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Carter: Investment Shows Commitment to Nuke Forces
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at Minot AFB, North Dakota, Sept. 26, 2016. DOD photo.
Minot AFB, N.D.—Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday kicked off a multi-day, multiple base visit to the USAF nuclear enterprise, telling B-52 and Minuteman III crews at Minot AFB, N.D., that while their mission isn't highly visible to the public, those in the Defense Department will place increased emphasis on its health in the face of increasing aggression from nuclear powers abroad. “All together, you are part of something vital and special,” Carter told a gathering of Minot personnel on Monday. “After all, there's a lot that goes into this mission—because while deterrence may seem like a simple, even elegant concept, it rests on a complicated, human-intensive, and technology-intensive process.” A healthy nuclear deterrence is dependent on how it is perceived, and if potential adversaries believe the US nuclear triad is healthy and credible. “How we deter cannot be static; rather it must adapt as threats evolve, while continuing to preserve strategic stability—reinforcing nuclear restraint, rather than inviting competition or attack,” Carter said. The US has underinvested in its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, a trend the administration is seeking to end with the Fiscal 2017 budget. Previously, the Defense Department spent about $15 billion per year as a “modest investment in basic sustainment and operations.” The budget request calls for $19 billion for 2017, which is part of $108 billion over the next five years to “sustain and recapitalize” the nuclear force.
FIP Beginning to be Felt at Nuke Bases
Minot AFB, N.D.—Defense Secretary Ash Carter's miniature tour of the Air Force's nuclear infrastructure kicked off at Minot AFB, N.D., a base that is home to two legs of the nuclear triad and has seen modest improvements under the service's push to revamp its nuclear community. Decades of underinvestment in the nuclear community led to out-of-date facilities and related low morale in the nuclear career fields. Since Air Force Global Strike Command’s Force Improvement Program launched in February 2014, there's been increased spending on quality of life improvements and infrastructure that is needed. During a speech to airmen at Minot, Carter highlighted these investments: a repaired runway, expanded childcare options, 24/7 fitness centers. “It's created new incentive pay and special assignment duty pay for military personnel,” Carter said. “It's helped increase locality pay rates for civilians. And importantly, it reflects how we're taking steps to replace the helicopters that help ensure our ICBMs are secure.” Airmen with the 91st Security Forces Group here have seen a few increases in quality of life since the FIP, including new Operational Camouflage Pattern uniforms, Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights for M-4s, and improved plates and protective vests. Security forces airmen have seen increased specialty pay, since they spend extended amounts of times deployed to missile alert facilities across the service's sprawling missile bases. There is still room for some quality of life improvements, especially on some things that aren't really considered on the policy level. Lt. Col. Jared Nelson, commander of the 742nd Missile Squadron at Minot, said one improvement he'd like to see is new chairs in the missile facilities. The missile facilities, and cushioning of the chairs, dates back more than 50 years.
A Cultural Change, 85 Feet Underground
Minot AFB, N.D.—The biggest change from the Air Force's attempt to revitalize the morale of its the nuclear community hasn't been money spent on new equipment, it has been the change away from intense inspections to more personal accountability, airmen in the service's missile fields say. Lt. Col. Jared Nelson, commander of the 742nd Missile Squadron at Minot AFB, N.D., said since the move away from regular, intense inspections where airmen felt pressured to always post perfect scores, he has seen an improvement in both morale and overall performance of his airmen. “We're better today,” Nelson said. The Air Force's missileers for years felt intense pressure to receive perforce scores on inspections, a culture that reached a breaking point in 2014 when almost 100 missileers at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., were caught cheating in their proficiency exams. After that incident broke, the Air Force began a grassroots effort to review morale issues in the nuclear community, called the Force Improvement Program, that focused on what airmen said needed to be changed. One of the first changes was a move away from constant testing and inspections, to pass/fail tests and a system where airmen can use more personal accountability to track their proficiency. Airmen are less stressed about the exams, and in turn have been able to focus on improving in their jobs. About “85 percent of what was wrong” with morale has been fixed by issues raised in the FIP, Nelson said.
A Changing Nuclear Threat
Minot AFB, N.D.—While there isn't a looming threat of a nuclear exchange between global powers, the threat of nuclear attacks is still high and in different ways that the US must be prepared for, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday. While visiting missileers and B-52 crews at Minot AFB, N.D., Carter said there is a reality that potential nuclear adversaries, such as Russia or North Korea, could take an “unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks” as a means to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis. This threat is growing following recent activity by Russia, such as its 2014 incursion into Ukraine. “We cannot allow that to happen, which is why we're working with our allies in both regions to innovate and operate in new ways that sustain deterrence and continue to preserve strategic stability,” Carter said during a troop event at Minot.
In Europe, Carter said the US and NATO is “refreshing” its nuclear playbook to integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence “to ensure we plan and train like we'd fight.” This includes the basing of B-61 and dual-capable fighter aircraft at bases across the continent. “Moscow's recent saber-rattling and building of new nuclear weapons systems raises serious questions about its leaders' commitment to strategic stability,” Carter said. The US needs to make needed investment now, because while the military was avoiding serious spending on its nuclear infrastructure since the end of the Cold War, other countries have increased spending. “We didn't build new types of nuclear weapons or delivery systems for the last 25 years, but others did, at the same time that our allies in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO did not, so we must continue to sustain our deterrence.” While Carter called out Russia and North Korea for its unprofessional actions, he said some countries have “shown responsible behavior,” including India, Pakistan, and China. Iran, even, has constrained its nuclear aspirations under the recent nuclear accord that “as long as it continues to be implemented, will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”