Better oversight of nuclear arms urged

Barnes is a writer in our Washington bureau.

The U.S. government must take steps to modernize how it keeps track of its nuclear weapons to help prevent mistakes, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz said Tuesday on a visit to part of his service’s nuclear force.

Schwartz visited Barksdale Air Force Base, one of the installations housing the nation’s nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, in a trip designed to emphasize the importance of reforms in how weapons are handled.

Schwartz became the top uniformed Air Force officer in August with a mandate to overhaul nuclear weapons procedures after a series of problems involving oversight of the nuclear arsenal, including the mistaken transfer of several warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana last year.

The new Air Force chief praised airmen for passing surprise inspections conducted at the base in recent months.

But he appeared disappointed when told that the Air Force still used paper ledgers to keep track of nuclear weapons.


He later discussed with senior generals ways that the tracking process could be improved.

“It seems to me there is a more modern way to maintain inventories of weapons and nuclear materials,” Schwartz said in an interview after his visit to the base.

Schwartz said Pentagon and Energy Department officials were exploring the use of bar codes on warheads and other parts to better track them.

Also under consideration are proposals to use global positioning systems to keep track of the locations of nuclear material.

Some officials voiced concern that such devices could compromise security, but Schwartz said there should be a way to more accurately and efficiently track the weapons.

“It is worth our while to explore other opportunities,” he said.

After the recent mistakes, the Air Force started surprise inspections and announced plans to establish a separate command with the job of overseeing nuclear-capable bombers and missiles.

Schwartz also used his visit to emphasize the importance of nuclear weapons. In meetings with senior officers and hundreds of airmen, Schwartz said the nuclear deterrent remained a foundation of U.S. power.

“We don’t beat our chests and we don’t talk about it openly, but the truth is it has an effect,” Schwartz told the senior leaders.

He said the nation’s nuclear arsenal had, in part, allowed the U.S. to ferry Georgian troops from Iraq to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when that nation’s conflict with Russia erupted last summer.

“It was unspoken but it was understood” by the Russians, Schwartz told the airmen. “And to those who have argued deterrence is a fading phenomenon, something from the Cold War that is no longer applicable, they are full of [it].”

In the interview after the visit, Schwartz said the U.S. needed nuclear weapons to deter other nations from developing them and to underpin American military capabilities.

“I think we have not yet arrived at the moment where going to zero will make sense,” he said. “It underwrites a lot of what we do.”