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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear forces transform to meet requirements

by Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
Air Force Print News

04/09/03 - WASHINGTON -- The Air Force is modernizing its strategic systems even as the nation reduces its nuclear stockpile, the director of Air Force nuclear operations said April 8.

Brig. Gen. Robert L. Smolen, director of nuclear and counterproliferation at the Pentagon, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee, outlining the Air Force's efforts to comply with recommendations of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review.

The service will reduce the intercontinental ballistic missile force to 500 Minuteman IIIs and fully deactivate the Peacekeeper system by 2005. The plan is in keeping with President George W. Bush's goal to reduce the number of operationally deployed nuclear forces to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, Smolen said in written testimony.

As those relics from the Cold War's nuclear-deterrent policy are being reduced, the service is building toward America's new strategic policy for the 21st century, Smolen said.

The policy, called the "New Triad," combines nuclear and conventional strike systems, active and passive defenses, and a "revitalized" infrastructure designed to meet emerging threats. This triad is supported by command, control and intelligence systems.

"With the nuclear-force structure defined, we will continue to ensure the nuclear force maintains the capability to meet current and emerging threats," the general said.

Smolen said the Air Force is working to keep the remaining nuclear assets viable, including replacing ICBM propulsion and guidance systems. These upgrades will keep the ICBM fleet operational through 2020.

Other sustainment programs are designed to let air-launched and advanced cruise missiles keep pace with the planned lifespan of the B-52 Stratofortress, which is projected at another 35 to 45 years.

Smolen also told the lawmakers that the Air Force has been active in ensuring the nation's nuclear assets remain secure.

"Sept. 11, 2001, drove home the importance of homeland security," he said. "In that context, a secure strategic force is not debatable, so we've taken aggressive steps to ensure our nuclear force remains secure from threats."

America's nuclear technology may be the world's best, Smolen said, but mission success depends on people.

"Our warfighting edge depends on the dedication, professionalism and sacrifice of the men and women in our Air Force," he said. "Without our people, even the most effective weapon systems are of little value."

Unfortunately, Smolen said, "Our cadre of experienced nuclear engineers, scientists and military leaders is declining."

To counter that problem, the Air Force began the Nuclear Technologies Fellowship Program, in which qualified officers and civilians attend a 21-month program focusing on academics and working in a national laboratory. Graduates are then assigned to leadership positions within the Department of Defense.

"Strategic forces will continue to remain a vital aspect of our nation's defense as we respond to current and emerging threats," Smolen said. "Today's efforts will help protect the U.S. homeland and critical bases of operation, deny sanctuaries to our enemies, as well as project and sustain overwhelming combat power in defense of national security."

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