The commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces told a Senate hearing this week that defense budget cuts are undermining the urgently needed modernization of strategic nuclear forces through delays in planned upgrades.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, based in Omaha, Neb., said Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that budget cuts pose “acceptable” risk levels for U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence against current nuclear-armed enemies.
In an exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, Gen. Kehler said the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “safe, secure and effective.” “And so today I believe that that deterrent force could meet its objectives,” he said. But the four-star general then voiced worries about funding cuts for programs to modernize the W76 strategic warheads used on submarine-launched nuclear missiles and to upgrade aircraft-dropped B61 nuclear bombs.
“We have weapons that are beginning to reach their end of life,” he said. “What the budget reductions did was it slowed the delivery of those [modernized] weapons.” The delay in the W76 is “manageable,” Gen. Kehler said, and the B61 life extension begins next year but will not produce its first weapon until 2019, instead of 2017 as needed. “I believe that’s manageable risk as well,” he said.
Gen. Kehler said Stratcom also is studying ICBM and submarine missile warheads for “commonality” in future life-extension efforts.
The current budget allows for managing the risk of weakening the nuclear force deterrent, but “the issue is what happens beyond ‘13,” he said.
“And that’s where the two secretaries of energy and defense have said that we do not have the complete plan in place for what happens beyond ‘13,” Gen. Kehler said. “That concerns me.” A plan to upgrade a uranium processing facility remains in place, but there is no plan to upgrade a chemical and metallurgical building used in nuclear weapons processing that is now five to seven years later in the budget process than needed.
“I’m concerned about that. I am concerned about our ability to provide for the deployed stockpile. And that is my No. 1 concern here,” Gen. Kehler said.
Congressional Republicans have said President Obama has reneged on promises made during the 2010 Senate ratification debate to provide full funding for nuclear weapons upgrades in exchange for many senators’ support for the New START agreement with Russia.