FRIED LIGHT: Pulling the string on nuclear deterioration

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By Roger Snodgrass

A letter from Sen. Domenici and two other Republican senators last week makes me want to pull the string on a series of nuclear mess-ups that seem to be part of a dangerous trend.

The purpose of their letter was to introduce a package of recommendations for beefing up American defenses. The authors, who included Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were inspired by a number of converging worries about signs of domestic nuclear disarray in the face of revived international threats.

The letter quoted a speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Virginia last week, expressing one of the talking points of the Neo-Cold War, that Russia has let its conventional military deteriorate so drastically, that it must rely on its new super intercontinental ballistic missile, the SS-27. Russian newspapers say the land-based, single-warhead Topol M, as it is also called, can dance around American anti-ballistic missile defenses.

That’s the threat.

But the disarray may be more of a worry.

The reason Gates was talking to Air Force officers in Virginia last week was because he had just fired (or rather, requested the resignation of) the top civilian and top military chiefs of the Air Force, Secretary Michael Wynn and Chief of Staff Gen. “Buzz” Moseley.

A year ago, I wrote in this column about the first germs of an impending nuclear scandal, the unauthorized, absent-minded transfer of six armed cruise missile under the responsibility of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force in Louisiana, where they went missing for a day and a half.

“Too many questions were unanswered and too many questions were unasked to assume that we have anything but the foggiest notion of what happened and why,” I wrote at the time.

As it turned out, the suspicions were warranted, costing Wynn and Moseley their jobs.

After disciplinary action at Minot and an intense focus on corrective measures, and with the two top jobs in the Air Force at stake, the Fifth Bomb Wing flunked a formal nuclear surety inspection in December 2007 and again in May 2008, even as more damaging information came in.

It was then discovered that four nosecone fuses for American Minutemen Missiles were mistakenly sent to Taiwan in fall 2006 in place of an order of helicopter batteries. The error, a potentially serious breach of proliferating nuclear technology, was not found for a year-and-a-half, in March 2008.

Earlier this month, an internal Air Force report, triggered by the Minot mishap, found that “most” American nuclear sites in Europe don’t meet Defense Department standards. The report was posted by Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists on June 19, and said the deficiencies at host nation bases apparently have triggered a U.S. decision to withdraw a munitions support group from one of the bases.

Last week in Germany, Social Democrats and opposition party leaders began calling for the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from their country, after the Air Force report was made public.

On Friday, the Associate Press reported that the United States has removed its nuclear weapons from Britain, as part of a strategic shift over the last few years that has not been openly explained or officially confirmed.

The letter by the three senators congratulates the president for “bold action to reverse the inadequate attention that had been paid to nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems by the Department of Defense.”

They apparently see this string of events as calling for reversing “the dangerous decline in our strategic nuclear deterrent.”

But we haven’t gotten to the bottom of what the decline is about.

The still-unfolding events might also be interpreted as calling for a complete review, and as far as possible, a public discussion of what is going on in the world of nuclear weapons before any more fuel is added to the fire while the deterioration is occurring and the damage is being done.

E-mail Roger at roger@lamonitor.com.