WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Strategic Command has been warning lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the security toll of ongoing, across-the-board budget cuts.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler said civilian hiring restrictions, salary freezes and unpaid furloughs are especially troubling, given that civilians make up 60 percent of StratCom's headquarters staff.
“They represent critical expertise and they make up much of the essential workforce (that) provides crucial functions like intelligence, maintenance and sustainment,” Kehler said. “Because they are such dedicated patriots, I believe our military and civilian members will cope with the effects of financial uncertainty in the near-term.
“But I am worried 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.”
StratCom is based at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. The furloughs and other spending restraints are the result of budget cuts known as sequestration that hit March 1.
Congress still could take action to reverse the cuts they passed.
Kehler said the role of civilians has changed over the years. Particularly in highly technical areas such as cyber and nuclear, he said they possess expertise and experience that in many cases would not be present among the uniformed ranks.
He noted the success of an internship program in luring recent college graduates into government jobs but questioned whether that kind of effort would continue to thrive.
“In Omaha, we find that a number of these youngsters who are just beginning their careers in civil service with college degrees are looking around today and wondering if this is their future,” Kehler said.
In addition to personnel issues, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and other committee members asked Kehler about the state of the nation's nuclear arsenal in a changing and dangerous world.
Kehler expressed confidence in the arsenal and said StratCom constantly reviews threats and adjust their response.
Fischer specifically asked Kehler about the potential for further reductions in the country's nuclear weapons.
Kehler said working with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that potentially threaten the United States has been beneficial and that additional opportunities should be explored.
But he said he would not support unilaterally reducing the country's nuclear arsenal below levels agreed to in the New START treaty.