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Nuclear program has Air Force both worried and hopeful

Administration's fiscal 2011 budget request includes a substantial funding increase to upgrade nuclear weapons facilities and modernize and sustain the weapons stockpile.

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command expressed concern on Monday over several aspects of nuclear deterrent capabilities but praised the Nuclear Posture Review and the administration's fiscal 2011 budget that requested a substantial funding increase to upgrade nuclear weapons facilities and modernize and sustain the weapons stockpile.

Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton also gave a strong endorsement of the New START arms control treaty, calling it a "strategy-based approach" to which his command contributed.

Earlier in the day at the Air Force Association's conference at the National Harbor convention center in Maryland, a number of senior Air Force officers in nuclear deterrent commands noted the improvements made in the last two years to re-establish high standards of security and performance and to start improvements in the aged nuclear weapons arsenal.

In addressing the challenges to nuclear deterrence, Chilton warned that the critical capability to warn of a possible nuclear attack is eroding because of the continued failure of the Space Based Infrared missile launch warning system.

He noted that he protested the lack of the SBIRS network of satellites in 2008 and 2009 and was assured both times that launch of the first satellites was imminent. But the program remains trapped in technical problems and threatened by massive cost overruns.

"It is past time to eliminate this critical gap in our strategic missile warning system," he said.

Chilton also protested the badly deteriorated condition of the nuclear weapons production facilities at Oak Ridge, Tenn., which he noted, were built during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.

But he praised the steps taken by the administration "to reverse the 15-year neglect" of the nuclear infrastructure, including refurbishment and upgrades to the nuclear warheads.

Chilton expressed concern that there was no plan to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, but noted that the Navy has started work on replacing the Ohio-class strategic missile submarines. He suggested it also should begin planning a replacement for the D-5 Trident missiles the subs carry.

He also worried about the future of the solid rocket industrial base that would be needed to produce replacements for the Minuteman and the D-5.

On the positive side, Chilton cited the NPR, which confirmed the need for a strong nuclear deterrent force and continuation of the nuclear Triad of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, and the New START treaty.

Asked about his previous comments that even if Russia cheated on the treaty's limits it would not be a problem, Chilton said the verification system would prevent a militarily significant violation. And even if the Russians violated the pact, they could not gain enough of an edge to consider a nuclear attack.

Ratification of the treaty in the Senate has been delayed by Republican concern about the arms reduction and verification.

Earlier, officials noted that the Air Force has spent $8.5 billion in rebuilding its nuclear deterrent capabilities and created the new Global Strike Command to establish a single authority over both the missile and bombers.