COVERING NUCLEAR WEAPONS: SECRETIVE BUT NOT INSCRUTABLE
Penetrating the world of nuclear weapons is not as hard for a determined journalist as you might think – or as the government might like you to think.
It is secretive but not inscrutable.
If you are committed and well-prepared you can find news in this field and illuminate an aspect of U.S. national security that can seem like an abstraction, even an anachronism, but is still relevant to the lives of all Americans. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking but is not going away anytime soon _ nor are the risks and costs associated with keeping it safe and ready.
The key is knowing where to look, how to decipher the military lingo and why it matters what is taking place within the insular world of nuclear forces. You don’t need to be a military expert or a rocket scientist, although a basic understanding of the features and purposes of nuclear weapons is a good first step.
At the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1940s all information about nuclear weapons was, by law, “born secret.” But today there are many accessible resources to enable smart reporting about arguably the most sensitive mission in the military.
And it’s not just the military that plays a role worth watching. There are many important players beyond the Air Force and the Navy, which are the only two branches of the military that still operate nuclear weapons.
There is, for example, the Energy Department and its semi-autonomous arm, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. I think of the NNSA as manager of the nuclear “store” – keeping safe the weapons that are not deployed, ensuring the proper functioning of those that are deployed, and dismantling those that have been retired.
On its website, here are some of the key areas of responsibility for NNSA: Maintaining the Nuclear Stockpile, Nuclear Nonproliferation, Counterterrorism, Emergency Response, Powering the Navy and Oversight.
You can follow it on Twitter (@NNSANews), as well as NNSA’s new administrator, Gen. Frank Klotz (@FrankKlotzNNSA).
WHERE TO LOOK INSIDE THE MILITARY
The tip of the nuclear spear, so to speak, is in the hands of the Air Force, with its bombers and land-based missiles, and the Navy, with its nuclear missile submarines.
Both services like to talk about the contributions their weapons are intended to make to national security and global stability; they have their well-practiced sales pitches. To get beyond that you have to push, dig and prod in the right places.
The Air Force has long relied on the news media’s ignorance of — or indifference toward — nuclear weapons issues. That may explain why, a year ago, an ICBM unit that flubbed an inspection of its ability to perform its basic duty (operating its nuclear-armed missiles) issued a press release declaring it a “success.”
The public affairs machinery of the U.S. military can be helpful in some ways, but to report on more than the blindingly obvious about nuclear weapons you need to get inside the loop. That means finding people – inside the military and out – who can steer you to ground truth and help you navigate the nuclear networks.
View Key Air Force Bases in Nuclear Defense System in a full screen map
The Air Force has 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, divided evenly among three groups — the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo.; the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Mont.
You cannot wander onto one of these bases and start exploring. They are tightly guarded and much of their activities are classified; but you can arrange (with long lead times) a visit, to include interviews, photos and video.
Each of the three ICBM wings has a public affairs office you can contact for information, but in my experience those in the offices are allowed to offer little more than the time of day. You may do better by contacting their higher headquarters, the Air Force Global Strike Command, at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La.
Initial training for the men and women who operate the Minuteman 3 missiles is done at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., which also hosts the occasional test launching of an unarmed ICBM. (Here is a link to the unit that does the test launches.
Global Strike Command also is responsible for the Air Force’s nuclear-capable bombers — the almost ancient B-52s based at Minot and at Barksdale, and the stealthy B-2s at Whiteman Air Force Base, adjacent to Knob Noster, Mo. The bomber wings report to 8th Air Force.
Here’s a good article about related issues, with links to some good stories about Global Strike Command, including problems in the transport of nuclear missiles.
The Navy has a fleet of 14 nuclear-armed submarines based at Bangor, Wash., and at King’s Bay, Ga. Known as Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, or “boomers,” they travel the world’s oceans, each carrying 24 Trident nuclear missiles armed with multiple warheads capable of launching from beneath the surface.
For a number of reasons, including the fact that the nuclear-armed subs operate far from U.S. shores, the Navy manages to keep a tighter lid on information about its operations. On the other hand, nuclear power plays a larger role in the Navy, in the sense that many of its ships and subs use on-board nuclear reactors for their propulsion – aside from whether they carry nuclear arms. (http://www.netc.navy.mil/nnptc” title=”Naval training command” target=”_blank”>Naval Nuclear Power Training Command).
Each of these — the ballistic missile submarines, the bombers and the ICBMs — is known as a “leg” of the nuclear “triad.” They would be commanded in time of nuclear war by the head of U.S. Strategic Command, currently a four-star admiral. (Strategic Command fact sheet; Overview of the strategic “triad” by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service).
The nuclear weapons chain of command runs from the President of the United States to the secretary of defense to the commander of Strategic Command. Here is a link to a little-known, comprehensive overview of the nuclear weapons system, including the nuclear command, control and communications, or NC3.
The only overseas element of the nuclear weapons story is about 200 bombs that are stored in Europe for potential use by U.S. and allied aircraft. There has been a lot of talk about eliminating those weapons, given their limited military utility, but the sudden surge in tension with Russia this year over Ukraine makes it highly unlikely that NATO member countries such as the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which feel most threatened by Russia as former territories of the Soviet Union, will agree to let that happen. (Overview of non-strategic nuclear weapons, including those in Europe).
