Washington will not significantly shrink its nuclear weapons arsenal as long as Moscow and Beijing possess their own atomic arms that could target the United States, says the general who oversees America's nuclear fleet.
Senior U.S. officials do not view the Russians or Chinese "as enemies," says Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, U.S. Strategic Command chief. Still, both possess long-range nuclear missiles that could hit U.S. cities or targets, meaning "we must be mindful" of a need to maintain a robust U.S. nuclear fleet, he told a forum Wednesday in Washington.
While it has been 67 years since the last nuclear attack--launched by the U.S. on Japan--"as long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent," Kehler says.
The United States and Russia are shrinking their atomic arsenals under a deal reached last year. The United States has nearly 1,740 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, sub-based ballistic missiles, and warheads for heavy aircraft, according to the Pentagon. Russia has around 1,490; under terms of the 2011 treaty, the U.S. is headed toward 1,500.
"At this level of reductions, it maintains a force able and ready," Kehler says.
The Strategic Command chief suggested Washington could eventually further shrink its nuclear fleet. But not today.
"I feel we are not at a place to go to zero," Kehler says.
Asked about a report from earlier this year that Obama administration and Pentagon officials are studying options to shrink the atomic fleet to just 300 ICBMs, Kehler would say only that a Pentagon study on further reductions is not yet complete.
President Obama talks often of his vision of a "nuclear-free world," and has pushed hard for nuclear weapons reductions between the Cold War foes. More pragmatic Obama administration officials simply want nuclear arsenal cuts because they feel the nation has more than enough and it would perhaps free up billions of dollars.
The sticking point to Obama's goal is the Russians, who "seem to be going the other way," says Michele Flournoy, Obama's former Pentagon policy chief, citing a renewed emphasis on nuclear arms in military doctrine and increased atomic weapons spending.
"Even though a second Obama administration might see it as possible to do more reductions," Flournoy says, "the challenge is getting the Russians to that point."
Meantime, Kehler told the forum the Pentagon is examining options for a missile defense shield that would provide an umbrella over the East Coast. But officials see no pressing need for such a system, which would be mandated in a House-passed Pentagon policy bill working its way through Congress right now.
Kehler also endorsed keeping--for now, at least--all three legs of the so-called nuclear triad, which consists of bomber planes that carry nuclear bombs, submarine-fired atomic-tipped missiles, and ICBMs. Some military experts and lawmakers have floated the notion of eliminating at least one leg to save money, and because so many delivery platforms are unnecessary.
"In this set of [security] scenarios, we need a triad" to give the president the full list of options, Kehler says. "I don't believe we need a triad out of theological beliefs...[or] because we've always had a triad."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.