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Budget Impacts Loom for U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

The U.S. Ohio-class ballistic submarine USS Alaska sails into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia in 2009. The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Tuesday warned of the effect government cost-cutting measures would have on the nation's nuclear deterrent (U.S. Strategic Command photo). The U.S. Ohio-class ballistic submarine USS Alaska sails into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia in 2009. The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Tuesday warned of the effect government cost-cutting measures would have on the nation's nuclear deterrent (U.S. Strategic Command photo).

WASHINGTON -- A newly imposed across-the-board budget cut and other spending restrictions are likely to diminish the responsiveness and reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent if they remain in place, the head of U.S. Strategic Command told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The U.S. Defense Department must eliminate $46 billion in planned fiscal 2013 spending under a component of the 2011 Budget Control Act that took effect on Friday, and the law's sequestration provision could force up to $100 billion in Pentagon budget cuts in each successive budget year for roughly a decade.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last month said the Pentagon would attempt to shield the nation's nuclear deterrent from the impact of the cuts; he said on Friday the department would seek to prevent funding reductions from affecting flying hours involving the "nuclear-capable Air Force."

Strategic Command would manage any combat use of nuclear weapons. Speaking on Tuesday, Gen. Robert Kehler said the branch "remains capable of performing its full range of missions."

Kehler said he did not see the spending reductions having a "dramatic impact" on the military's nuclear operations within the next several months, but he warned that cuts to flying hours and other areas "eventually are going to impact us."

"The immediate impact will vary by command, overall in STRATCOM, the effect is like an avalanche," he told the House Armed Services Committee. "Seemingly small initial impacts are going to grow. As time passes, we will see greater impacts to the nuclear deterrent, global strike missile warning and missile defense situational awareness."

Sequestration-related furloughs and restrictions on recruitment and pay could gradually prompt experienced nonmilitary personnel to "retire and our best young people ... to pursue more stable opportunities elsewhere," he said. "We are detecting hints of that now," he added without elaborating.

Roughly three-fifths of the staff at the STRATCOM's Nebraska headquarters are civilian employees, exposing them to possible austerity actions such as furoughs, he noted in written testimony.

A spending bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Monday includes appropriations language to free the Pentagon from spending restrictions imposed by a continuing budget resolution that would fund the federal government through the rest of this fiscal year. It would also increase the department's spending flexibility through the end of the current budget cycle on Sept. 30.

Kehler avoided directly addressing whether the United States could pursue a permanent alternative to a proposed complex intended to assume the responsibilities of a decades-old plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The laboratory's director last month proposed dispersing plutonium operations across a number of other buildings rather than shifting the activities to the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement plant.

"I believe you have to do some kind of an interim strategy," Kehler said in response to a question from Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio). "I believe that that gets us through the time period that we're talking about. Certainly in the long run, we would prefer to see a more permanent solution to the plutonium needs."

"There are a number of steps that impact a hedge strategy. That's one of them," Kehler added.

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