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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.

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