—Michael C. Sirak
March 5, 2008— Although world dynamics have shifted abruptly since the end of the Cold War and strategic deterrence is a much more “nuanced” multifaceted and “whole-of-government” mission, the need for nuclear weapons remains indefinitely, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of US Strategic Command, said Tuesday.
“I believe we are going to need a nuclear deterrent in this country for the remainder of this century, the 21st century,” he told defense reporters March 4 in Washington, D.C. “So long as there are other countries in the world that possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States of America and our way of life ... we will have to deter those types of countries.”
Because of this, it is all the more critical for the development and fielding of a new nuclear warhead design called the Reliable Replacement Warhead and a flexible support infrastructure for production and maintenance of the weapons, Chilton said.
Developing RRW would allow the United States the option of reducing further its warhead inventories since it would have more confidence in their reliability and maintainability, especially without actually detonating them in tests, he said.
The US is committed with Russia to reducing its operational nuclear forces to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads in 2012. There is talk of going beyond that in a new round of arms reduction talks.
“If we do that right,” Chilton said of modernizing the nuclear warheads, “we have an opportunity not only perhaps to lower the deployed warheads, but certainly to lower the number of warheads that we have on the shelf,” the general said. “And I think that is important.”
There will always be a need to protect against strategic uncertainty, Chilton said. “You can do that with a large stockpile, or you can do that with a responsive infrastructure. And I think I’d prefer the responsive infrastructure,” he said.
The modern design would also have safety and security features to thwart terrorists from being able to use them if they somehow acquired one, he said.
Chilton said he envisions the RRW program would yield a family of weapons as opposed to just a single design. That is prudent in case some systemic problem were found in one model.
Congress has been wary of the Administration’s plans with RRW and has allowed studies and development to proceed only at a deliberately slow pace.
Chilton said the time is now to act on this issue one way or the other.
“This is not something we can continue either not to talk about or push down the road to future generations,” he said.
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