Hagel Proposes $1.5 Billion to Improve Nuclear Weapons Forces | Wall Street Journal

Plan Would Add Billions to the Cost of Upgrading Those Forces


WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a spending plan Friday that he said would improve the safety of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but would add billions to the cost of upgrading those forces.

Mr. Hagel is proposing to spend approximately $1.5 billion more a year on the nuclear mission, which now costs about $15 billion a year to maintain.

“If we don’t pay attention to this, if we don’t fix this eventually there will be questions about our security,” he said.

U.S. nuclear missions overseen by both the Air Force and Navy have been beset by problems in recent years that have included cheating scandals on qualification tests and misconduct resulting in the ouster of top officers overseeing key nuclear programs.

There also have been mounting questions about the nation’s nuclear missile fields, with officials noting that infrastructure is dated and in some cases has been allowed to decline.

Mr. Hagel isn’t the first Secretary of Defense in recent years to address nuclear oversight. A series of gaffes, including the inadvertent flight of a plane carrying a nuclear bomb across the U.S. in 2007, prompted then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire the top civilian and military Air Force officials and to institute a new focus on securing the arsenal.

Mr. Hagel’s spending proposal accompanied two new reviews that criticized the oversight of the nuclear weapons forces. Nuclear and arms control experts noted that the reviews released Friday were the sixth and seventh such examinations of the nuclear mission since 2007.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, questioned whether the reviews would have any impact on the security of the arsenal.

“This is the classic Washington maneuver: Something embarrassing occurs, so we convene a panel of important older men,” Mr. Lewis said. “I don’t see any evidence there is a fundamental reckoning with the real problem.”

Mr. Hagel said the nuclear mission remains the military’s most important job. Still, at a time when U.S. pilots are flying combat missions, defense officials have struggled to convey the same sense of urgency for weapons that are supposed to remain unused.

Pentagon officials said Thursday they are working to elevate the prestige of the nuclear mission.

“We need our best people in this mission,” Mr. Hagel said.

Despite the need for added resources and manpower, Mr. Hagel said the arsenal remains safe.

Mr. Hagel said the recently concluded reviews found systemic problems that could undermine the safety of the nation’s nuclear weapons, which are subject to strict inspection and oversight regimens.

Ironically, however, Mr. Hagel suggested that a culture of over-inspection and micromanagement had developed and was undermining the care of the arsenal, not improving it.

Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, said some inspections had become an end in themselves, not something designed to improve the performance of airmen assigned to the nuclear mission.

“They weren’t helping the force, they were burdening the force,” Mr. Work said.

Defense officials said other problems identified included a lack of specialized tools. For a time, a single specialized tool kit for intercontinental ballistic missiles had to be shipped from one base to another to work on the weapons. Mr. Work said the lone tool kit became a metaphor for the problems facing the nuclear mission.

Officials said the department now had one tool kit per base and soon would get more.

Defense officials provided few details of how new funds would be spent, noting specifics will be presented in the Pentagon’s budget submission next year.

Any additional spending would come in addition to billions of dollars the Obama administration has committed to spend on modernizing nuclear warheads, long-range bombers and ballistic missile submarines.

Members of Congress of both parties have been supportive of spending on nuclear weapons, but the Pentagon budget is under pressure, squeezed by mandatory spending caps that are forcing spending and manpower reductions.

Republicans praised the proposal to increase spending on the nuclear arsenal.

“The nuclear enterprise has suffered from neglect for too long,” said Rep. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Insufficient resources, indifferent leadership, and poor morale have taken their toll.”

However, arms control advocates called the Defense Department’s approach misguided and argued for steps to reduce the arsenal rather than spending more.

“They are going to throw billions of dollars at this problem, which is like saying they are going to throw billions of dollars at dial-up Internet,” said Angela Canterbury, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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