WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is pushing to reassert itself as a major voice in discussions about America's nuclear strategy, the service's top officer said on Thursday.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told a breakfast audience that part of the reason he asked Gen. Robin Rand to leave Air Education and& Training Command (AETC) and move to Global Strike Command was because a four-star general allows the service to have a stronger voice at the table during discussions about the nation's nuclear force.

The service is "trying to get back into the mode of taking a leading role in the nuclear debate in this country," Welsh said. explained. "We lead and execute two thirds of the nuclear triad, for Christ's sake. We should be in the middle of the policy debates on this issue. We should be very clear on expressing concern, identifying things that [worry us], we should not be waiting for things to happen in this arena."

Rand was confirmed March 27 to succeed Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson as the head of Global Strike Command. Welsh praised Wilson, who is slated to become the deputy at US Strategic Command, for his work at Global Strike, but said having the fourth star at the table during discussions gives the service greater heft.

"Having a four-star in that position allows us to step into that discussion, where having a three star could be difficult at times," Welsh said. "So the idea, as I told Robin Rand, was go become the next Curtis LeMay. Bring this nuclear mission, no kidding, back to the front edge of Air Force attention every single day."

Rand was considered something of an odd choice to take over from Wilson, given his lack of experience in the nuclear enterprise. A command pilot with more than 5,000 hours in the F-16, T-38 and T-37, Rand took over at AETC in 2013. During his time there he focused on reorganizing how education is handled for the service, changes that are slowly being implemented around the service.

Welsh took aim at those concerns with his speech, saying he picked Rand for a very specific reason.

"Some criticism has been brought because of his lack of a nuclear background," Welsh said of Rand. "I'll tell you this — I don't think the nuclear background is the most important thing for the first four-star going up to Global Strike Command. I think leadership is, and there isn't a better leader in our Air Force than Robin Rand."

Later on in the speech, Welsh elaborated on his concerns about the service's voice at the table, acknowledging that in the last 15 years a number of factors — be they a lack of knowledge, experts living outside Washington or other distractions — have combined to the point where the service "kind of slowly slid out of the picture" on the nuclear discussion.

Notably, Welsh's comments on the need to maintain a strong voice on nuclear issues comes as the service is gearing up to award a contract on its next-generation bomber sometime this summer.

The Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program plans to produce 80 to 100 bombers to replace the B-52 and B-1 fleets. While it will not be nuclear-capable at the start of the program, the aircraft LRS-B will eventually become the core of America's nuclear bomber fleet.

Members of Congress are already raising concern about potential cost overruns on the program, and outside analysts have said the service needs to lay out the case for the bomber in the current budget environment.

The head of Global Strike Command "should be a part of the senior strategic leadership on this [issue], and if they are, we get a very different picture of the Air Force involvement and the Air Force role in that than if they're not, and I think that's the key," Welsh said.

"We have the ability to influence those discussions," he added. "We have not done that, in my opinion, to the level we need to do that in the future. That's what the four-star does."

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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