Nuclear seat at Air Force budgeting table pays off

Standing up a new Air Force assistant chief of staff position overseeing nuclear issues has paid dividends in this era of shrinking defense spending.

The Air Force added an assistant chief of staff in charge of nuclear weapons in 2008 in response to a host of nuclear embarrassments to include a B-52 mistakenly flying six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana. Four years later the new position is paying dividends.

Maj. Gen. Donald Alston, since retired, took over the position on Nov. 1, 2008 after internal reports blasted the service for not having a headquarters position dedicated solely to nuclear weapons. Alston’s first job was cleaning up the mess left by so many years of nuclear negligence on the part of Air Force leadership following the end of the Cold War.

Fast forward four years and the discourse inside the Pentagon is dominated by defense spending cuts and the threat of sequestration. Establishing an assistant chief of staff dedicated to nuclear issues has given the nuclear community a seat at the table when it comes time to discuss the budget. Nuclear issues previously got folded under other portfolios.

“What it has done for headquarters Air Force is given a guy a seat at the table in corporate discussions where dollars are at stake, advocacy is required, and there is somebody there who speaks on behalf of this mission set,” said Maj. Gen. Maj. Gen. William Chambers, who took over for Alston in June as the assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.

Chambers must work with the other Defense Department agencies attached to the nuclear enterprise to include U.S. Strategic Command, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Navy. Otherwise, the Air Force nuclear units could miss out on potential funding. Dedicating a two-star flag officer to the job shows the importance the Air Force places on the nuclear enterprise, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, head of Global Strike Command.

“If we didn’t have an A10 that would create another layer of management or¬†bureaucracy between those organizations, and we in fact might not get the attention of having a two-star general officer who is watching it all the time,” Kowalski said.

It’s not just about immediate term funding issues. Chambers said he’s had the opportunity to start looking long term for the Air Force’s nuclear force — a privilege Alston didn’t have as he tried to fix many of the immediate problems plaguing Air Force nuclear squadrons.

“We are stronger and we have moved to a phase of this campaign in strengthening to the longer look that General Alston wasn’t able to have because of the immediate problems at hand. A longer look at the long term fixes the enterprise needs,” Chambers said.