over the next 30 years. And I don’t think that when the budget battles really get under way, that the land-based rocket force will survive the process.

I think that they will probably be jettisoned, and they should be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

So, David, will the recommendations in this report about increasing funding, about changing certain things around, and really spending that money over the next 30 years, will that make the difference?

DAVID TRACHTENBERG: Well, it will — I hope it will make part of a difference and it will address at least some of the problems.

Where I disagree with what was just said is that I believe nuclear modernization is essential, and I do believe that it has — nuclear modernization has been deferred literally for decades, to the point where we have reached the stage where things break, problems exist, and need to be remedied.

Unfortunately, our nuclear deterrent needs to be kept resilient. It needs to be kept robust. We do live in a dangerous world. That didn’t change with the end of the Cold War. If anything, arguably, the world today is more dangerous than it was then. Our nuclear weapons provide our ultimate deterrent.

They not only defend the United States and deter aggression against the United States, but they’re also used to extend that deterrent to allies as well. So they have a fundamental role to play in our national security.

Many administrations have sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and policy. Unfortunately, again, I believe the problem this administration has had is sort of trying to square a circle. To argue that we need to maintain the efficacy of our nuclear deterrent on the one hand, while on the other hand arguing that what we want to do is get rid of nuclear weapons I think is somewhat counterproductive, to say the least. And I think…

BRUCE BLAIR: Hari, the…

DAVID TRACHTENBERG: I think, given the state of the world today, and some of the actions that we see on the part of other actors out there, I think moving in that direction would — at this particular point in time, I think that’s completely ill-advised.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Bruce, go ahead, just a few seconds left for you. Go ahead.

BRUCE BLAIR: Yes, I was just going to say that we have been pursuing these parallel tracks of reduced reliance on weapons and at the same time modernizing them for a long, long time.

I think Senator Hagel had it right two years ago when he teamed up with the former head of the strategic forces, General Jim Cartwright, in calling for deep cuts in the nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, including the elimination of the entire land-based rocket force, the ICBM force. Now, that would make a difference.

That would really take care of a big piece of the problem that we’re seeing out in the field.

DAVID TRACHTENBERG: I actually think Secretary Hagel had it right today in expressing strong support for the maintenance and preservation of the strategic nuclear triad on which our nuclear deterrent is based, contrary to the recommendations of the Global Zero movement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Bruce Blair, David Trachtenberg, thanks so much for your time.

DAVID TRACHTENBERG: Thank you.

BRUCE BLAIR: Thank you.

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