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Inside the Ring: Nuclear risk

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Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that budget cuts pose “acceptable” risk levels for U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence against current nuclear-armed enemies. (Associated Press)

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.

NORTH KOREA LAUNCH

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced last week that plans to conduct a satellite launch in mid-April are “legitimate” and “peaceful.”

U.S. officials, however, say the planned space launch is merely a deception for Pyongyang’s test-firing of what is expected to be a new long-range strategic missile, likely the new hard-to-locate, road-mobile ICBM under development that has set off alarm bells inside the U.S. government and in Congress.

“North Korea’s threat of a missile launch can only be an effort to test, perhaps ahead of deployment, an intercontinental ballistic missile that would have the capability of reaching the United States,” Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Armed Service subcommittee on strategic forces, said during a full committee hearing Wednesday.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last year that the new missile will pose a direct threat to the United States.

Both South Korea and Japan have said they are deploying land- and sea-based anti-missile systems and could shoot down the rocket if it strays or overflies their territory. South Korea has advanced Patriot PAC-3 missiles, and Japan has the Aegis battle-management system directed SM-3 missile on warships.

The Pentagon also is expected to activate its global ballistic missile system, with interceptors in California and Alaska, for the launch.

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About the Author

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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