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KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. - (AP)
The commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center says the United States doesn't need to test nuclear weapons at this point, but will in the future.
"Eventually we will because no matter what you do, a 1957 Chevy is not going to drive right in 2030," Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas told the Albuquerque Journal in a copyright story published Sunday. "I don't care how many pieces and parts you replace, you will eventually have to replace that 1957 Chevy — unless you just want it as a historic relic where people come by and see it. That's the analogy, absent testing."
Nuclear weapons testing is banned by treaty, leaving the United States the challenge of modernizing nuclear weapons without actually testing them.
Congress has been reluctant to fund new nuclear weapons research, since critics contend research is geared only toward development. That means most of the Nuclear Weapons Center's resources will be spent maintaining the nation's current nuclear arsenal.
Deterrence has a place, Thomas said. Nuclear weapons provide insurance to allies who don't have technological expertise or desire to have nuclear weapons and a guarantee against outside aggression to nations that could produce such weapons but choose not to, he said.
"And they're a hedge. Since we can't predict what international relations are going to happen in the next 10 years, we have to keep our weapons to hedge off those international mergers, as some people call them," he said.
Still, the U.S. continues to reduce the number of nuclear weapons it has, Thomas said. The nation has limited the role of the B-1 bomber, reduced the number of strategic submarines and deactivated the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles. It also made a unilateral decision to deactivate the Peacekeeper missile, he said.
The United States, in accordance with the Moscow Treaty, will reduce the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,700 to 2,200 by the end of 2012.
"With these actions, the U.S. will have reduced our arsenal of strategic weapons by 75 percent," Thomas said.
However, he said reductions make it imperative the remaining weapons are viable.
"Accordingly, Kirtland plays a very critical role in national security," he said.
The weapons center is responsible for making sure the Air Force Global Strike Command has safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons available if they're ever needed.
The center, set up in March 2006, has been authorized for 288 additional staff, including about 180 civilians. Thomas hopes to have the jobs filled within 30 months. Positions include everything from nuclear engineers to clerical workers.
"You know, you can't walk out on the street and find all the nuclear expertise you need, so that's why being here (Albuquerque) is so great," he said. The center can draw talent from Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland.
"Of course, my gain is their loss, so we have to be very careful with that," Thomas said. "We can also bring in contractors, prior military and retired civilians who have done these jobs."
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.