The nation must embark on a nuclear modernization program expected to cost $350 billion to $450 billion over the coming decade to keep ahead of strategic rivals such as Russia and China, Adm. Cecil Haney warned Congress on Wednesday.
Haney, who heads the Nebraska-based U.S. Strategic Command, often speaks about the need to replace or upgrade several of the military's nuclear delivery systems.
They include the Trident nuclear submarine, the B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers, the B-61 gravity bomb and the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
His audience Wednesday was the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, which met publicly for an hour before adjourning into a closed, classified session.
The military is facing what's been called a "bow wave" of expensive modernization in the 2020s because conventional and nuclear weapons systems — many developed during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s — are close to wearing out.
The nuclear budget takes up about 3 percent of the military budget, Haney said, but that will rise to 5 or 6 percent in the years ahead. These old planes, ships and weapons can't be kept much longer.
"We have in many cases stretched out well beyond the life expectancy of many of our platforms," he said. "It is crucial that we modernize our strategic nuclear deterrence capabilities."
Brian McKeon, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for policy, told the committee that rebuilding the nuclear force is the Obama administration's "highest priority" in the defense budget.
"We need to find a way to pay for it," McKeon said.
He and Haney also urged the subcommittee to fund strategic forces at the levels called for in Obama's 2017 budget proposal.
The plan "begins to reduce some of the risk we have accumulated because of deferred maintenance," Haney said.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the panel's chairman, asked Haney about Russia's request earlier this week for a surveillance flight over the United States under the Open Skies treaty.
The pact allows signatories to fly unarmed aircraft carrying video and still cameras, infrared scanning devices and certain forms of radar over the territory of other treaty members.
U.S. Open Skies missions, for example, use two OC-135 surveillance aircraft belonging to the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base.
Flights must be approved by a commission made up of countries that signed the treaty.
"They file a flight plan. We know where they're going to go," Haney said.
Haney and others have raised concerns, though, about allowing the flights at a time when the U.S. and Russia have been increasingly at odds over Syria and Ukraine.
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