Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior Air Force leaders are expected to announce early next week that all the service's nuclear missile and bomber forces will be centralized in a single numbered air force major command led by a still-to-be named three star general. The tentative new name for the major command is Global Strike Command.
This move is one of the biggest changes the service will undertake as it sketches in its nuclear roadmap. As the Air Force readies to move missileers out of Space Command, where they currently reside, it has not yet decided whether Space Command will retain authority to train and equip missileers or whether the troops will be trained, equipped and commanded in the new major command.
The Air Force's nuclear roadmap is being developed after several serious lapses and subsequent reports calling for change. A report by Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, into the nuclear enterprise detailed a loss of oversight from senior Air Force leaders and lowered performance related to the nuclear mission. Donald’s review came after sensitive nuclear parts were sent mistakenly to Taiwan. In a separate incident, a B-52 bomber had flown across the country carrying at least five armed nuclear cruise missiles.
Some Air Force officials want the new command to be a lean and mean machine that handles only operational issues, leaving the gritty work of getting airmen ready to do their job to Space Command. One Air Force source compared this structure to Special Operations Command, which takes people trained and equipped by the services and commands them.
A House Armed Services Committee aide was skeptical of splitting those responsibilities. "If you are going to create a MajCom why would you keep nuclear training out of it?" The Air Force idea "doesn't make sense," the aide added. After all, the main reasons for creating the new command are to improve Air Force accountability and leadership. "In my mind, all this comes down to leadership and accountability. With the new command, you will have a clear line of leadership and a clear path toward accountability if it trains, equips and operates."
One benefit of creating the new command may be to help the Air Force develop a much stronger voice for its dealings with the Department of Energy, which deals with the design, manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons, the congressional aide said. "The last couple of years you have seen a strong voice out of NSSA, but you haven't see anything strong coming out of the Department [of Defense.]" Hopefully, the new command will help the Air Force craft "a more coherent and focused voice about what are the policies, strategies and other needs of the nuclear force." The service needs such a voice to help resolve pressing issues about how and whether to replace existing warheads, how to trim the enormous complex of sites where nuclear weapons are built and designed, the aide said.
One of the most interesting strategic issues arising from the new command can be found in its proposed name. The Pentagon, egged on by Congress, has sought a capability called Prompt Global Strike (PGS) since 2001. The general idea is to develop weapons systems capable of destroying a high value target anywhere on the globe in no more than 90 minutes. But each service has grappled with its own ideas of just what would constitute PGS and nothing has really been developed yet. The Bush administration initially thought it could modify submarine launched ICBMs but Congress, worried that other nations might mistake a conventional Trident launch for a nuclear weapon, stopped the Trident Conventional Modification dead in its tracks.
The new command might help the Air Force focus more clearly and effectively on this mission and help drive new solutions, the congressional aide and several Air Force sources said.
One final issue that arouses concern among some Air Force and intelligence officials is the decision to insert cyber issues into Space Command. Space specialists have long argued that merging space with the missions and careers of missileers has muddied the command’s focus. Moving cyber issues to Space Command has not aroused much outright opposition from space proponents, but it does leave them uneasy. After all, experts in orbital mechanics, satellites and other space issues don’t have a great deal in common with cyber warriors in terms of mission.
But the congressional aide and three Air Force sources with experience in Space Command said they hoped that space and cyber might share ideas about the best and most secure ways to distribute data from space systems and thus achieve some of those ever-vaunted synergies.
The enormously political issue of where to site the new command’s headquarters has not yet surfaced. In a recent email to Congress. The Air Force made it clear it had not yet determined where to put it.