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Nuclear missile program's future in doubt, retired general warns

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- A former top military commander warned local business leaders that F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the rest of the country’s nuclear ballistic missile program is being threatened by budget and political forces.

Retired Maj. Gen. Timothy J. McMahon told members of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce on Friday that public support is needed now more than ever to prevent the nuclear reductions.

“There is a growing political and cultural influence of nuclear abolitionists … along with power political agendas that are driving forcefully for further and immediate reductions in our strategic nuclear forces,” he said. “There is also the enormous and growing pressure imposed by the drive for budget reductions and the many influential people who look toward the ICBM force to pay what would be a very small part of our nation’s bills.”

McMahon retired in 2003 as the commander of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. This includes the 150 Minuteman III missiles at F.E. Warren.

He said the push to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal is nothing new. But he said there is now an unprecedented effort to draw down the number of nuclear weapons, especially land-based ICBMs.

He added that supporters of maintaining the nuclear arsenal can no longer just use the argument that jobs and local communities, such as Cheyenne, would be hurt if the missile bases are consolidated or eliminated.

Instead, he said the public must recognize and rally in support of the strategic benefits of the weapons.

“Absent immediate, thoughtful and public support, I believe the ICBM forces are not facing just another significant reduction, but the real possibility of elimination all together,” he said.

McMahon said most of the defenders of the nation’s nuclear program are people within the Air Force and are restricted from publicly lobbying in support of it.

He said at the same time, groups that advocate for nuclear disarmament, such as Global Zero, are gaining influence.

Global Zero recently published a report that lists recently confirmed U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as one of its authors.

The report calls for the elimination of the land-based ICBM forces. It argues they are a relic of the Cold War and have no practical defense purposes.

“No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face,” the report states.

“A large standing Cold War-like nuclear arsenal cannot productively address any of these dangers n for instance, it is unable to reliably deter or defeat terrorists with no return address, and its impact on proliferation may be largely counterproductive,” the report says.

But McMahon disputed these assessments.

He said Russia and China are in political and cultural turmoil that could pose a threat to the U.S. And he said emerging nuclear weapon programs in North Korea and Iran need to be countered though nuclear deterrence.

“In my simple-minded way, I could not imagine the world becoming more complex, more prone to mass violence and more beset by extreme ideologies than it is today,” he said. “Different threats might need deterrence to be applied in different ways, but I think that all nuclear threats, including North Korea and Iran, are worthy of real, compelling deterrence.”

McMahon applauded the chamber’s past efforts to support F.E. Warren, which included the work of the Wyoming Wranglers committee that advocates for the base and its mission.

But he said Cheyenne as a community can do more to lobby policymakers and stress the importance of the base.

“You can choose a course beyond the status quo,” he said. “You can take quick action to protect this force and to provide for its future as it has provided for your past.”

Chamber President and CEO Dale Steenbergen called for the business leaders to take McMahon’s advice seriously.

“We want to make sure when you leave here today, the message you hear is shared with the rest of the community,” he told the gathering. “The military is very important to us here, and we want to make sure the tradition and heritage of the military here in Cheyenne can prosper many years into the future.”

 

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