The last few years have been tough ones for the airmen assigned to sustain the nuclear-armed bombers and missiles of the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Several well-publicized incidents involving mishandling of nuclear weapons and components have resulted in several in-depth reviews, along with the firing of both the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff in 2008. Among the recommendations of the reviews was the establishment of a centralized USAF command authority, so that the safety, security, and stewardship of the American land-based nuclear arsenal will be assured, today and in the decades that follow.
The first step on the road to rebuilding the trust of the nation in the USAF to fulfill those goals is taking place presently, with the establishment of the Air Force Global Strike Command. Having “stood up” on Aug. 7, 2009, Global Strike Command is responsible for the U.S. force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers, along with the warheads and gravity bombs that arm them. Heading this new command is a career USAF “missileer,” Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, USAF. Klotz is a second-generation airman, USAF Academy graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and arms control specialist, and has been a leader of USAF missile forces at every level of command. He recently sat down with The Year in Defense to talk about his new duties.
The Year in Defense: You have a very interesting resume. What led you to the Air Force Academy, Oxford University, and then command of strategic nuclear missiles? That’s quite a career.
Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz – I was actually born into the Air Force, and have been a part of it ever since, with no “breaks in service.” My dad was an Air Force pilot, and had the opportunity to fly multiple types of aircraft – bombers, transports, fighters…the F-86 and the F-100. As a result of that experience, I became very attracted to the Air Force, its mission, its people, and its lifestyle; particularly the opportunity to move every couple of years and see different parts of our country and the world. At one point, my dad was assigned at the headquarters of the Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, where I spent two years at Air Academy High School, which is actually located on the grounds of the Air Force Academy.
So, I already knew a lot about the Air Force Academy. I was attracted by its academic program, which had a very strong reputation then and continues to have a very strong reputation today. It also has a very broad-based core curriculum, while at the same time it gives you an opportunity to major in a field of particular interest. I was also attracted by its sports and physical fitness programs, as well as its character and leadership development program. In fact, my most formative experience at the Academy was serving as Chairman of the Cadet Honor Committee during my final year.
That sounds like an interesting position.
The role of the Honor Committee is to provide instruction on the Cadet Honor Code, which says, “We will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” Training is provided to new cadets during their first summer, as well as to all cadets during the entire four years. But there is also another side of it. If there is a suspected breach of the honor code, it becomes the responsibility of the members of the Honor Committee to investigate that, and if warranted, to hold a hearing.
Would I be correct in assuming that you were at the Academy when Gen. Robin Olds was running the school? He was a rather impressive individual.
Gen. Olds was the Commandant of Cadets during my first year at the Air Force Academy. I entered into the Academy in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. On the Academy staff we had many officers and NCOs who had just come back from Southeast Asia and were able to share their experiences with us as cadets. This included Gen. Olds, who made an extraordinary, lasting impression on all of us as a great airman and combat leader.
What made you want to be a “missileer?”
I attended Oxford University immediately following graduation from the Air Force Academy. There I had the great fortune to study under some of the legends in the fields of strategic studies and in nuclear deterrence theory: Alistair Buchan, who was one of the founders of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London; Sir Michael Howard, who is the world’s preeminent authority on Clausewitz as well as just about every other aspect of military history; and Sir Lawrence Freedman, who was my thesis advisor and another expert in the field of deterrence. In fact, his book, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, is still perhaps the best and most important work in this field. That’s the academic foundation for my working this area. When I left graduate school, I came to the Pentagon to serve on the Air Staff and worked in the area of concept and doctrine development, focusing on nuclear strategy and nuclear arms control.
And this was in the years just after SALT I [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I, signed in 1972 between the United States and Soviet Union] was signed, when we were first looking at operating in our first regime under arms control?
That’s exactly right. I then had the opportunity to teach at the Air Force Academy, and then came back to Washington as a White House Fellow, serving on the staff of the Deputy Secretary of State, who at that time was Kenneth Dam. Based on my background, he assigned me the portfolio of following the negotiations in Geneva on strategic arms reductions as well as the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. At about that time an Air Force general officer, Maj. Gen. Bob Linhard, who has regrettably since passed away, pulled me aside one day and said, “If you’re really serious about a career in the Air Force and a career in the nuclear field, then you need to go spend time at an operational unit and get grease under your fingernails.” So I followed that good advice and a few months later, I’m driving north out of Grand Forks Air Force Base toward Launch Control Facility Alpha-Zero to my first alert, and it is minus 20 degrees outside. I haven’t looked back since.
So in many ways, you’ve got this dual track of actually being in the missile community but also having had the diplomatic arms negotiations side as well.
I think they are two sides of the same coin in that a background in operations complements a background in policy- making. The fundamentally most important thing for any new Air Force member, enlisted or officer, is first to gain technical competence in an operational specialty, whether it’s flying airplanes, standing alert in the missile field, defending our resources in security forces, or in performing maintenance. With that knowledge then, not only do you better perform your job at the unit level, but you are also informing yourself for when you move into advisory or policy-making positions.
I had the opportunity to serve as the U.S. representative to the Nuclear Planning Staff Group at NATO headquarters in Brussels beginning in 1988. I came there shortly after being a missile squadron commander. I think that experience gave me a lot of credibility with my counterparts from other countries. The German representative, for instance, had been the commander of a Pershing [ballistic missile] squadron. So we were able to immediately establish a certain rapport and understanding based on a common shared experience.
