Senior General: U.S. Atomic Arsenal Could Deter a Nuclear-Armed Iran

Elaine M. Grossman

The top U.S. military commander for strategic combat on Thursday said that Washington’s atomic weapons could serve as the ultimate tool for deterring a nuclear-armed Iran (see GSN, June 21).

Asked at a public event whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be extended to nonnuclear Persian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in the event that Iran moves to build its own atomic bomb, Gen. Robert Kehler cited Washington’s roughly 2,150 deployed warheads as one of several means to ensure that Tehran does not threaten its neighbors.

“Strategic deterrence vis a vis any country — Iran, for example — would involve a number of different assets, to include partnerships with friends and allies in the region,” said Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, the military organization responsible for any wartime use of nuclear weapons.

Speaking at a breakfast forum on Capitol Hill, the Air Force four-star general also noted “the presence of our strong conventional capabilities in the region [and] the positioning that we are doing for missile-defense assets."

“And then ultimately,” Kehler said, “the president always has available the strategic nuclear deterrent to provide both a deterrent from an attack on the United States ... but also an attack on our allies and friends.”

In recent months, the United States has beefed up nonnuclear naval forces and other conventional military capabilities in the region in an effort to deter Iran from closing off the Strait of Hormuz — a key transit point for Middle East oil shipments — or from taking other provocative action in response to new international sanctions (see GSN, July 10).

The punitive economic measures, including restrictions on Iran’s oil industry, are aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program. Tehran insists that its atomic projects are solely for civil power generation, medical applications, and research. However, the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization has found indications of past military efforts to build a bomb and has said that the Iranian regime has not fully complied with international safeguards (see GSN, July 11).

Washington is also collaborating with its NATO allies to build a missile-intercept system in Europe that would be aimed at defending against a future Iranian ballistic-missile capability (see GSN, May 21).

In his remarks on Thursday, Kehler said that U.S. military assets offering strategic deterrence capability have expanded since the Cold War to include more than simply nuclear weapons, and these forces are now aimed at addressing a wider range of global threats.

For four decades leading up to the early 1990s, the dominant focus of U.S. nuclear plans and targeting was the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

Strategic deterrence of adversaries and assurance of friends and allies “remain relevant concepts today, but today we are shaping these concepts for a broader array of individual actors, each with their own unique context,” said the general, whose headquarters are based in Omaha, Neb.

This emerging form of “tailored deterrence” is “about what the U.S. and our allies as a whole can bring to bear in both a military and a nonmilitary sense,” Kehler said. “Its practice encompasses a wider range of tools today, both nuclear and strong conventional offensive forces, nonkinetic capabilities, limited missile defenses, theater missile defenses, [and] unfettered access and use of space and cyberspace.”

Beyond nuclear-armed nations such as Russia or China, strategic threats facing Washington include “the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” he said, also citing “the danger of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of violent extremists.”