U.S. Strategic Command can execute its full mission responsibilities today, but the impacts of fiscal uncertainty and declining resources in the next six months or a year could change that, Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler said March 5.
Testifying here before the House Armed Services Committee, the STRATCOM commander characterized the impacts as an avalanche that will start slowly inside STRATCOM and then accelerate as momentum builds.
“What will happen is that as the service chiefs have struggled with how to apply these various financial rules that they’ve been given, they have had to … take cuts that eventually are going to impact us. Flying hours, for example,” Kehler said.
“In the near term, what the Air Force is going to try to do is take their flying hours in the bomber force, for example, in such a way as to make sure that our crews that are nuclear certified will remain so for as long as possible,” the general explained.
If unaddressed, he said, such issues “will persist and the impacts will begin to be felt in Strategic Command.”
STRATCOM’s broad range of missions include strategic deterrence, space operations, cyberspace operations, joint electronic warfare, global strike, missile defense, combating weapons of mass destruction, analysis and targeting, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR.
In an uncertain and complex world, Kehler said, STRATCOM remains focused on conducting the missions that are most critical to protecting the nation’s core national security interests.
“Many regions of the world remain volatile, and increasing economic and information connections mean regional issues can quickly have global consequences,” he said.
Events over the past year in Syria, North Korea, Iran, China and elsewhere validate this perspective, he told the panel.
“Fiscal uncertainty is adding other unique challenges,” Kehler said. “Not only are the additional sequestration reductions steep, but the law allows little flexibility in how to apply them. We’re also working from a continuing resolution while transitioning contingency needs to the base budget.”
All this is happening, he said, “during a time when continued readiness is essential, modernization is overdue, violent extremists remain active, threats in space and cyberspace are increasing, and the possibility of nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation persists.”
As the United States confronts these challenges, the general observed, “our enemies and potential enemies are watching.”
Kehler said he is most concerned about the impact of financial uncertainty on STRATCOM’s people.
“Uniformed and non-uniformed members alike have managed the effects of sustained high-stress combat deployment and operational tempos,” he said, adding, “They willingly take personal risk for their country but they are fearful of taking financial risk for their families.”
Hiring restrictions, salary freezes and the likelihood of unpaid furloughs are especially troubling to STRATCOM’s civilians, who make up about 60 percent of the STRATCOM headquarters staff, the general said.
“They hold key leadership positions, they represent critical expertise and they represent much of the essential workforce that provides crucial functions like intelligence, maintenance and sustainment,” Kehler noted.
He believes STRATCOM’s dedicated military and civilian members will cope with the effects of financial uncertainty in the near term, but added, “I worry that over time our most experienced professionals will retire early and our best young people will leave to pursue more stable opportunities elsewhere. We are detecting hints of that now.”
Beyond the human dimension, he said, “sequestration will eventually impact the command’s readiness and curtail growth in new areas like cyber defense.”
In his written testimony, Kehler said improving DOD’s ability to operate effectively in cyberspace requires investment in five major areas. These include defensible architecture, trained and ready forces, effective command and control, global situational awareness, and policies and rules of engagement to defend the nation in cyberspace.
“Of these, the most urgent investment is increasing the numbers, training and readiness of our cyber forces. We are recruiting, training and retaining the best and brightest our nation has to offer, but the operational demands of cyberspace exceed our capacity to conduct sustained operations,” Kehler said.
“We must continue to grow and align our cyber forces,” he added, “to enable operations and support combatant commanders and their components.”
Kehler said the services are trying to give STRATCOM’s missions as much priority treatment as possible within the law, but the command will not remain immune from severe resource constraints.
“As time passes, we will see greater impacts to the nuclear deterrent, global strike, missile warning and missile defense, situational awareness and space and cyberspace, and to our support for warfighters around the globe,” the general told the panel.
Continuing along the current financial path will affect STRATCOM’s modernization and long-term sustainment needs, he said, potentially eliminating or jeopardizing important recapitalization efforts.
“Ultimately,” he added, “reduced readiness and curtailed modernization will damage the perceived credibility of our capabilities, increasing the risk to our primary deterrence and assurance objectives.”
Kehler told the lawmakers that Stratcom can meet its mission responsibilities today, “but the pathway we’re on creates growing risk to our defense strategy and our ability to execute it.”