The Washington Post

At Strategic Command hearing, Republicans go after Obama’s open-mike remark

The economy is the focus of the 2012 presidential race, so Republicans will have a hard time capitalizing on President Obama’s open-mike comment Monday to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about having “flexibility” on defense issues after the election.

However, that doesn’t mean the GOP won’t try to use Obama’s words and other “broken” promises on nuclear weapons against him. That strategy was test-marketed at Tuesday’s U.S. Strategic Command fiscal 2013 budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he would throw out a question he already knew the answer to, “just to get it on the record.” He asked Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the STRATCOM commander, and Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command, if either wanted to comment on Obama’s remark to Medvedev. There was no answer. After a pause, Inhofe said: “I didn’t think so.”

“President Obama is weighing the options of sharp new cuts to our nuclear arsenal unilaterally, potentially . . . proposing three plans that limit the number . . . as low as 300” warheads, Inhofe said, referencing an Associated Press report.

Kehler said that a study is ongoing and that while “no conclusions have been reached,” it did include looking at more possible cuts. The STRATCOM commander noted that standard practice has customarily been to make cuts in concert with Russia.

Inhofe also voiced concern about Obama’s pledge to modern-ize the triad of strategic submarines, bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that deliver warheads. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the committee’s ranking Republican, has said he is “encouraged” that “the department has maintained its commitment to modernizing the triad of nuclear delivery vehicles,” even with cutbacks in defense spending.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) noted that Obama “committed” in November 2010 to fund a five-year, $4.1 billion modernization of the nuclear weapons complex in return for GOP support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia the next month. Ayotte asserted that the fiscal 2013 budget request “underfunds the commitment,” citing slippage for five years of funding a $4.2 billion chemical and metallurgy replacement lab for the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Kehler agreed that the lab had been delayed. But he added that Pentagon budget reductions had to include the nuclear force and that he believed “we balanced the investments in much of the [nuclear complex] portfolio.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) picked up on the Medvedev conversation, saying, “This not a little matter.” He then recalled the George W. Bush European missile defense program to guard against possible Iranian strikes that Obama “out of the blue . . . canceled” in September 2009.

Sessions said the Bush system that “we were about to implant in Poland” was proven, while Obama’s replacement interceptor missiles were not. Actually, the Bush interceptor missile for Poland was never tested, and the Obama system has been adopted by NATO.

Back to the Medvedev remark, Sessions said: “It looks like the president is saying . . . ‘We’re not going to build the new system, not going to place it there.’ ”

Worries about warhead reductions, modernizing the nuclear weapons complex, and assembling the missile defense system don’t have the same pull as issues of the Cold War era.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) yielded politically appealing information on steps to cut the strategic nuclear program to implement New START.

By Feb. 5, 2018, the United States and Russia must drop to 1,550 deployed warheads; 700 deployed launchers, including bombers; and 100 launchers in storage.

Kehler said he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been selecting how many land- and sub-launched ICBMs, strategic submarines and bombers they want to carry the 1,550 warheads.

Meanwhile, the reduction of Minuteman III ICBMs has begun, and the reconfiguring of the sub-launched ICBMs is under study.

Another step is to destroy 100 empty ICBM silos that once contained 50 Peacekeeper MX ICBMs at Warren Missile Field, Wyo., and 50 Minuteman IIIs at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. There’s also the dismantlement of B-52 bombers, hundreds of which are in Arizona at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Republicans may try to stir up anti-Obama votes using his desire to “move to a world without nuclear weapons,” but facts show he knows the weaponry will be needed for at least 50 years.

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