Citing Tuesday's nuclear test by North Korea, a senior Defense Department official called U.S. nuclear weapons operations "a national priority" that the Obama administration would seek to shield from across-the-board federal spending cuts set to take effect on March 1.
It appears that "a safe, secure nuclear deterrent" will remain necessary "far into the future," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration's anticipated implications for Pentagon programs. "That does require that we have the scientists and engineering base, the facilities, and the life-extension programs and other things we do to keep the nuclear arsenal going."
Congress failed to approve a defense appropriations bill for the current budget cycle, and instead enacted a short-term measure holding most federal spending at fiscal 2012 levels through March 27. The potential March 1 sequester, though, would cut roughly $46 billion in defense spending through Sept. 30, Carter said in his testimony.
Republican lawmakers last week rejected a call by President Obama to delay spending reductions mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act by implementing budget cuts and tax increases. An alternative proposal by Republicans -- defeated previously on multiple occasions -- would delay sequestration cuts for one fiscal year by tightly restricting recruitment of new federal employees.
Ashton said the nation's nuclear deterrent "is the last thing that you want to do serious damage to," and suggested the Defense and Energy departments "will try to protect our nuclear capabilities to the maximum extent possible."
Still, "there may be some effects on some parts of it," he said. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley in January said sequestration could threaten preparation of a new strategic bomber, and the head of the Air Force nuclear command last week said spending cuts could force a 10 percent cut in B-52 bomber flight hours.
If sequestration curbs extend over a full decade, "I can't imagine that we won't have to also look at the nuclear part of our force structure in order to accommodate some of those savings," Carter added. The Obama administration committed in 2010 to invest $85 billion over a decade in modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure.
The deputy Pentagon chief said the United States would ensure Pyongyang is reprimanded for conducting its third nuclear trial detonation.
"There's nothing more provocative than what the North Koreans did," he said. "I'm particularly looking to China, of course, to join in that condemnation, and ... they have a pivotal role" in helping to determine North Korea's future course.
Separately, Naval Operations Vice Chief Adm. Mark Ferguson said the announced removal of one of two aircraft carrier deployments from the Persian Gulf would leave open the option to deploy a second carrier group in the region at a later date. The Obama administration has not ruled out military force as an option for addressing a perceived threat from the nuclear program in Iran, which has failed to convince Washington and other capitals that its atomic activities are not aimed at development of a bomb capability.
"If we deploy it now, we would not have the capacity to have a carrier deployed there in the future," he said. Spending limitations forced the second carrier group's removal, the Pentagon indicated last week.
Carter said the carrier redeployment took place because "we're going to run out of operations and maintenance funds in the Navy later in the year."
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted Iran's recent dismissal of potential direct talks with the United States, and he voiced concern over "the signal we're sending to the Iranians" by withdrawing an aircraft carrier from its vicinity.
Asked if the anticipated cuts would harm Air Force capabilities to potentially strike Iranian atomic sites, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the service's "kick-in-the-door capability would be affected."
Air Force Space Command last week warned sequestration would prompt a number of missile radar stations to cut their operations from 24 to eight hours each day, but Welsh told lawmakers the move would only affect "redundant" systems.
"Missile warning is not impacted," and any "threat to the nation will be detected," he said.
Carter said sequestration would produce "a true crisis in military readiness" within months and force alterations to the national defense strategy unveiled last year by the Obama administration.
"The cloud of uncertainty hanging over our nation's defense affairs is already having lasting and irreversible effects. And ultimately the cloud of sequestration needs to be dispelled and not just moved to the horizon," Carter said. "Perhaps most important, allies, partners, friends and potential foes the world over need to know that we have the political will to implement the defense strategy we've put forward."