WHERE TO LOOK OUTSIDE THE MILITARY
Elements of what the government calls its “nuclear enterprise” are sprinkled across the landscape. They include nuclear laboratories in California, Tennessee and New Mexico; retired Cold War-era nuclear production plants in Washington state and Colorado; ICBM support sites in Utah and New Mexico; naval nuclear facilities in Georgia and South Carolina; and nuclear missile launch sites in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and North Dakota.
It’s all managed from the Pentagon and other government agencies in Washington, D.C. and beyond.
The basic division of labor, and of responsibility, is between the departments of Defense and Energy. This approach has its origins in the earliest days of the nuclear program when it was determined that civilian control must be a guiding principle, even though it would be the military that would actually use the weapons.
Civilian control was made law with President Harry Truman’s signing of the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, (PDF) one year after he ordered the only nuclear attack the world has ever seen — the bombings of Japan that ended World War II. (History of the Atomic Energy Commission PDF).Today the civilian side of the equation is led by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Energy Department. Its chief is Frank Klotz, a retired three-star Air Force general who once commanded the ICBM force.
This agency also is charged with ensuring that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists. Its Office of Nuclear Threat Science oversees the Nuclear Counterterrorism Program.
The NNSA also has several organizations designed to respond to actual nuclear emergencies, including the Nuclear Emergency Support Team that is trained to help respond to terrorist acts involving the use of nuclear materials.
Among the Energy Department’s pieces of the nuclear pie is the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., which dates to the Manhattan Project that gave birth to U.S. nuclear weapons.
Among the Y-12 plant’s missions are the manufacture, processing and storage of uranium components for nuclear weapons. Y-12 also supplies the Navy with highly enriched uranium from dismantled weapons to make fuel for use in the nuclear reactors that power all U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers.
Y-12, sometimes called the “Fort Knox of uranium,” was prominently in the news in July 2012 when three anti-nuclear protesters, including an elderly nun, managed to penetrate to the compound’s most-secure section before being detected.
An important but often overlooked aspect of the nuclear weapons story is – and will remain for years to come – the dismantlement process overseen by the Energy Department. This graphic shows the basic flow diagram of where in the U.S. this work is done.
The government’s own watchdog for public health and safety issues related to civilian nuclear facilities, since 1989, is the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
THE NUCLEAR ‘INFLUENCERS’
The politics of nuclear weapons is an important part of the picture. It includes those in Congress who feel a duty to defend their state’s piece of the nuclear pie, as well as the committees responsible for oversight of the nuclear forces — the Senate Armed Services Committe and subcommittees and the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
The State Department leads the arms control process, mostly recently by negotiating the New START treaty that went into effect in February 2011 and will require both the U.S. and Russia to reduce its nuclear arsenals by February 2018. State’s Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security manages global security policy.
Nuclear issues have long been at the center of heated debate in this country, and although they play a less-noticed role today than during the Cold War, there remains a large and active army of advocates – pro and con – in Washington and beyond.
In the Senate there is an ICBM Coalition formed by senators from the states that host ICBM bases. They actively push the case for preserving the ICBM force and won the argument to keep 450 ICBM launch silos as part of U.S. reductions under the New START treaty, even though 50 of the missiles will be pulled off active duty.
Among the better-known private groups that argue for reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons are the Arms Control Association and the Federation of American Scientists. They are opposed in many respects by groups such as the Air Force Association and the Air Force’s Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies.
There are many other sources of information about nuclear weapons, including think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, as well as the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Social media also is a potential reporting resource, including groups that populate Facebook and LinkedIn. A Facebook page called Missileer Memes is a good starting point.
Published May 9, 2014
STRAIGHT FROM THE EXPERT
About the reporter
Robert Burns is based at the Pentagon and has been a reporter for the Associated Press since 1977.
He has covered the U.S. military for most of the period since 1990, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the period of U.S. involvement. He has covered eight secretaries of defense starting with Dick Cheney.
Burns attended the University of Washington.
Follow him on Twitter at @robertburnsAP. Email: BBurns@ap.org.
ALSO BY BURNS
How AP’s national security writer discovered problems in the nation’s nuclear defense system and wound up with a ‘months-long cascade of revelations’ that renewed public and legislative interest — and action. Full Story
- “Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser, published 2013. Provides a comprehensive history of U.S. nuclear weapons accidents, near-accidents and extensive detail about how the weapons work.
- “The Girls of Atomic City,” by Denise Kiernan, published 2013. An unusual look at the army of young women who played a central, largely unwitting, role in the nuts-and-bolts manufacturing of the first atomic bombs.
- “A Nuclear Family Vacation,” by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, published 2008. A portrait of the worldwide nuclear landscape, including the full range of U.S. government nuclear sites.
- “Racing for the Bomb,” by Robert S. Norris, published 2002. A biography of Leslie Groves, the Army general who ran the Manhattan Project that developed the first U.S. atomic bombs.
- “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes, published in 1986. Possibly still the best and most comprehensive telling of the history of the bomb in all of its scientific, military and political aspects.
Other how-to guides