Obama Administration Still Undecided on Nuclear Arms Cuts, General Says

U.S. Air Force personnel place a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman 3 ICBM in 1997. The top U.S. military commander for nuclear weapons on Tuesday suggested the Obama administration had yet to decide whether to move forward with a proposal that could include new cuts to the nation's deployed and reserve strategic forces (AP Photo/Eric Draper).
U.S. Air Force personnel place a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman 3 ICBM in 1997. The top U.S. military commander for nuclear weapons on Tuesday suggested the Obama administration had yet to decide whether to move forward with a proposal that could include new cuts to the nation's deployed and reserve strategic forces (AP Photo/Eric Draper).

WASHINGTON -- The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Tuesday said he believed the Obama administration had yet to reach any decision on plans that could eliminate hundreds of launch-ready and reserve weapons from the nation's nuclear arsenal, following a press report that the country's military service chiefs had signed off on the proposal.

Gen. Robert Kehler issued the assurance to a GOP lawmaker who voiced concern that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had reportedly backed changes that would leave the deployed nuclear arsenal at roughly two-thirds of its current size. The proposed cuts could also affect a significant portion of the country's nuclear reserve force, according to a Sunday article in the New York Times.

The administration as of last month was said to be considering reductions that would leave between 1,000 and 1,100 long-range nuclear warheads fielded on U.S. missiles and bombers. The U.S.-Russian New START treaty allows the nations to each retain 1,550 such arms on as many as 700 deployed delivery systems after 2018.

Kehler declined to address the Times article's specific assertions, but said "the administration has undertaken a study to look at what alternatives may exist for reductions beyond New START" in keeping with objectives articulated in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

"We participated in that conversation and in parts of the study -- in fact, we did parts of the study at STRATCOM," he told Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "We were fully involved, and to my knowledge, no decisions have been made."

The administration has held out on moving forward with the proposed arms curbs in a bid to negotiate comparable cuts by Russia, but Moscow is unlikely to reciprocate, Obama insiders told the Times. The officials suggested budget cuts mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act could help lay the groundwork for nuclear-weapon and other defense spending reductions sought by President Obama.

The law's sequestration provision took effect this month and could force up to $100 billion in Pentagon budget cuts in each coming budget year through roughly the next decade. In 2011, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that eliminating the nation's ICBM force could yield $8 billion in cost savings, while delaying replacement of the nation's nuclear bombers and ballistic missile submarines could hold off $18 billion and $7 billion in expenses, respectively.

Kehler, whose command would manage the U.S. nuclear deterrent during conflict, reaffirmed his prior description of budget threats to the stockpile and associated work force.

"I'm pleased to report that STRATCOM is capable of executing its assigned missions today," he said on Tuesday. "However, given the potential impact fiscal uncertainty and declining resources could have on STRATCOM, I am concerned that I may not be able to say the same in six months or a year."

Kehler said he was unsure how sequestration cuts would affect the Obama, Neb.-based command.

"The budget details have yet to be worked out," the general said, adding he would provide a written report to Congress on how sequestration could impact U.S. nuclear force modernization efforts if the cuts remain in place for 10 years.

Kehler said ballistic missile submarines comprise the most "survivable" component of of the nation's land-, air- and sea-based nuclear deterrent, and he suggested a new generation of nuclear-armed vessels is presently scheduled to enter use close to the point when existing boats will "no longer [be] capable of going to sea and being used the way they're used today." The United States has already postponed introduction of the new vessels by two years, to 2031.

Separately, Kehler said he agreed with "the thrust" of a recently publicized Pentagon assessment recommending against excluding the possible use of nuclear force in retaliation to a major attack on the nation's computer infrastructure.

"We are very concerned with the potential of a cyber-related attack on our nuclear command-and-control and on the weapons systems themselves," he said in response to the Defense Science Board findings.

However, he played down a suggestion by Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that the entire ground-based nuclear force might be susceptible to "an explicit kinetic blow."

"The nuclear deterrent force was designed to operate through the most extreme circumstances we could possibly imagine," he said. "I am not concerned that a disruption in the power grid, for example, would disrupt our ability to continue to use that force if the president ever chose to do that or needed to do that.

March 12, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Tuesday said he believed the Obama administration had yet to reach any decision on plans that could eliminate hundreds of launch-ready and reserve weapons from the nation's nuclear arsenal, following a press report that the country's military service chiefs had signed off on the proposal.

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