Nuclear modernization means upgrades for workforce too

The nuclear realm is feeling the impact of the military’s retention problem, according to U.S. Strategic Command leader Adm. Cecil Haney.

Amid the rollout of the fiscal 2017 budget, Haney is pushing for funds to upgrade the United States’ nuclear deterrent capability and retain the specialists it needs to maintain it.

“We need individuals who are willing to develop and stretch their intellect well beyond one-dimensional problems,” Haney said Jan. 22 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Capturing attention outside [the government] community requires innovation … are we doing enough to keep those scholars in the long term?”

Adm. Cecil Haney
Adm. Cecil Haney

The Defense Department has been worried about its nuclear deterrent capabilities in recent years as nuclear sustainment of older weapons has become more expensive and the delivery methods of nuclear weapons continue to age.

Nuclear forces currently cost about $25 billion a year to sustain, coming out to about $725 billion over 30 years.

Modernization efforts, which include a follow-on to the Minuteman missile, a Long Range Standoff missile, the Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarine and the Long Range Strike Bomber, cost an extra $350 billion to $375 billion over 30 years.

Hiring and keeping the staff to modernize and sustain those weapons is a separate challenge in itself.

A RAND Corporation study from 2011 states the Air Force has low retention rates for intercontinental ballistic missile officers during peacetime. The study also states the B-52 — the current air delivery system of nuclear weapons — pilot community also suffers competency gaps due to poor retention.

The Navy is feeling retention pains too and has even given bonuses to its nuclear forces as an incentive to reenlist.

Things like a poor work-life balance, low morale and waning desire for senior leadership positions are affecting retention rates, according to a 2014 study by the Navy.

The Defense Department noticed this trend and is now implementing initiatives under its Force of the Future plan.

The reforms are aimed at making the transition from the private sector to the military easier and more attractive.

The program improves benefits for personnel. DoD officials are currently reconsidering the amount of maternity leave service members receive.

Haney said STRATCOM is trying to attract talent in its own way as well. He mentioned the Deterrence and Assurance Academic Alliance program, which generates ideas for research, venues for academic communication and collaboration and has an annual workshop.

While DoD is trying to retain employees and hire young talented ones, it also needs funds to keep the projects they will be working on up to date, Haney said.

The bulk of the $1 trillion bill for nuclear modernization would come in the 2020s. A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study stated a “bow wave” in spending will hit DoD in the mid and late 2020s. The cost of the nuclear triad costs about 3 percent-to-3.5 percent of the Defense budget until about 2019. The percentage then gradually increases to 5 percent in 2027 and then sinks down to about 3.5 percent in 2039.

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Haney is now the third high-ranking official to stress the need to fund nuclear modernization. DoD Comptroller Mike McCord and Undersecretary for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Frank Kendall have also been nudging lawmakers for funds.

“At the end of the day, the country can afford it, we just have to make a decision,” Kendall said to reporters in December.

Not everyone agrees that DoD needs to pay such a hefty bill for its nuclear modernization. Some experts believe some of the modernization is overkill.

William Saetren, a fellow at Ploughshares Fund, said submarines are the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad. If nuclear deterrence is necessary then submarines are the best way to go. The U.S. currently has 14 Ohio-class submarines and 12 will be replaced.

Saetren said that is excessive and can be reduced to eight.

“By reducing the current fleet from 14 to 8 and then building [only] 8 you can save $21 billion over 10 years and in the 2030s and additional $30 billion would be saved,” Saetren said. “That’s a whole lot of money the Navy could be spending on other things.”

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