7/24/2013 – WASHINGTON (AFNS) — Sweeping improvements across the U.S. nuclear enterprise since a 2007 incident have increased the focus on the nuclear mission and raised the bar in terms of standards and performance, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command told reporters July 24.
“In general, I feel much more comfortable today with the level of attention,” Gen. C. Robert Kehler said during a Defense Writers Group breakfast roundtable. “I am very confident in the capability and credibility of the forces. And I am very, very confident in our ability to continue our deterrence mission.”
Kehler was deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command during the August 2007 “Bent Spear” incident in which nuclear-equipped missiles were mistakenly transported nearly 1,500 miles on the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress.
Revelation of the incident — defense officials emphasized at the time that the weapons were never unsecured and never at risk of detonating — led to personnel dismissals, organizational changes and heightened performance requirements.
“A lot has changed in the last six to seven years,” Kehler said. “A lot has changed organizationally, … in terms of the intensity of the focus on the nuclear part of our mission, … (and) in terms of the assessment and evaluation that we put on the units that are involved in all of this.
“And as we say, perfection is really the standard when we talk about nuclear weapons,” he said.
Among the changes was the Air Force’s stand up of Global Strike Command, with a singular focus on the nuclear mission and the standards applied to those involved, he said. The Navy underwent its own top-to-bottom review of its nuclear operations and activities.
The increased focus on nuclear-related units and activities has paid off in better performance levels, Kehler reported.
The general recalled his own experience with these “hard looks” during his earlier years within the nuclear force. “These are not easy evaluations to pass,” he said. “And they have gotten harder.”
STRATCOM’s nuclear deterrence mission remains critical to the United States, Kehler noted, injected with a renewed focus and sense of urgency by the president’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the national defense strategy.
“We recognize the Cold War has been over for 20 years,” he said, but he noted President Barack Obama’s pledge to maintain a “credible deterrent force” for both the United States and its allies and partners.
That deterrent is based on the triad of ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable heavy bombers and the associated aerial tankers, and the assured warning and command-and-control system that interconnects them.
Kehler called modernization of the nuclear enterprise “essential.”
“We find ourselves in the position today where most of the platforms and virtually all of the weapons are well over 20 years old, and, in some cases, substantially over 20 years old,” he said.
“Life extensions are due on the weapons, (and) modernization is due on the platforms … and the nuclear command-and control system,” said Kehler, noting that some of these efforts already have been deferred for almost 10 years
Asked about morale within the nuclear force, Kehler said it’s generally good. “It is not an easy job,” he added, noting the intellectual intensity of the nuclear mission.
Kehler visited the Global Strike Command headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., earlier this month, to emphasize the importance of that mission to the men and women charged with carrying it out every day.
“The skills that we have for the nuclear-deterrence mission will be needed as far into the future as I can see,” he said. “As long as we have nuclear weapons, it’s our job to deter nuclear attack with a safe, secure and effective force. That’s what we’re here for.”