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Spending Reductions Could Delay Nuke Updates: Strategic Command Chief

Planned spending cuts at the U.S. Defense Department could delay refurbishment of nuclear armaments for the country's bomber aircraft and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler said on Tuesday (see GSN, March 15).

Funding reductions constitute an "acceptable" threat to the nation's ability to ward off potential aggression by present-day antagonists in possession of nuclear weapons, the Washington Times quoted Kehler as saying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing (see GSN, March 28).

The U.S. atomic stockpile is "safe, secure and effective," he told Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “And so today I believe that that deterrent force could meet its objectives.”

Still, tighter budgets could hold up updates to W-76 nuclear warheads for U.S. submarine-fired ballistic missiles, as well as B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, Kehler said.

The Obama administration has asked for $80 million less for W-76 nuclear warhead life-extension efforts in fiscal 2013 than it had anticipated last year, according to previous report (see GSN, March 8). The administration requested $369 million in the upcoming budget cycle for extending the service life of the B-61, a $136 million increase over fiscal 2012 appropriations, another earlier report states. The next budget year begins on Oct. 1.

“We have weapons that are beginning to reach their end of life,” the general stated. “What the budget reductions did was it slowed the delivery of those (modernized) weapons.”

Kehler described the W-76 warhead refurbishment slowdown as "manageable."

The initial refurbished B-61 bomb is not slated for completion for seven more years, two years after it would become necessary, according to the Times.

“I believe that’s manageable risk as well,” Kehler said. Life-extension activities for the bomb are expected to begin in 2013.

Strategic Command is examining land- and sea-based ballistic missiles for "commonality" relevant to potential new refurbishment activities, Kehler added.

Fiscal 2013 spending plans would enable the United States to mitigate threats to the ability of its nuclear forces to discourage potential hostile actions, but "the issue is what happens beyond" the upcoming budget year, he said. The Energy Department's fiscal 2013 budget request excludes cost projections for nuclear weapons-related efforts beyond fiscal 2013, and administration officials have said the figures would be released later this year, according to previous reporting.

"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 [fiscal 2013],” Kehler stated. “That concerns me.”

The Obama administration has failed to follow through on nuclear weapons spending commitments while implementing a strategic arms control deal with Russia, according to some GOP lawmakers (see GSN, March 9; Bill Gertz, Washington Times, March 29).

Any ICBM reductions carried out to comply with the bilateral New START pact should should be evenly dispersed between launch sites in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, senators from the three states and Utah said on Wednesday in a statement to the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

New START, which entered into force on Feb. 5, 2011, requires the United States and Russia by 2018 to each reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a cap of 2,200 mandated by this year under an older treaty. It also limits the number of fielded strategic warhead delivery platforms to 700, with an additional 100 systems permitted in reserve (U.S. Senator John Hoeven release, March 28).

 

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