The classic World War II-era poster reminded talkative dock workers that "loose lips sink ships." Well, loose nukes present an even more imposing problem, one with continent-cracking possibilities.
Last week, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates requested and received the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, Gates' office cited as a reason a Pentagon investigation of lax standards in Air Force oversight of nuclear weapons. One incident involved a USAF bomber with cruise missiles over-flying a wide swath of the United States -- and the crew didn't know the weapons had real nuclear warheads.
That sounds bad, and bad it is.
Resignation at Wynne and Moseley's level of national service, especially under these conditions, is a euphemism for "fired."
A SecDef can relieve his subordinates for almost any reason, and mistakes involving nuclear weapons, especially if the SecDef believes they involve command issues, are certainly justified.
Gates' decision to appoint Gen. Norton A. Schwartz as chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, however, indicates Gates used a nuke to win a battle in the Pentagon's turf war among the war-fighting services -- a complex, often opaque and long-lived problem that makes war-winning more difficult and costly.
Schwartz is an airlifter with lots of special operations experience. As commander of Transportation Command, Schwartz comes from the Air Force's C-side of the house (C as in cargo and transport, e.g., C-17 and C-130 planes). For years, the Air Force has been led by generals from the F side (fighter, like F-15) or B side (bomber, like B-52).
A scan of Schwartz's bio indicates he has a lot of experience with the AC-130 gunship, which along with the A-10 Thunderbolt II (close air support aircraft) and the B-52 are arguably the favorite manned aircraft of American infantrymen. (A B-52 with smart bombs is very precise artillery. The AC-130 is flying artillery.)
But the loose nukes first. Though the Cold War's threat of nuclear immolation has receded (thank goodness) and the nuclear mission has declined in importance, nuclear weapons still serve as a deterrent. Russia and China have nukes; Iran is getting them. We hope North Korea's murderous dictatorship knows its use of a nuke on South Korea or Japan (the likely targets) would lead to its destruction -- and a U.S. strike on the deep caves protecting Pyongyang's missile and nuclear facilities might well include nuclear weapons.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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