NATO Headquarters, by the way, was an amazing vantage point from which to witness history. In 1988, there was still a Berlin Wall, still an inter-German border, with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact arrayed on one side and the United States and its NATO allies on the other side. I left Brussels in 1991 and by that time, the Wall’s down, Germany’s been reunified, and the Soviet Union is dissolving. So quite a different world in just three years, culminating in the United States and its coalition partners fighting a war in the Persian Gulf.
It’s hard not to look at the calendar and notice it’s been 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down, in November 1989. What is the justification for deterrence forces two decades after the fall of the Wall?
That’s an excellent question. Let me start with where we were before the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. For most of the post-World War II era, strategic nuclear forces were at the forefront of American national security policy. In fact, we referred to our strategic nuclear forces as “Major Force Program I,” which was indicative of their primacy. We invested enormous sums of money in developing and fielding a so-called “triad” consisting of long-range bombers, ICBMs, and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The overall force was designed in such a way that it could withstand a massive attack by an adversary and respond appropriately, hence the deterrence aspect of its mission.
A lot has changed since then. When I first entered the ICBM business, we had 1,054 missiles at nine operational bases. Today, we have 450 at just three operational bases. Bombers no longer stand alert. Strategic Command’s [EC-135C] Looking Glass airborne command post no longer flies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Under the Moscow Treaty, which was signed on May 24, 2002, the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads is being reduced by some two-thirds, to a range between 1,700 to 2,200. So a dramatic change has taken place with already very significant reductions from our Cold War peak. That’s the good news.
The world we live in today is far more complex, and the threats to the United States and its allies are far more varied. In this world, nuclear deterrence is no longer at the center stage. That said, there are still nations that either possess or are seeking nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as the means to deliver them to their targets. As long as that is the case, we must have capabilities that deter their use against the United States. Equally important, we must assure our allies of our continual commitment to their security.
What is the state of the force today? You just were talking about the missile end of the business. There’s also a bomber element, and do you have some effect on the submarine end as well when this is all said and done?
To the latter part of the question, no. Global Strike Command is an Air Force command. It will have responsibility for two-thirds of the strategic nuclear triad – the ICBMs of the 20th Air Force, along with the B-52 and B-2 bombers – the nuclear-capable bombers – of the 8th Air Force. SLBMs still fall under the Navy. Now, in terms of the Combatant Command – all of those forces are presented to U.S. Strategic Command based in Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
There are currently 450 Minuteman III (MMIII) ICBMs. We have nearly completed a several billion-dollar program to modernize and sustain the ICBM force, literally touching every inch of the MMIII missile, from the nose tip to the first-stage nozzles. The refurbishment includes re-pouring the rocket motors in all three stages, upgrading the guidance system to make it more maintainable with up-to-date electronics, and deploying a safety-enhanced re-entry vehicle on some of our MMIII missiles. Thanks to the efforts we’ve taken so far, we know we can keep the MMIII viable at least through the year 2020. But we aren’t stopping there; we are in the process of developing a road map to ensure it can remain capable through 2030.
On the bomber side, we’re confident the B-2 and B-52 bombers will be an important part of the force through at least 2035, and maybe even longer. We continue to further modernize those systems with updated communications and improved radars. So, in terms of the technical capabilities of the force, it’s in very good shape.
What do you mean by “safety-enhanced?”
One that has more advanced safety features to it. What we’re doing is basically taking the reentry vehicle that was used aboard the Peacekeeper missile, which was deactivated under the START Treaty several years ago and are configuring it for deployment on the Minuteman III missile.
What led to the incidents involving the mishandling of nuclear weapons and components? Was it just a declining focus and doing too many other things, or had we lost “the bubble” on just how important the handling of nuclear weapons is?
I think it’s probably a combination of those things. As Adm. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has written, “It is as if we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed and said to ourselves, ‘Well, I guess we don’t need to worry about that anymore.’” Of course, it’s not as if the U.S. military had nothing else to occupy its attention during the immediate post-Cold War period. We fought the Gulf War. There were the Balkan crises, and a host of humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations. We’ve also been involved in long-term combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Understandably, that’s where a lot of our time and energy have been focused.
As the nuclear force drew down in size, the attention devoted to questions related to deterrence, as well as to the operation and sustainment of the nuclear forces themselves, unquestionably diminished. Additionally, the total number of people who we brought into the business over the years dwindled. Consequently, there’s been a shrinking pool of expertise. At the same time, we divided up authority within the Air Force nuclear enterprise. Under the old Strategic Air Command (SAC), all of the nuclear-capable bombers and the intercontinental ballistic missiles and the responsibility for their operations, maintenance, and security fell under a single Air Force four-star commander. In the early ‘90s, we made the decision to disband SAC, and we ultimately divided up the bombers and the intercontinental ballistic missiles. They both originally went to the new Air Combat Command, but a year later we decided to put the ICBMs in Air Force Space Command.
On the sustainment side, we had a single-product center that did cradle-to-grave management of the nuclear weapons and associated hardware in Air Force custody. It was located at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. However, as a result of Base Realignment and Closure actions, Kelly was shut down and we divided up its workload among three or more product centers – resulting in additional fragmentation.
Now all of these actions were taken for what, at the time, seemed to be good, rational, and compelling reasons. However, I’m not sure we fully understood the second- and third-order effects and long-term consequences of those decisions. And, in the process, we inadvertently conveyed to our airmen that the nuclear mission was a lesser priority. The big change endorsed by the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff, is to say, “No, your first priority is a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent force.”