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Stratcom Chief Presses for Nuke Force Upgrade

The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Friday acknowledged the potential high cost of upgrading the military's nuclear force but said the country can't afford not to do so.

"Deterrence will always be cheaper than war and there's nothing more expensive than losing a war," said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, echoing recent comments made by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein.

As head of Stratcom, Hyten oversees the so-called nuclear triad consisting of strategic bombers; land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. He was the keynote speaker Friday morning at the annual Military Reporters and Editors conference, which took place in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.

"Look at what the world has done in the last 20 years since we started de-emphasizing nuclear weapons in our arsenal," Hyten said. "Did our adversaries de-emphasize? No. Russia completely modernized their entire nuclear force and expanded and now just deployed a ground launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate-[Range] Nuclear Forces Treaty into Russia. China has completely modernized and built up. North Korea has gone from zero to a nuclear capability in that time frame. Iran has built ballistic missiles."

The general added, "When we started de-emphasizing nuclear weapons, what did the rest of the world do? The rest of the world did exactly the opposite. So if we de-emphasize nuclear weapons, we're putting the country at jeopardy and we can never allow that to happen."

The Defense Department's fiscal 2017 budget called for spending $108 billion over five years to sustain and recapitalize the nuclear force and associated strategic command, control, communications, and intelligence systems.

That money would essentially be a down-payment on a long-term project to overhaul the entire nuclear triad by building new ICBMs to replace the Minuteman III, a replacement to the Ohio-class ballistic submarines and a new fleet of strategic bombers to be called B-21 Raiders.

Hyten acknowledged he has seen estimates for the nuclear modernization program ranging from $300 billion over a decade to $1 trillion over 30 years.

"I don't know if any of those numbers are right," he said. "But if you bought a house and you did an estimate about what you thought it would be to build a house, would the first thing you do [be] go tell the builder, 'Hey this is my estimate. Now let's start negotiating?' Now that's just a crazy way to build things."

Hyten added, "We should be able to build it for an affordable price. We should be able to afford 6 percent of the defense budget to do that when it's the most critical thing that we do in the military."

President Donald Trump as part of the so-called skinny budget has proposed the Defense Department receive $639 billion in fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. Six percent of that figure is about $38 billion. The president's full budget request, due in February, is expected to be released in May.

-- Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

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