WASHINGTON — The Navy officer nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command declined the opportunity Thursday to either endorse or reject a proposed U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.

Vice Adm. Charles Richard testified Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is reviewing his nomination.

With committee members praising Richard for his dedicated service and overall qualifications, his nomination appears on track for an easy confirmation.

But several lawmakers sought to pull him into an ongoing debate over the 34-nation treaty that allows member nations to fly over one another’s countries and take photos.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is among those who argue that Russia has violated the pact and gets far more benefit from it than the U.S., which has a more advanced network of spy satellites.

“I would submit that perhaps rather than calling this the Open Skies Treaty, maybe it should be called the open skies over America and the closed skies over Russia treaty,” Cotton said during Thursday’s hearing. “Admiral, do you see value in remaining in a treaty where only one side is following the rules?”

Richard chose his words carefully, saying he would support any treaty that enhances U.S. national security, a line he used several times at the hearing.

“Your analysis is quite correct on the Open Skies Treaty,” he said. “We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies. We would need to make the appropriate resource and operational commitments to utilize the full provisions of the treaty if we were to remain, and I would just offer my best military advice, if confirmed, if a decision were to be reached.”

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Offutt Air Force Base, near Bellevue, is home both to StratCom headquarters and a pair of aging jets tasked with flying the Open Skies surveillance missions.

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation have fought hard to secure funding to replace those planes, funding that critics such as Cotton see as a waste of American resources.

The Trump administration is reportedly weighing a withdrawal from the treaty, while backers on Capitol Hill have been making the case for continuing the agreement.

StratCom oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which Richard described during the hearing as fundamental to America’s survival as a nation.

He echoed the mantra of previous StratCom chiefs when he said the nation’s “triad” of nuclear weapons, delivered by land, air and sea, must be “safe, secure, reliable and effective.”

“A powerful, ready triad remains the most effective way to deter adversaries from conducting attacks against the United States and our allies,” he said. “We should be reminded its credibility backstops all U.S. military operations and diplomacy around the globe and ensures that tensions, regardless of where or how they arise, do not escalate into large-scale war.”

A submariner, Richard would replace Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who has been elevated to vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second-highest-ranking position in the military.

The Senate voted last month by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin to confirm Hyten to that new post despite accusations from a former aide that he sexually harassed and assaulted her.

Hyten strongly denied the allegations, and the Air Force found insufficient evidence for a misconduct finding.

An Alabama native, Richard has previously served as deputy commander at StratCom, which he described as a special place.

He said he would live up to the expectations of those who serve there and the legacy of past commanders. He specifically cited Hyten.

“He is truly a remarkable leader and commander, and in large part responsible for my development as an admiral,” Richard said.

Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska is a member of the committee and chair of its subcommittee on U.S. strategic forces.

Fischer asked Richard about the need to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons systems in a timely fashion and also solicited his opinions on upgrading the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Some have suggested that those missiles have become redundant and have pushed to reduce funding for their modernization.

Richard agreed with Fischer that the ground-based ICBM is an important leg of the triad.

“It adds special, unique capabilities that we have from no other leg,” he said. “It is essential in achieving the nation’s deterrence objectives.”

Fischer issued a statement after the hearing offering her full support for Richard’s nomination.

“He’s a capable leader with exceptional knowledge and experience,” she said.

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

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