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Gen. Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, this week continued to back the Obama Administration’s plan to defer construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility while expressing concern about the nation’s future efforts to modernize the weapons complex. Due to budgetary pressure, the Administration said in February that it would defer CMRR-NF for at least five years while accelerating work on the other multi-billion-dollar weapons complex construction project: the Uranium Processing Facility planned for the Y-12 National Security Complex. “I agreed with that sequencing,” Kehler said in response to questions after a breakfast speech at the Reserve Officers Association. “I did so because, again, we are under budget pressures, and nothing was immune. I believe that we could do that with some increased risk but acceptable risk. I believe we can manage that risk.”

House Republicans have criticized the Administration for delaying work on CMRR-NF and slowing work on three key warhead refurbishment efforts—the W76, the B61 and the W78/W88—while suggesting that the Administration is backing away from promises made during debate on the New START Treaty. At the time, the Administration said it would spend $88 billion over 10 years on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons program, but when the Administration rolled out its Fiscal Year 2013 request for the agency, it said that budget belt tightening— and Congressional cuts to its FY2012 weapons program budget—had forced a change of plans.

Beyond ‘13 Still a Concern

For his part, Kehler has suggested that he won’t feel completely comfortable about the modernization plan until there is more known about the future: what will happen in FY2014 and beyond. Kehler testified this spring that he was concerned with the lack of a plan. “What is still pending is what happens beyond ‘13,” Kehler said. “And both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy have written a letter to the congressional committees that describe that we do not yet have a plan in place for ‘14 and beyond for the weapons complex, and that that is work in progress. And we will close that work here as we reach the end of the summer, and we’ll be prepared then to talk about ‘14 and beyond as we come in next cycle.”
Kehler said it was a priority of his to ensure that the weapons complex continues to receive the attention it needs. “Our weapons are aging. And we face issues in the physical industrial plant and the possibility of erosion of our intellectual capital,” he said. “We must protect the important investments for stockpile certification, warhead life extension and infrastructure recapitalization. To that end, StratCom is working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and others to finalize plans for fiscal year ‘14 and beyond.”

Kehler: Modernization Could Lead to Stockpile Cuts

He suggested that once the weapons complex was modernized, he might be able to support further reductions to the nuclear stockpile below the 1,550-warhead cap established on strategic deployed nuclear weapons in the New START Treaty with Russia. “The Nuclear Posture Review, I think, did a pretty good job in describing that what we want to do here is we want to transition from maintaining weapons in a stockpile as a hedge against technical or geopolitical issues, we want to transition to a responsive infrastructure in order to do that,” Kehler said. “And then when you do that—and I believe this is true—I believe that we can manage the existing stockpile a different way, perhaps with fewer weapons.”

Whether a responsive infrastructure would change the Pentagon’s requirements for 50 to 80 pits a year, which has been called into question with the deferment of work on CMRR-NF, remains unclear. Kehler said a pit production capability would still be needed in case the nation were to decide to produce a new weapon, or a replacement weapon like the Reliable Replacement Warhead, for stockpile refurbishment, or to hedge against problems with current pits in the stockpile. But he hinted that the requirements could be adjusted, perhaps in the Administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review implementation study that is expected to outline further reductions to the stockpile. “Those [pit] requirements come from not just one place, but a multiple of different sources, and ultimately those requirements are under review,” Kehler said.   —Todd Jacobson

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