The Nuclear Trials of Ashton Carter

The new secretary of defense-in-waiting faces some complicated decisions when it comes to the modernization of America’s nuclear triad.


On Wednesday, Feb. 4, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Ashton Carter’s nomination as secretary of defense. The confirmation hearing was smooth — if not for the president’s foreign policy, then for Carter himself. And deservedly so. Carter is superbly qualified to be the next Pentagon chief. And the president should be thankful he agreed to serve.

One of Carter’s first orders of business will be to address the systemic problems in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The nuclear force is in the news again, with the news that a missileer was sentenced to 25 years in prison on “two counts of sexual assault of a child younger than 16; distribution of marijuana and psilocybin; use of psilocybin; willful dereliction of duty; conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman; pandering; unlawful entry; and four specifications of communicating threats.” He apparently ran a gang. West Side Story it ain’t.

Carter inherits a mess. In November, the Pentagon received two reviews of the Department of Defense’s nuclear enterprise. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pledged more money and high-level attention to the nuclear mission after a series of embarrassing stories that undermine public confidence in the stewardship of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Implementing those changes will land in Carter’s lap.

It will not be an easy task. The pair of reviews were, depending on how one counts them, the ninth and tenth separate review ordered to stop the series of humiliations visited upon the nation’s nuclear stewards in the past seven years. [See complicated “explainer”* below.]

A partial list of embarrassing stories includes: the so-called “munitions transfer incident” in which six nuclear weapons were mistakenly flown across the country; an accidental shipment of Minuteman III nosecones to Taiwan; the removal of the commander of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force for an epic bender involving a Beatles cover band at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow; the reprimand of the number two official at U.S. Strategic Command who is the subject of a criminal probe involving gambling with fake casino chips; the court-marshal of a launch officer involved with a drug ring — as well as a plethora of other embarrassments ranging from widespread cheating on examinations, poor marks in unit assessments, and violations of security procedures including launch officers sleeping with the door to the command capsule propped.

John Oliver summed it up best:

“Let’s recap: Within the last 12 months we were in a situation where in the event of us launching a nuclear strike, the president’s command would theoretically have gone through a man gambling with fake poker chips, who would’ve then tried to call a drunk guy wrestling with a Russian George Harrison, who would’ve then needed to send someone with a bag full of burritos to wake up an officer and tell him to go grab an LP-sized floppy disk and begin the solemn process of ending the world as we know it.”

A cynic might note that there is very little reason to think yet another report will make a difference where the previous ones did not. In fact, it isn’t even clear that the problem is a lack of focus or money. Some of us have argued that the problem facing the nuclear force is the lack of a credible mission. And our inability to convince the people involved in handling nuclear weapons to take the job seriously simply reflects an underlying reality that is obvious to most observers: nuclear weapons just don’t matter much in our national security policy.

Another report won’t be of much use to Ash Carter. In Washington, the purpose of empaneling a commission is to solve the immediate political problem. A secretary of defense can deflect initial criticism for several months by empaneling a commission, by which time the press has moved on. Once the recommendations come back, the secretary gets a brief period of positive press coverage for committing to follow the recommendations. This approach has worked over and over again to deflect any serious consideration of whether the problem is an unavoidable decline in the role of nuclear weapons.

Carter’s predecessors have left him a mismatch between official enthusiasm for the nuclear mission and widespread disinterest by the armed services. The United States is now in the process of attempting to replace all three legs of the strategic triad, as well the combat aircraft that would deliver any tactical nuclear weapons. Carter will thus make a number of programmatic decisions that will shape that modernization for decades. Asked during his confirmation hearing where we will find the money, Carter simply responded that we must.

Ash Carter is, himself, an interesting character to grapple with this question. After all, most people forget that Ash Carter ran the Clinton administration’s ill-fated 1994 Nuclear Posture Review.

