SENATOR MIKE LEE (R-UT): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, General Kehler and General Alexander, for joining us today and for your service to our country. Both of those things are deeply appreciated.
General Kehler, in June of 2010 as the Senate was considering the New START Treaty, your predecessor, General Chilton, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that force level under that treaty, meaning 1,550 warheads on 700 delivery vehicles, was, quote, “exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent,” close quote.
Did I understand your answer to Senator Fisher’s question as being inconsistent with that? I think I did. I thought I heard you say we could go lower than that. And if that’s exactly what we needed in 2010, what has changed between now and then?
GEN. KEHLER: Senator, I think I’m not inconsistent with that, so let me explain. The way we determine the size of the force is we don’t start with a number. What we start with is a set of national security objectives. Those objectives eventually wind up being military tasks. Those tasks require a certain number of weapons to achieve.
When General Chilton was asked that question, he took a look at the national objectives that he had at the time, the tasks that he was asked to perform, and he looked at the number of weapons that were going to be permissible under a New START Treaty, and he said all of those matched.
SEN. LEE: OK. OK.
GEN. KEHLER: My point is that we may have opportunities to go below that, but it doesn’t start with a number, it’s got to start with national objectives and military tasks that would be associated with it.
SEN. LEE: OK. So you’re not saying as of right now you’re certain or you’re confident we could go below that. You’re saying it is possible, based on further assessments at some point in the future —
GEN. KEHLER: Yes, sir. I think that’s right. I think it’s possible, based upon assessments, based upon national objectives, based upon the military tasks we would be asked to achieve, and I think it depends on the nature of any threat that’s out there. So I think many factors go into the number.
My contention is, though, like the nuclear posture review said, I support this. I think we should explore whether further reductions are possible.
The above exchange is excerpted from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s March 12 hearing with the Commanders of US Strategic Command and US Cyber Command.
Opponents of further reductions to the US nuclear arsenal often point to former STRATCOM chief Gen. Kevin Chilton’s 2010 comments referenced above in making the case against additional cuts. But as Gen. Kehler notes, Gen. Chilton was expressing a viewpoint based on guidance and assumptions about what’s necessary for nuclear deterrence that were originally devised by the George W. Bush administration early in its first term.
The Obama administration has reviewed and updated this earlier guidance (see our fact sheet for more background), and indications are that the administration has concluded that the the arsenal can be reduced below the New START levels.
While Gen. Kehler would not elaborate on the guidance review process because no final decisions have been made, he did note that STRATCOM was consulted and actually conducted parts of the review. He also stated that further cuts should be pursued with Russia and that the verification of further cuts is important. For those of you interested in reading the tea leaves, read away.