Key general opposes eliminating one arm of nuclear triad in next round of cuts

The general who oversees America’s nuclear arsenal made clear Tuesday he will resist efforts to eliminate one arm of the military’s nuclear triad of bomber aircraft, long-range missiles and submarines.

The Pentagon is implementing a $350 billion funding cut that will spread over a decade, and bracing for the bulk of another $600 billion in security cuts that would come if the congressional supercommittee fails to agree on at least $1.5 trillion in federal deficit cuts.

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Because of the massive costs that stem from sustaining and modernizing the aging nuclear weapons fleet, some in Washington have said lopping off one part of the triad would produce big savings.

But Gen. Robert Kehler, U.S. Strategic Command chief, told reporters at a breakfast meeting he would advise Pentagon brass against such a bold move.

“I continue to stand by the need for a triad,” Kehler said. “I think, in the near-term, we need to sustain a triad.”

While Kehler acknowledged the nuclear triad should not be viewed as untouchable — especially in an era of declining Defense Department budgets — he said he has yet to “see anything that would make me think” one leg of the bomber-missiles-subs force could be terminated.

The nuclear arsenal is set to undergo a multibillion-effort that will upgrade — and in some cases, completely rebuild — many of its warheads and related components.

Kehler said decisions about going to a two-pronged nuclear force “is not a question for today,” and would occur in the future.

That decision will have several aspects, he said, including the nation’s future “strategic situation” and the “budget dimension.”

The StratCom chief also warned of cutting nuclear forces too deep.

“You can have a hollow nuclear force” by making decisions that leave inadequate resources to sustain the arsenal and eroding the military’s nuclear workforce, Kehler said.

One decision that must be made is by the Navy, he said, saying the sea service must decide when it will have to retire the first Ohio-class nuclear submarine.

That date must be set so Pentagon leaders know when a replacement program has to be far enough into its life so that the first replacement sub is ready to enter the fleet.

“We can’t have a gap,” Kehler said. But Defense officials must determine whether it needs to “match up completely” with the first Ohio-class retirement, he added.

The StratCom boss also addressed the most recent nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, saying: “I don’t know if we will come down below New START [nuclear weapons] levels — we’ll have to see.”

Talks with Moscow for that pact were begun under the George W. Bush administration and were finalized by the Obama White House. The pact limits strategic warheads at just over 1,500 and the number of missile launchers and bombers at 800. 

In the meantime, Kehler shed new light on the performance standards his command submitted to the Air Force for a new bomber aircraft it is designing.

His organization told the Air Force the new bomber, to meet its missions, needs to have a range longer than fighter jets; be able to penetrate enemy air defense systems without being detected; and launch both conventional and nuclear weapons.

StratCom did not tell the Air Force it needed to be loaded with a sophisticated package of intelligence and surveillance sensors, though Kehler said the military came to value those things after a decade at war.

The Air Force has been trying to nail down performance standards for a new bomber for nearly a decade, and Pentagon leaders have squashed several tries at launching a new program because they felt the service lacked a clear idea of the plane it wanted.

As first reported by The Hill, Pentagon officials have cleared a service plan to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers that would enter the operational fleet by the mid-2020s.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are expected to compete for what will be a lucrative contract to design, develop and build the new bombers.

The House-passed version of the 2012 Defense appropriations bill would add $100 million to the Air Force’s spending request for the bomber effort to accelerate development.