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WASHINGTON — The head of US Strategic Command laid out a case for why the US needs to move forward with a costly full-scale recapitalization of its nuclear arsenal, just weeks before the Pentagon will unveil its budget for the next fiscal year.

Adm. Cecil Haney, who has headed STRATCOM since 2013, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the US needs to modernize all three legs of the so-called nuclear triad in order to keep near-peer nations such as Russia and China from feeling they can gain a qualitative edge over America’s military.

“This is critical in the global security environment. It is clear that, for the foreseeable future, other nations are placing high priority" on developing their own nuclear deterrence capabilities, he said.

Over the next decade, the Pentagon is planning to develop and produce the Navy's Ohio-class submarine program and the Air Force’s Long Range Strike-Bomber, as well as replacements for the ICBM stockpile and the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Agency is working on modernizing the B61 nuclear weapon, as well as new warheads for the ICBMs.

“We are out of time,” Haney said. “Sustainment is a must. Recapitalization is a requirement.”

The cost of modernizing the nuclear forces has become a hot topic recently, with top Pentagon officials such as acquisition head Frank Kendall and Comptroller Mike McCord talking openly about the challenge of affording the modernization effort.

An estimate by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments pegs the cost of the US nuclear force posture at more than $700 billion over the next 25 years.

But just looking at the cost misses the point, argued Haney.

“While many talk about sustaining and modernizing our current nuclear environment in terms of cost … it is imperative we expand that conversation to seriously consider the [benefits] derived from investment over the long term,” Haney said. “Our budget has a deterrent value of its own.”

The good news for Haney: Kendall has indicated that protecting the nuclear modernization effort is a “priority” on which the fiscal year 2017 budget, which will be rolled out the week of Feb. 8, is based.

However, calls for cutting some part of the nuclear modernization effort remain loud, with those questioning the nuclear strategy zeroing in on the Long-Range Stand Off (LRSO) weapon, which would replace the ALCM.

William Perry, the former Clinton-era secretary of defense, has called for the cancellation of the LRSO program due to its “destabilizing” nature, leading to a December letter from the Air Force Association to Congress asking that the Hill protect a program it believes provides a “non-proliferation incentive” for foreign competitors.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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