OMAHA – The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command on Wednesday rejected a call by a former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman to cut U.S. nuclear warheads to as few as 300 deployed weapons.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander, also said Iran’s nuclear program remains a major problem and expressed worries about China’s large-scale, hidden underground nuclear facilities.
Kehler said during a conference on nuclear deterrence that he disagrees with the proposal to make the deeper nuclear warhead cuts suggested in a study conducted by the anti-nuclear group, Global Zero, under the direction of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman.
"I do not support what former vice chairman [Cartwright has said], although he and I are friends, and I certainly respect his opinion, I respect his intellectual horsepower on these kinds of issues," Kehler said.
"But I do not think that we are in the place that he suggests now, nor do I see that particular place any time soon," he said, referring to a world where nuclear forces can be cut beyond current planned reductions.
Cartwright, a former Strategic Command commander who headed the Global Zero study published in May, has called for cutting U.S. nuclear forces to 900 warheads but deploying only half that number and putting the rest in storage.
Kehler said the current force reduction target of 1,550 strategic warheads mandated under the 2010 U.S.-Russia New START arms treaty is best suited to deter nuclear adversaries such as Russia and China, and will provide adequate nuclear protection for allies in Europe and Asia.
"Regarding the Global Zero report, in my view we have the force size, force structure, and force posture today that we need for our national security needs," Kehler told reporters during a press briefing on the sidelines of the conference.
"We are in the process of reducing that force size in accordance with the START treaty. We are not there yet," he said. "We have more weapons than we need today. We know that. We are in a plan, a glide slope, to reduce that number, and I think that all of that planning and activity is on track."
Kehler said the goal of zero nuclear weapons cannot be achieved "as long as weapons exist," and therefore the United States needs to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal.
"We’re supporters of that and in fact I’m the advocate for that," he said. "So I stand by our need for the safe, secure, and effective triad of nuclear forces."
The triad includes nuclear-armed bombers, ground-based missiles, and submarine-launched missiles.
Kehler said he could not speak about the Obama administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review implementation study that tasked the Pentagon to look at cutting nuclear warheads to as few as 300 warheads.
Strategic Command took part in the analysis for that study, Kehler said, and noted that "in my view I think that any opportunity we have that would reduce the force as we go to the future and improve our national security is something that we ought to go look at very seriously."
Zero nuclear weapons may be achieved "some day," he said, but added, "We’re not there today."
Cartwright told the New York Times in May that because of changes in the world, "The current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War."
"Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century," Cartwright said.
In July, during Senate testimony on the report, Cartwright then suggested that 300 nuclear warheads would be sufficient, and said the retaliatory capability of 300 nuclear weapons would produce "catastrophic" damage.
Kehler said the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been cut from 10,000 during the height of the Cold War to 8,500, to 3,500, and now 1,550 warheads.
The cut has been done in a stable way, and "I think we have enhanced our national security," he said.
On Iran, Kehler expressed concerns about Iran’s covert nuclear program and said the U.S. Central Command leader is grappling with a possible response to Iran’s noncompliance with its international nuclear obligations.
"We remain greatly concerned by Iran and their continued intransigence regarding their nuclear program," Kehler said. "We are supporting command to Central Command as Gen. [James] Mattis struggles with this very, very critical question about what we do in the future related to Iran, and I think that we remain concerned."
On China’s nuclear modernization program, Kehler said Chinese lack of transparency is also a cause for concern.
"I think certainly the way the Chinese have chosen to protect their forces is something that we have taken note of and it’s ultimately part of the question I think that we are trying to ask them," Kehler said.
Senior Pentagon leaders have been asking China to explain their long-term intentions.
"And I think that’s a good question and more transparency is something we seek from them for just these reasons," he said.
Kehler said he supports the U.S. intelligence community’s view that China has several hundred nuclear warheads, despite a recent Georgetown University study suggesting the Chinese nuclear arsenal could be far larger based on new reports of a 3,000-mile-long underground nuclear complex that appears to be designed for a far larger arsenal.
"I come down on the side of the intelligence community assessment," Kehler said. "I do not believe China has hundreds or thousands of more weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying."
On other topics, Kehler said the Strategic Command is concerned about the impact of sharp impending cuts under congressional sequestration.
He also expressed concerns about funding a needed modernization program for the U.S. nuclear infrastructure, which is aging.