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The 'bad shape' of the nuclear complex

Thursday marked 20 years since the disestablishment of the Air Force's legendary Strategic Air Command, and the "deterrence business," as nukemen and women like to call it, has had a mixed record ever since.

On the plus side, human civilization still exists. That's because of, or in spite of -- depending on your perspective -- world powers' lingering arsenals of nuclear weapons.

On the minus side, many of those same world powers, including the United States, have sometimes taken their eyes off the nuclear ball. So much so, in fact, that the head of Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, warned that Washington needs to get its act together yesterday to preserve or improve the U.S. nuclear "complex," the apparatus that supports the land-based, submarine-launched and bomber-borne arsenal.

As our eminent colleague Michael Hoffman reported, Kehler described visiting the various sites of the "complex" after he'd taken command, and seeing for himself that all was not well.

“What I found was confirmation of what I’ve been reading," he said, per Hoffman. "In some places the infrastructure is in really bad shape -- really bad shape."

If the Air Force and Navy are to stay in the nuke game, Kehler argued, Congress must fund the laboratories and other support systems for the arsenal, with the eventual goal of modernizing it. The U.S. would need to make that move no matter what it decides, today or down the road, about how many weapons to field.

Wrote Hoffman:

The Air Force four-star commended Congress for funding nuclear delivery platforms such as the Air Force’s planned long range bomber and the follow on to the Ohio-class submarine. However, he’s more worried about the weapons than the delivery platforms. The U.S. has long planned for a life extension plan for its B61 nuclear bombs. However, the cost for the program has grown to $4 billion. The White House recommended the military slow down the program and reduced funding for it to $369 million next year.

The House Armed Services Committee has since boosted the funding to $435 million in 2013 to keep the program on track. Kehler said similar investments must be made to maintain intellectual capital in the nuclear weapons complex.

“We do have aging weapons. We do have a series of weapons that are due for life extensions,” Kehler said. “That in and of itself will help the labs to retain and in fact recruit some new, bright, young, shiny kinds of engineers and scientists that they need.”

He acknowledged the political debate over the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. should maintain in its stockpile. No matter if the stockpile grows or shrinks to zero, the U.S. will have to depend on the labs and industry to reach those goals, Kehler said.

“You have to have this enterprise to take care of [nuclear weapons],” he said. “The ’13 budget contains appropriate investment in those activities. What I’m concerned about though is that beyond ‘13 we don’t have a plan that [does].”

What's puzzling about Kehler's warnings is that Congress already fought this battle, in 2010, as part of the Senate's debate over ratifying the New START treaty. In exchange for passage, defense and nuclear advocates appeared to get assurances that Congress would fund the nuclear complex. Evidently they did not materialize to the satisfaction of the head of Strategic Command.

It's as tiresome to write as it is for you to read, but here's this leitmotif again: Nothing is likely to happen on this until after the election. And that's not just gridlock-era conventional wisdom -- President Obama said so himself. Remember when the microphone caught him in South Korea telling Russian President Dimitri Medvedev that he'd have more "flexibility" as he looked forward to a second term? They were talking about missile defense, but it was in the larger context of nuclear weapons, after the speech in which Obama reaffirmed his abhorrence of nukes.

What could the president have up his sleeve? There's been a lot of rumor-mongering and grandstanding around town about some of the potential plans for the nuclear arsenal: Hundreds of weapons going away, units being taken off standby, and who knows what else. Although nuclear weapons have a lot of friends in Congress, the president -- as the man whose fist ultimately holds the lightning bolts -- has a lot of power to act on his own. Whether he wins a second term or not, an Obama free from the pressure of another election might use his remaining time in office to make the biggest dent he could in the weapons he's hated his whole life.

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