STRATCOM Chief Discusses U.S. Nuclear Triad

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2011 — While 10 years of war have focused the mil­i­tary on con­ven­tion­al weapons, the nation’s nuclear force is in need of atten­tion, a senior offi­cer told defense reporters yes­ter­day.

Air Force Gen. C. Robert “Bob” Kehler leads U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand, which with its sub­or­di­nate and func­tion­al com­mands is respon­si­ble for mis­sile defense; glob­al strike; intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance; cyber defense and space oper­a­tions, as well as com­bat­ing weapons of mass destruc­tion.

Stratcom’s nuclear mis­sion is one of its “big three” respon­si­bil­i­ties, along with space and cyber, Kehler said.

The U.S. nuclear tri­ad includes 450 land-based inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles, strate­gic mis­siles deliv­er­able by 76 Air Force B‑52s and 20 B‑2s, and 18 Navy Ohio-class sub­marines car­ry­ing bal­lis­tic or cruise mis­siles.

While sus­tain­ing cur­rent sys­tems is an imme­di­ate issue, the tri­ad also needs to be mod­ern­ized in the com­ing decades, Kehler said, not­ing the Ohio-class sub­ma­rine fleet like­ly will reach the end of its ser­vice life in the late 2020s.

“That will come because of rea­sons that the Navy under­stands well about oper­at­ing plat­forms that are con­stant­ly sub­ject­ed to [pres­sure vari­a­tions],” he said. “We’re going to have to make some deci­sions … [that will] require us to have some mod­ern­iza­tion pro­grams in place.”

All three of the tri­ad legs “need to be sus­tained … until replace­ments come along. And, of course, the replace­ments are being dis­cussed in the bud­get dis­cus­sions, as well,” Kehler said.

The Air Force plans to replace the B‑52 fleet with a long-range strike plat­form or fam­i­ly of sys­tems, which Air Force lead­ers have said would cen­ter on a new long-range, pen­e­trat­ing bomber, a glob­al strike sys­tem, a long-range stand­off weapon, and an enabler sys­tem.

Stratcom’s chief said his orga­ni­za­tion has set three require­ments for the new sys­tem: it must be tru­ly long range; it must be able to pen­e­trate defens­es; and it must serve as both a con­ven­tion­al and a nuclear plat­form.

While Strat­com has not set a spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence, recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance require­ment for the new sys­tem, Kehler said, the val­ue of a plat­form that can both drop bombs and gath­er intel­li­gence is clear.

“The more flex­i­bil­i­ty that we can include in plat­forms today, the bet­ter,” he said.

Over the course of its active ser­vice with the Air Force begin­ning in 1955, the B‑52 has served as a plat­form for con­ven­tion­al bombs, smart weapons and nuclear weapons, he said.

The cur­rent chal­lenge is sus­tain­ing the B‑52 as a stand­off nuclear plat­form until a new long-range strike capa­bil­i­ty comes on line, Kehler said.

What air­craft or mis­siles the Air Force will ulti­mate­ly select and fund for future long-range strike mis­sions still is under dis­cus­sion, he added.

Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta has been clear that he wants defense bud­get deci­sions to be based on strat­e­gy, and plan­ning dis­cus­sions now under­way are tak­ing that approach, Kehler said.

“I con­tin­ue to stand by the need for a tri­ad; cer­tain­ly in the near term, I believe that we can sus­tain a tri­ad,” the gen­er­al said. “I think there are going to be inter­est­ing ques­tions about both the scope and pace of mod­ern­iza­tion as we go for­ward.”

The U.S.-Russia strate­gic arms reduc­tion treaty known as “New START” that took effect this year sets nuclear force ceil­ings at 1,550 deployed weapons and 750 deployed launch­ers, Kehler not­ed.

“In that struc­ture, I believe a tri­ad of forces makes the most strate­gic … [and] oper­a­tional sense,” he said. “As we look into the strate­gic future, the answer about whether or not we’re going to need a tri­ad, I think, is ‘it depends.’ ”

Future arms con­trol agree­ments, force struc­ture and bud­get lev­els will fac­tor into the deci­sion of whether to reduce the tri­ad, he said.

“Can we, in fact, as we look to mod­ern­ize … afford to spend the resources to mod­ern­ize the entire tri­ad? Those are not all ques­tions for today,” Kehler said.

A viable nuclear force requires suf­fi­cient force struc­ture, exper­tise, and indus­tri­al-base sup­port for weapons, he said.

“You can have a hol­low nuclear force, and we need to be very care­ful about that,” he added.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)