- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

U.S. strategic nuclear forces are old, in dire need of modernization and face “draconian” cuts because of the federal budget crisis, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces said Tuesday.

Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, also said China and Russia are engaged in aggressive nuclear force buildups while the U.S. government is fighting over funding for modernizing its strategic forces.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Gen. Kehler also said cyberattacks are escalating toward “destructive” attacks. He made the comments as investigators are looking for a foreign link to a recent cyberattack on an Illinois water-control system.

On the nuclear buildup by Beijing and Moscow, he said both are committed to modernization programs and are pressing ahead.

“And we are reaching a critical point here where we’ve got to make our own commitment,” Gen. Kehler said.

“The view here in Omaha is that we need to sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent,” Gen. Kehler said, echoing a view expressed by the president. The Strategic Command is based in Omaha, Neb.

“I am concerned about the congressional marks in the fiscal year ‘12 budget about the [National Nuclear Security Administration] investment in particular.”

Energy and water appropriations committees in the House and Senate have not fully funded the administration’s request for $7.6 billion for nuclear-arms modernization agreement after debate last year on ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Gen. Kehler and Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have written to Congress expressing concerns about the funding, said Rep. Michael R. Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

Mr. Turner, Ohio Republican, stated in a recent letter to the Office of Management and Budget that the military leaders’ letter has been held up for review for several weeks.

Gen. Kehler said nuclear modernization is only one of his worries with the budget slashing.

“I’m concerned about a lot of things here, in addition to the nuclear deterrent,” he said. “I’m concerned about space. I’m concerned about cyber. I’m concerned about missile defense. I’m concerned across the board.”

Ballistic-missile submarines need to be replaced, strategic bombers are old and land-based missiles are aging, the four-star general said.

Strategic Command also is taking part in a White House-led Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, Gen. Kehler said. Any nuclear force cuts, whether in a treaty or unilaterally by the United States, should be based on a strategy, he said.

Gen. Kehler said U.S. nuclear weapons and infrastructure are now “aged.”

“We have reached one of those critical points where investment is required to sustain the weapons and performed the necessary life extension on the weapons, as well as to upgrade the complex,” he said. “Getting full funding is definitely critical.”

The triad of nuclear forces — bombers, land-based nuclear missiles and sea-based missiles - remains “robust,” but Gen. Kehler was less confident that it would remain so without a major investment in modernization.

All areas of Strategic Command’s missions — nuclear forces, space defense, cyberwarfare and missile defenses — are being reviewed as part of the Pentagon’s initial 10-year, $450 billion spending cut.

Now that the congressional supercommittee’s inability to reach a deal is about to trigger another $600 billion in defense cuts, Gen. Kehler said strategic forces are facing “draconian” reductions, something reflected in a recent letter to Congress from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

“Realistically, I think as we have watched the budget debates unfold, it isn’t clear to me what’s going to happen,” the general said. “But I can tell you we still stand by the need to make the investment” in strategic forces.

Without fully funding the nuclear-forces upgrade, “we’re not going to be able to execute the program as it’s currently envisioned,” Gen. Kehler said, noting that it would send Strategic Command and the Energy Department back to the drawing board.

A critical need, he added, is to conduct a life-extension program on old nuclear warheads.

U.S. nuclear forces face the budget crunch as China and Russia are engaged in a major buildup of strategic nuclear forces — in China’s case, one that is being carried out in utmost secrecy.

“Both of their programs are very ambitious,” he said. “And we are watching those programs evolve. We are mindful of the capabilities that … they already have at the table and will bring to the table through their modernization.”

Asked about Mr. Panetta’s statement to Congress that the coming $1 trillion cut in defense spending will result in elimination of the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force, Gen. Kehler said he thinks that keeping all three strategic legs — land-, air- and submarine-fired missiles — is needed.

Strategic Command, the recent nuclear posture review and ratification debate on the New START agreement stressed the importance of “sustaining the triad as the preferred way forward,” he said.

“I would also say we have the flexibility within the New START treaty to mix our forces in the way that suits us the best,” he said. “We would look very carefully at how we would mix our force if we have to go forward with sequestration numbers.”

Sequestration is Congress‘ term for cutting the additional $600 billion from defense spending over the next 10 years.

On cyberthreats, Gen. Kehler said investigators are examining whether there is a foreign connection to the cyberdisruption of an Illinois water-control system.

A water-utility in a town near Springfield, Ill., was hacked by people suspected of operating through a server in Russia. They gained access to the system’s controls and could have taken steps that would have damaged pumps that control water supplies.

“Our concern is that cyberactivities we have seen have progressed,” the general said. “And they go from things that were exploitive in the past, to disruptive, to the potential that they can become destructive.”

On space security, another responsibility of Strategic Command, the U.S. military is “aggressively planning our defensive [space] activities,” Gen. Kehler said.

“In general terms, we have increased the gain on our ability to protect our space assets,” he said.

Increased “resilient architectures” for space systems and cybersystems has boosted deterrence since 2007, he said. Planning the response to space attacks also has improved.

Much of the defenses were upgraded after China’s 2007 test of a ground-based direct ascent anti-satellite missile that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite and scattered tens of thousands of pieces of debris in orbits that threaten other satellites.

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