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Dec 2, 2017
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You can eliminate General Kevin Chilton as a future nominee for Air Force Chief of Staff, or Chairman of the JCS.

General Chilton, who currently runs U.S. Strategic Command, has been carefully–and publicly–correcting the Obama Administration over its nuclear weapons policies. For almost a year, Chilton has warned that the American nuclear arsenal (and its supporting infrastructure) is aging and in serious need of modernization.

To make his case, Chilton discussed the issue with a number of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. His message was clear; the United States needs to build a new generation of nuclear warheads (something we haven’t done in two decades) and actually ensure their reliability (our last underground nuclear test was more than 15 years ago).

That sort of thinking won’t win General Chilton any friends at the White House, particularly when Mr. Obama and his advisers are proposing massive cuts in our nuclear arsenal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced plans for “early” arms reduction talks with Russia, aimed at a major reduction in our strategic inventory.

As we noted last month, some analysts question the necessity of a new arms deal. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), set to expire this year, limits both countries to 6,000 warheads each. But the U.S. and Russia are well below that total; our current stockpile is estimated at 2,300 warheads and Moscow’s inventory is even smaller.

Clearly, the U.S. would have to eliminate more weapons to comply with a new treaty, and there’s the issue of what weapons each side would retain. While Russian conventional forces have crumbled over the past 15 years, the Kremlin has invested heavily in its nuclear arsenal, fielding the new SS-27 ICBM (in silo-based, land-mobile and submarine-launched versions), topped with new warheads.

By comparison, the U.S. ICBM force is built around decades-old Minuteman III ICBMs, first deployed in the 1970s. Their warheads are slightly newer, but it’s far from the modernized force that General Chilton is advocating.

To be fair, American forces have an advantage in other areas, most notably our ballistic missile submarine force. But a credible nuclear deterrent is built on ICBMs, bombers and missile subs. But two legs of our strategic triad are getting long in the tooth, and it seems clear that Mr. Obama has no plans for modernization.

And, he wants to downgrade the alert posture of our nuclear forces. Last month, the president vowed to make good on a campaign promise, and “take U.S. and Russian missiles off hair-trigger alert.”

Under our current readiness posture, land-based ICBMs can be launched within 3-4 minutes of a presidential order; submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) can be fired in 12 minutes of receiving a validated launch directive. America’s nuclear bombers were removed from alert by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, at the end of Cold War. During their alert days, bomber crews could be airborne in five to fifteen minutes, depending on their assigned status.

Mr. Obama’s comments have drawn the ire of General Chilton, who has made it clear that he disagrees with the “hair trigger”connotation. From the Global Security Newswire:

Chilton said it is misleading to use the term “hair-trigger” when describing the U.S. arsenal, which he said remains safe from accidental or unauthorized launch.

“It conjures a drawn weapon in the hands of somebody,” said the general, speaking at a two-day conference on air warfare. “And their finger’s on the trigger. And you’re worried they might sneeze, because it is so sensitive.”
However, the “reality of our alert posture today,” he said, is that “the weapon is in the holster.”

Continuing the analogy, Chilton said the holster for nuclear weapons “has two combination locks on it,” it “takes two people to open those locks,” and “they can’t do it without authenticated orders from the president of the United States.”

In a separate news conference, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwarz, said the service has not been asked to review the issue, or determine how the “de-alerting” pledge might be implemented.

General Chilton was more blunt in his assessment, describing de-alerting as a “fairly radical step.”

Returning to the analogy of a holstered weapon, Chilton said a lower level of readiness for the nuclear stockpile would be like “taking the gun apart and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you’re in crisis, deciding to reassemble it.

“And we have to ask ourselves: Can we afford that time period for the delivery of the pieces to put it back together?” he continued. “Is that the posture we want to be in as we [review] policy, strategy, force structure and posturing of forces?”

Interestingly enough, Russia has long opposed removing its own strategic forces from alert. With the collapse of its conventional forces in the 1990s, Moscow is more reliant on nuclear forces to provide strategic deterrent. However, the Russians would certainly support a unilateral move on the part of the U.S.

The same holds true for China, which (coincidentally) is pushing a de-alert resolution in the U.N. General Assembly. Did we mention that Beijing is rapidly expanding–and modernizing–its strategic forces, fielding mobile ICBMs are that difficult to target, and a new generation of ballistic missile subs? Funny, but the Chinese resolution makes no mention of their own forces.

All the more reason to avoid the “de-alerting” option. Too bad that no one in the White House will listen to General Chilton. And, with his willingness to speak “truth to power,” we’d say his days at STRATCOM are already numbered.

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