American nuclear posture has remained essentially unchanged since the Cold War. There was, during the early years of the Clinton administration, a brief moment when something different seemed possible. The Clinton administration undertook a comprehensive review of defense policy after the end of the Cold War called the Bottom-Up Review. As a kind of complement, the administration also conducted the first Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). (We have since suffered through two congressionally directed NPRs, but this was a Clinton administration initiated rethink.)

Within the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, there was a real effort to think differently. While most inside the Pentagon wanted the 1994 review to simply update business as usual for a slightly different class of threats, a few Clinton administration officials felt that the United States and Russia needed to adjust their nuclear postures to place less emphasis on deterring a surprise attack and more on reducing the prospect for accidents, miscalculation, and unauthorized launches. These officials correctly foresaw the dangers that would later be so frighteningly demonstrated by the notorious false alarm in 1995 involving a scientific rocket launch from Norway — the fact that both countries continued to posture their nuclear forces as though an attack might occur, out of the blue, at any moment. These officials wanted to at least consider eliminating land-based ICBMs and converting all bombers to conventional missions, relying largely on survivable ballistic missile submarines that could safely ride out a nuclear attack at sea. The fight, as is so often the case in bureaucratic wars, was over whether such a dramatic departure would even be presented as an option.

The person responsible for that effort? A little known assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs named Ashton Carter. Oh, you didn’t know that? At the time, Steve Coll and David Ottaway described Carter in the Washington Post as “a minor cult figure in Washington’s small but intense community of nuclear weapons specialists.” Twenty years on, it’s hard to understand Carter’s role in this process. Carter has said that the 1994 NPR was little more than a force planning exercise to guide implementation of the START II treaty. And he definitely denies ever thinking about axing the triad. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked Carter during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday about reports that he pushed for a Monad — or single leg of the nuclear stool — Carter responded that the triad was “foundational” to our security.

Other people, however, told Janne Nolan a different story about the largely forgotten 1994 NPR, one which she tells in her slim, disquieting book, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security After the Cold War.

Nolan conducted a number of interviews with participants in the 1994 NPR to understand why the review resulted in little more than a slide deck. The Clinton administration did not even revise the document customarily signed by the president outlining his or thinking about when to drop the bomb, opting to leave in place Ronald Reagan’s 1981 guidance calling for the ability to prevail in a protracted nuclear war against the Soviet Union — a country that no longer existed. Numerous participants told Nolan of Carter’s near-heroic efforts to reorient U.S. nuclear weapons policy — efforts that were ultimately undone by a combination of bureaucratic inertia, presidential disinterest, and Carter’s own inexperience. Many of the participants told Nolan they admired Carter, but that he had been outmatched by the bureaucracy. A few delighted in his defeat, particularly at what Nolan describes as a humiliating confrontation with uniformed military officers.

It is hard to square the recollections of so many people in the process with the Carter of today. He is one of the most effective bureaucrats in Washington ever to prowl the Pentagon’s E-Ring. And he is steadfast in his support for a well-funded nuclear triad. As an undersecretary of defense and, from 2011 to 2013, as deputy secretary of defense, he shielded the nuclear enterprise from budget cuts, and publicly argued that investment in the nation’s deterrent was a bargain. In this regard, Carter’s views on modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are no different from those of the bureaucrats and generals who allegedly bested him in 1994.

There is a supreme irony in this, because the budgetary situation in the United States is driving Washington toward the elimination of the ICBM force and the conventionalization of U.S. bombers, leaving deterrence to rest on U.S. ballistic missile submarines at sea. This is precisely the posture that Carter was accused, in leaks and congressional letters, of seeking in 1994.

Carter has pushed for spending more money on the nuclear mission, arguing that the overall expenditures are relatively low. Carter’s estimate is roughly consistent with independent assessments, such as a recently released study by the Congressional Budget Office. Estimates can differ depending on what one counts: Do you include the full cost of a bomber that conducts both nuclear and conventional missions? How about command-and-control capabilities that badly need modernizing?

