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Top U.S. Nuclear Commander Signals Modest Tack on Updating Forces Top U.S. Nuclear Commander Signals Modest Tack on Updating Forces

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Top U.S. Nuclear Commander Signals Modest Tack on Updating Forces

The nation's top military commander for nuclear weapons on Tuesday said he wants to preserve the U.S. strategic triad of bomber aircraft, submarines, and land-based ICBMs, but he warned that modernization plans for aging platforms could fall victim to the budget ax (see GSN, July 14).

"We're not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today," said Strategic Command chief Robert Kehler, noting that some other "fairly senior people" had come to the same conclusion. "I think that's true. Case in point is Long-Range Strike. Case in point is the Trident replacement.... The list goes on."

 

Gen. Kehler in January became commander of the Omaha, Neb.-based organization that manages the nation's nuclear deterrent.

Long-Range Strike is Defense Department nomenclature for the future Air Force bomber, which could replace today's 66 conventionally armed B-1 aircraft, 20 nuclear-armed B-2 bombers and 94 B-52 planes. The Pentagon is also planning an "SSBN(X)" effort to build 12 nuclear-armed replacements for existing Navy Ohio-class submarines, which at least initially are to carry today's Trident D-5 ballistic missiles.

For the triad's third leg, the Air Force is putting the final touches on an initial study of options for modernizing Minuteman 3 ICBMs. Under the New START arms-control agreement with Russia, the Pentagon anticipates maintaining up to 420 of the 450 ICBMs deployed today in three states.

 

Kehler hinted that he might at some point support replacing silo-based ballistic missiles with a mobile alternative--a weapon that could be carried on trucks or trains and potentially dispersed during a crisis to reduce their vulnerability to an adversary's attack.

"I'm intrigued by mobility. I'm intrigued by other basing modes," said Kehler, speaking at a breakfast event on Capitol Hill. However, he said that Strategic Command "has not at this point laid out a specific set of requirements" for a new ICBM.

"It will be important for us to allow these analyses to unfold and then have them come back with some alternatives that we can look at," he said. "I don't want to try to channel that too much at this point."

Kehler echoed some of the same budgetary admonitions voiced earlier this month by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in calling for realism on the part of the defense industry. Both generals have warned against a long-standing practice of loading up new weapons systems with high-technology bells and whistles.

 

Cartwright, a former head of Strategic Command, on July 14 told reporters that the White House had asked the Pentagon to prepare for the possibility of absorbing some $400 billion in cuts, and said he was additionally weighing the implications of having to find another $400 billion beyond that.

Kehler noted that last year's Nuclear Posture Review--a major Pentagon assessment of U.S. atomic-weapons strategy, forces and readiness--had found a continued need to maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad.

"I think that's correct, because that gives the president all of the attributes that I think are necessary in confronting a high-end, existential threat" to the nation, he said. Funding to sustain the triad and initially plan for its modernization is included in the fiscal 2012 budget, Kehler noted.

He said, though, that long-term procurement plans could run up against a funding wall.

"The question remains: Where are we headed? And what will the budgetary impacts be on the force and on these plans?" Kehler said. "Everything is on the table."

Kehler said he sometimes loses sleep over worries that the defense industry might shrink so much that some crucial domestic production capabilities are diminished or lost, possibly including the manufacturing base for solid-rocket motors used for ballistic-missile propulsion.

"The flip side of this is, I think the industrial base needs to be mindful of the scenario we find ourselves in today," said the 36-year Air Force veteran. "Going forward the way we have gone forward--I don't think it's possible. I think that we're going to have to come up with some innovative ways of doing our business throughout the industrial base."

Kehler also said he is reorienting Strategic Command to plan more fully for handling a worst-case scenario in which terrorists gain access to weapons of mass destruction, while maintaining more traditional forms of deterrence, as well.

Some type of "tailored deterrence" is likely required to head off threats across the entire spectrum of violence, from an adversary's use of a single nuclear weapon or other WMD device all the way up to a massive nuclear exchange, he said.

Kehler repeated Cartwright's recent call for the Defense Department to conduct a fresh review of current and anticipated threats, and assess which components of its "toolkit"--including nuclear and conventional weapons, missile defenses, cyberwarfare tools, and space-based capabilities--are truly needed going into the future.

"One size does not fit all, and that's the approach we are taking at STRATCOM," Kehler said, using Pentagon shorthand in referring to his command. "How do we use all of these tools that we have now, and in what combinations?"

He said he does not have the answers but ventured that the U.S. military force posture might be reshaped a bit if such an exhaustive scrub were undertaken.

"There are places where the various tools, in various combinations, make the most sense," said Kehler, going on to underscore how complex security dynamics can be in light of "cause-and-effect relationships everywhere."

"Some are describing the global national-security environment now like an ecosystem. That's a little glitzy for me," he said with a smile. "But I take the point."

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