Strategic nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers remain ready despite the U.S. government shutdown and the furloughing of some nuclear force workers, according to the U.S. Strategic Command.
The federal shutdown caused some civilian nuclear force employees to go on emergency furlough, but operational military forces are unaffected by government closures, a Command spokeswoman said.
“I can say with full confidence that the U.S. nuclear force remains safe, secure, and effective and, at this point, we are not standing down any operational assets,” Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, director of Stratcom public affairs said.
The Omaha-based Strategic Command is in charge of all nuclear deterrence and war fighting forces, including 450 Minuteman III land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); 14 strategic nuclear missile submarines, each armed with 24 Trident missiles; and 20 B-2 and 78 B-52 nuclear bombers.
Most of the ICBMs are on high-alert status that allows them to be launched almost immediately on warning of an imminent nuclear attack on the United States, or after an attack.
The missiles are under tight controls and security and require two people to fire them after orders from the national command authority.
After a 2007 incident when active nuclear missiles were carried by mistake on bombers from Minot, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, security and handling procedures were improved, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published in June.
Government studies after the mishap found that nuclear forces “had been allowed to atrophy, with evident declines in morale, cohesion, and capability,” the CRS report said.
As recently as May, press reports revealed “new concerns about the capabilities and morale of ICBM launch officers,” the report said, noting that the Air Force removed 17 launch officers from duty and sent them for new training.
Naval strategic nuclear forces also are systems that can fire nuclear missiles rapidly and normally eight to 10 missile submarines remain on regular patrols in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
U.S. strategic bombers also are ready for fast deployment. Two B-52s conducted simulated nuclear strikes near North Korea during exercises in March in response to heightened threats and rhetoric by the communist regime in Pyongyang.
According to Stratcom commander Gen. C. Robert Kehler, 60 percent of Stratcom’s force is made up of civilians.
Details on the impact of the shutdown on strategic nuclear force personnel were not immediately available.
Kehler said in a June speech on Capitol Hill he was worried about the impact of defense sequestration—sharp cuts in defense mandated by Congress—would have on people working as part of the nuclear forces.
In addition to nuclear forces, Stratcom also is in charge of space operations, a program to develop rapid conventional strike capabilities and the Fort Meade-based U.S. Cyber Command, in charge of both offensive and defensive cyber warfare.
However, Kehler said nuclear forces remain the most important priority.
“The weapons still exist around the world and as long as they do, that will remain my No. 1 job: to make sure to deter their use against the U.S. or its allies and partners,” the four star general said.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, said in April urgently needed nuclear modernization program faced “grave danger.”
“The OHIO-class [submarine] replacement program has been delayed, as has the B61 [nuclear bomb] life extension program, the W78/W88 [warhead] life extension program, the long-range standoff cruise missile, and numerous other programs,” Rogers said.
“A few key nuclear modernization commitments, such as the plutonium laboratory in New Mexico, have been essentially canceled.”
Rogers said he is opposing Obama administration plans to make further cuts in nuclear forces, including a study on cutting an ICBM wing.
“As the stockpile shrinks in size, we have reached the point where further reductions take on immense importance to the nation’s security and international stability,” he said.
President Barack Obama has called for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was an ardent proponent of the so-called Global Zero anti-nuclear initiative before taking up the Pentagon post.
Both leaders have said nuclear weapons will be needed as long as the arms exist elsewhere in the world.
The president announced in Berlin that he wants to cut U.S. nuclear warhead levels to as low as 1,000 after cuts to around 1,550 deployed warheads are reached under the 2010 U.S.-Russia New START arms treaty.
However, Russia’s government has said it is not interested in discussing further strategic arms cuts.
Obama approved new strategic nuclear guidance on the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict in June. The guidance calls for maintaining a “credible” nuclear force to prevent enemies from considering an attack but also says a U.S. nuclear strike would be considered in “extreme circumstances” to defend vital interests.
A recent U.S. strategy report said the United States “will field nuclear forces that can, under any circumstances, confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America's security commitments."