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Nuclear Titanic

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered two reviews of America's nuclear force in the wake of mounting reports of drug use, drinking, womanizing, cheating and lapsed discipline among top officers. But if the studies focus only on personnel, they will do little more than rearrange the deck chairs on a nuclear Titanic. The core problem is not the people; it's the mission.

The first thing the studies should do is disclose how many accidents the U.S. has had with nuclear weapons. It is not a short list. Author of Command and Control, Eric Schlosser, cites an Air Force report on 87 accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons just between 1950 and 1957. Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute points to a Department of Defense summary of 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980.

These were not trivial incidents. On several occasions, we almost lost a state. In 1961, a B-52 bomber flying over North Carolina disintegrated in flight. Two bombs dropped from the bomb bay. One of these hydrogen bombs fell all the way to the ground. All of the weapon's safety mechanisms failed, except one. It was a single low-voltage switch that prevented a hydrogen bomb from destroying a good portion of North Carolina.

As the numbers and deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons declined from Cold War highs, it appears the accidents decreased also. But they did not end. In 2007 a B-52 flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, carrying 12 advanced cruise missiles on its wings that were scheduled to be decommissioned. Unbeknownst to the crew, six of the cruise missiles under the plane's wings were armed with nuclear warheads.

The nuclear weapons traveled the breadth of the nation. After landing, they spent nearly 10 hours sitting on the tarmac -- guarded by just a few security officers and a barbed wire fence -- before somebody realized what they really were. The really bad news is no one at Minot ever noticed that they had gone missing.

So you think you're safe? You think you don't have to worry about these kinds of nuclear nightmares? Think again.

Hagel's reviews are, as Robert Burns of the Associated Press notes, "the most significant expression of high-level Pentagon concern about the nuclear force since 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the top uniformed and civilian officials in the Air Force following a series of mistakes," including the Minot missile fiasco.

But so far the reviews are limited to "the training and professional standards of the nuclear career field," says Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby. Such a review will not result in any meaningful increase in our nuclear safety. The core problem is that we send some of our nation's highest trained officers to remote bases where they spend month after month waiting to push a button they know they will never push. How do we expect them to react?

"The duty is seen today as a dull anachronism," says former launch officer John Noonan. This is an outdated command, fielding obsolete weapons, for a meaningless mission. Increasingly, the military realizes this.

Former launch officer Brian Weeden recently recalled his experience at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana after the September 11 terrorist attacks. "We couldn't do anything," he said. "The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn't. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn't do anything about it after."

Secretary Hagel and President Obama should see this crisis as an opportunity to restart their stalled nuclear strategy reform efforts. What are nuclear weapons for? How many do we really need? How much are we willing to spend?

It is unrealistic to think that the military, the public and those who profit from the jobs and contracts generated by America's nuclear force will suddenly agree to eliminate these weapons. Nor should they. As long as nuclear weapons exist, America will need some to deter a nuclear attack. But how many?

Perhaps we need 50 or even 100 nuclear weapons. To be safe, perhaps we keep an active stockpile of 450 nuclear weapons, as Secretary Hagel, former commander of the Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, and other nuclear experts recommended in a 2012 study.

We have 5,000 today. And the really bad news is that the Russians do as well. If you think that our problems with the crews in charge of these weapons are bad, just imagine what is going on in Russia.

Every step we take to reduce these numbers, to take them off of hair-trigger alert, to end the obsolete Cold War strategy that still guides their targeting, will not only save us billions of dollars, it will make all of us a whole lot safer.