Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General Robert Kehler, described the U.S. nuclear deterrent as being “in really bad shape.” Years of neglect and lack of funding after the Cold War have weakened the nuclear infrastructure, which poses a serious problem for U.S. defense capabilities.
While Congress has funded the platforms for nuclear delivery such as the successor to the Ohio-class submarine, Kehler worries the weapons themselves and the support structure that maintains them are ill-equipped to the meet the challenges of a 21st century superpower. This is particularly true, Kehler says, with regard to the nation’s nuclear laboratories, where intellectual capital must be maintained to ensure proper upkeep. “The part of the budget in fiscal year  that concerns me the most is the part associated with the nuclear weapons complex,” he said.
In 2009, Congress mandated the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, also known as the Schlesinger–Perry Commission, which concluded that “as long as other nations have nuclear weapons, the United States must continue to safeguard its security by maintaining an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force.” Yet research by The Heritage Foundation has shown that the U.S. has not sufficiently funded its nuclear deterrent since the end of the Cold War more than 20 years ago. As a result, America’s capabilities have diminished, and many of the brilliant minds who would fill our nuclear laboratories have applied their skills to other areas.
Fortunately, General Kehler believes Congress has authorized sufficient funding through fiscal year 2013 and that the needs of the U.S.’s aging weapons will help labs retain current engineers; he is, however, concerned about the future. “You have to have this enterprise to take care of [nuclear weapons],” said Kehler. “The [fiscal year 2013] budget contains appropriate investment in those activities. What I’m concerned about, though, is that beyond ’13 we don’t have a plan that closes.”
This concern is more than warranted, as the White House has attempted to cut funding for nuclear support systems and tried to delay the construction of a new plutonium facility in Los Alamos, NM, as part of its “Getting to Zero” Strategy. However, the House Armed Services Committee allocated $320 billion in the budget to keep construction on track, effectively reversing the decision.
According to Kehler, funding for labs is necessary regardless of any Administration plans to disarm. “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.”
Chris Gardner is a former writer for the Homeland Security NewsWire and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He is currently on staff at The Heritage Foundation.