The problem, however, is that these estimates only count the next 10 years of investment in modernizing the triad. The problem is that just outside of 10 years, the United States will be simultaneously purchasing the following systems:

  • A new ballistic missile submarine (called SSBN-X) with procurement stretching over FY21-35. Cost: $77-102 billion.
  • A new ICBM, with procurement stretching over FY 2027-2034. Cost: $80-120 billion.
  • A new long-range strike bomber (LRS-B) that will be in service “by the mid-2020s” with procurement stretching into the 2030s. Cost: $55 billion, plus a few tens of billion in R&D.
  • A new long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) that no one thinks will survive austerity. Cost: $20-30 billion, including that of a new warhead.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the Air Force will also be spending between $8-10 billion per year through 2037 on procuring F-35 aircraft.

People who don’t want to admit that the current nuclear modernization plan is impossible like to imply that my estimates are somehow off. That’s what I don’t make my own estimates. I am simply curating the estimates by the Department of Defense, the services, or independent government entities like Government Accountability Office or Congressional Budget Office. (Go ahead, click on the links.) When you put the plans next to one another, it is immediately clear there isn’t enough money.

Defense Department officials are already calling this period in the late 2020s a “modernization mountain” — a period when the United States will be attempting to simultaneously replace all three legs of the triad, in addition to purchasing new fighters. I have already written that I think our effort to climb the modernization mountain ends like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. In particular, I think the Air Force will sabotage ICBM replacement and keep finding excuses to save money on the LRS-B by delaying nuclear certification for the aircraft. The Air Force could very well end up with no ICBMs, a fleet of conventional LRS-B bombers, and a dwindling number of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers that gradually age out.

But don’t take my word for it: Just look at what the Navy and Air Force are requesting — a separate line item for nuclear modernization, outside their budgets. They know very well that there isn’t enough money for both their priorities and the modernization of nuclear delivery systems.

In other words, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is going to find himself fending off budget-driven decisions that will push the nuclear force in precisely the strategic direction that some people say Assistant Secretary Ash Carter wanted more than 20 years ago. That’s quite an interesting turn of events, isn’t it?

Reviewing the Reviews: A Brief History

It’s hard to keep the many official reviews of the U.S. nuclear enterprise straight. Here’s a quick guide all of them.

After the so-called “munitions transfer incident,” the Air Force combatant commander directed Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg to investigate how, precisely, the U.S. Air Force managed to mistakenly transport six live nuclear weapons across the country. Raaberg reported the facts in October 2007, stating the need for a Department of Defense “top level review” of the nuclear “standards, guidance” and an Air Force “Blue Ribbon” review.

The secretary of the Air Force did empanel a Blue Ribbon review, led by Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, which completed its work in February 2008.

A Defense Science Board Task force, led by former Air Force General Larry Welch, also reported out the same month.

Then the Defense Department realized it had accidentally shipped Minuteman III nose cones to Taiwan (thankfully without the nuclear weapons attached). The shipment had occurred in August 2006, but only came to light in early 2008.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates launched another investigation, this one by Kirkland Donald. The Donald Report arrived in June 2008.

Gates then stood up a SECDEF Task Force, led by former Secretary of Defense Jim Schlesinger, in June 2008. The task force released a Phase I report in September 2008, followed by a Phase II report in December 2008.

And, for good measure, the Defense Science Board created at permanent task force under retired Air Force general Larry Welch, which released reports in 2011 and 2013.

Then came the cheating scandals, the drug ring, the bender in Moscow, and the guy who put the “vice” in vice admiral. So, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asked for two more reports in February 2014 — an internal assessment by Adm. John C. Harvey and an “external” assessment by none other than Gen. Larry Welch.

The latest reports commissioned by Hagel — Harvey I and Welch IV — now make the ninth and tenth reports — following the Raaberg, Peyer, Welch I, Donald, Schlesinger I, Schlesinger II, Welch II, and Welch III reports.

See, that’s not so complicated, is it? (Return to reading.)

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk