Guarding the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

Following a post-Cold War erosion of senior level attention to nuclear weapons stewardship, the Air Force general charged with protecting the U.S. nuclear arsenal says his service is finally regaining its strategic focus.

December 11, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:

Defense Technology

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

United States

U.S. President Barack Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation and arms control a centerpiece of his foreign policy. But until the United States gives up on its policy of nuclear deterrence, stewardship of atomic assets will be a centerpiece of Pentagon planning. Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, chief of the Air Force command tasked with securing his service’s nuclear arsenal, says maintaining "safe, secure, and effective weapons" remains a White House priority. "As long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a need for an arsenal of safe, secure, and effective weapons to deter attacks against the United States and to guarantee that same defense to our allies," Klotz says. To that end, he says Congress remains committed to funding maintenance and upkeep of the nation’s nuclear stockpiles. Yet Klotz acknowledges that missteps with his service’s past stewardship of nuclear assets has forced the Pentagon to rethink how these destructive weapons are cared for, to restore confidence in both the American public "as well as our international allies."

During a speech in Prague earlier this year, President Obama talked about a "world without nuclear weapons." From a military perspective, I wonder about the practicalities of this vision, specifically as it relates to American deterrence doctrine. Some argue it should be redefined, and if it isn’t, Obama’s vision is unrealistic. Is there a contradiction here?

Our policy concerning strategic nuclear forces is determined by the president and the Congress.  They have decided that we will maintain a balanced triad of strategic nuclear forces consisting of sea-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers. It’s the role of Air Force Global Strike Command to maintain two of those three legs of the triad, the intercontinental ballistic missile and [long-range, nuclear-capable bombers]. So for as long as that is the policy, that we will maintain these forces, that becomes our mission. One of the things the president said in his April speech in Prague was that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a need for an arsenal of safe, secure, and effective weapons to deter attacks against the United States and to guarantee that same defense to our allies.

Is there a discussion within the Pentagon, though, of the composition of this deterrence policy?

Currently going on in the Pentagon is a nuclear posture review, which takes place periodically in government. This happens to coincide with the start of the new administration so these issues are clearly under discussion. However, [it’s] still very much a work in progress, so it would be speculative of me and inappropriate to comment on what the outcome of that might be.

As a professional, I have a concern that any nation that has nuclear weapons, or nuclear-related equipment, or fissile material has the strictest controls and accountability for those.

Does the calculation of American deterrence policy change if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon?

That’s well beyond the [mandate] of Air Force Global Strike Command’s responsibilities. We are an organization that has responsibility for organizing, training, and equipping a force. So our concentration is on the people and the weapons systems that are part of Air Force Global Strike Command. The policy dimension of all that is determined by national leadership in Washington.  It’s our task to make sure that the forces they have called for us to maintain in fact are ready.

The United States is currently negotiating a follow-on to the START-I treaty with Russia. If the results are required cuts to our nuclear stockpile, what would that mean for the composition of the nuclear triad? Are there potential impacts--political and economic--to the Air Force mission?

There have already been fairly significant adjustments to the size and character of U.S. nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War.  Beginning in the late 1980s and the early 1990s there’s been a steady decrease, so the Air Force and the other services have been adjusting to reduction for some time.  When I started in the ICBM business, we had 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles in nine operation bases.  Through a series of reductions and retirements of the weapons systems we are now down to 450 missiles at three bases. The challenge for the Air Force is to maintain experience and expertise in our personnel, who are in this particular career field and at the same time to keep the focus on what we’re charged to do, that is, maintain a safe and secure arsenal.

Are you willing to throw out a number, a reduction a target, that the Air Force could live with?

No, the START negotiations are at a very sensitive stage in the process, and it would inappropriate for me to comment on what’s going on in the negotiations.

Now the mission that you described--maintaining, preparing, securing--takes money. And at a time when there’s discussion inside the White House on how to reduce our nuclear stockpile, securing money to maintain the current stockpile must be a challenge, right?

There’s an understanding that because of the nature of these weapons and the critical importance of ensuring that they are safe and secure, that you need to invest some money both in the training and education of personnel, as well as the sustainment of the weapon systems, to ensure that they are, as I said, safe and secure. There has in fact been a slight increase, well more than a slight increase in the amount of money which the Air Force has allocated to ensuring that its portion of the nuclear arsenal and stockpile are being effectively sustained and maintained over time. I think people understand that as long as there are nuclear weapons in the arsenal, we want to make sure that they are safe and secure, and that will require an investment both in people and in the maintenance of the weapon systems.

Essentially, though, the president is trying to put you out of business.

I don’t think that is the case at all. As he said, again, in the Prague speech, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a need for a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter attacks against the United States and guarantee that same defense to our allies.

Let’s talk a little about your command and how it came to be. Last year, after a series of high-profile gaffs revealed problems with Air Force control of its nuclear assets, the Pentagon identified an erosion of senior -level attention and focus on control of Air Force nuclear weapons. How are you working through your command to address these issues?

When the Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and the new Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz came to office, one of their first tasks, one of their top priorities was to lay out a roadmap for reinvigorating the nuclear enterprise.  It was a multifaceted, comprehensive strategy for refocusing Air Force attention on the nuclear enterprise. There were a number of different steps that were taken. For example, they created a new position of an assistant chief of staff of the Air Force at a two-star major general level, reporting directly to the Air Force chief of staff to deal with nuclear issues at the headquarters level. In the past, that particular function had been performed two or three levels below the chief of staff. We also have created a fourth B-52 squadron, no increase in the number of B-52’s but a fourth B-52 squadron, in order to balance the workload associated with the two missions that that particular bomber has, both the nuclear deterrence mission as well as the conventional strike mission. And then, obviously, the creation of a new major command, the Air Force’s newest major command, Air Force Global Strike Command, to bring together the two legs of the triad that the Air Force has responsibility for into a single command.

The incidents in question--one involving the shipment of nuclear missile nose cones to Taiwan in 2006, and in 2007, the transport of live nuclear weapons across U.S. air space--were embarrassing for the Air Force. But how damaging were these incidents internationally? We’re in a conversation with the world about Pakistan’s ability to keep its weapons safe, and yet these events raise serious questions about our ability to control our own.

I have no way of assessing how to answer your question specifically, however, that’s one of the reasons that we created Air Force Global Strike Command and have taken all of the other steps that I described as part of the Air Force’s roadmap for reinvigorating the nuclear enterprise, aware of the fact that the credibility of our stewardship of the nuclear enterprise is extraordinarily important both domestically and internationally. That’s why the Air Force has made reinvigorating the nuclear enterprise one of its top priorities.

Do these incidents undermine our message to our global partners?

Again, I have no way of assessing what the impact is internationally other than to say that the Air Force is very serious and has made it one of its top priorities to ensure that we can sustain and operate, maintain, and secure this weapons system in a way that has the confidence of both the American public as well as our international allies.

As a professional charged with controlling nuclear weapons assets, are you personally concerned about Pakistan’s ability to control its stockpiles?

As a professional, I have a concern that any nation that has nuclear weapons, or nuclear-related equipment, or fissile material has the strictest controls and accountability for those.

[A]s long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a need for a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter attacks against the United States and guarantee that same defense to our allies.

The Air Force in recent years has moved increasingly to unmanned aircraft: drones, UAVs, remotely piloted aircraft, as a way to adapt. Is that factoring at all into your command, the use of unmanned aircraft? Will we at some point down the road have the capability to deliver one of our nuclear assets with an unmanned vehicle?

Air Force Global Strike Command has no responsibility for the existing remotely piloted aircraft within the Air Force, that all belongs to other commands. The weapons systems that we have responsibility for, as I said, are the intercontinental ballistic missiles and the long-range, nuclear-capable bombers. I think it is a very important development in the Air Force that we have made a considerable investment in remotely piloted aircraft. In fact, if you take a look at the proportion of manned aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft that we at the Air Force have procured, you will see dramatic shifts in the proportion of one to the other over the past several years. I think this is a harbinger of the future that as we can develop the materials, the processing capability that you can place aboard a smaller aircraft--engine technology, sensor technology--that remotely piloted aircraft will be an increasingly important part of how the Air Force does business.

Can you envision a day when one of our nuclear assets is able to be loaded onto and delivered by unmanned aircraft?

I think that’s a very interesting question, we’ll have to see how the technology develops over time.


Explore More on CFR


Russia's information warfare operations, aimed to weaken adversaries' social cohesion and political systems, are complex and adaptive, but Western governments can take steps to guard against them.



Saudi Arabia pressed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign to try to weaken Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. The path to resolving the crisis could run through Yemen.