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Inside the Ring: Nuclear risk

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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.

Launch preparations were in the advanced "action stage," the North Korean statement said.

CYBERATTACK DANGER GROWS

Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, told a Senate hearing this week that threats to global digital networks are growing from an array of dangers, mainly from sophisticated nation-state actors.

Gen. Alexander, who is also director of the electronic-spying National Security Agency, said Cybercom is making progress in developing defensive and offensive cyberwar programs.

Despite the progress, "I have to begin by noting a worrisome fact: Cyberspace is becoming more dangerous," he said in prepared testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Alexander said threats that once were discussed in theoretical terms now are becoming realities and are "actually being deployed in the arsenals of various actors in cyberspace."

Cyberweapons first seen in 2010 are capable of damaging or disrupting digitally controlled systems and network devices, and they likely are under the control of foreign governments, he said.

"Furthermore, we believe it is only a matter of time before someone employs capabilities that could cause significant disruption to civilian or government networks and to our critical infrastructure here in the United States," he said.

State-sponsored industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property "now occurs with stunning rapacity and brazenness, and some of that activity links back to foreign intelligence services," Gen. Alexander said, noting that private companies and governments are being "looted" by foreign spies.

The four-star general avoided mentioning the hacker forces of China and Russia, considered by U.S. officials to be the most active cyberspies and cyberwarfare threats.

A new focus of concern at Cyber Command is the growth of cyberattacks by hacker activist groups such as Anonymous and Lulz Security that often operate in unison to spur attacks on selected organizations and people.

"We are also concerned that cyberactors with extreme and violent agendas, such as al Qaeda affiliates or supporters, could draw upon the experiences and ideas of more sophisticated 'hactivists' and potentially use this knowledge for more disruptive or destructive purposes, though it remains unclear what the likelihood of such an event is," he said.

The recent sophisticated hack of business technology firm RSA Corp. that compromised security tokens used to gain secure remote computer access for defense contractors and the Pentagon turned out to have been a two-pronged assault.

U.S. officials suspect China was behind the attack.

"Indeed, the systems of some non-DoD users were breached not long after the compromise by intruders exploiting the stolen certificates," Gen. Alexander said.

During the hearing, it was revealed that Pentagon information systems are probed up to 1,000 times an hour and more than 6 million times a day by 100 foreign intelligence services, along with criminals and terrorist groups.

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