With retirement near after 39 years of military service — the last three as worrier-in-chief about global threats to U.S. security — Gen. C. Robert Kehler ought to finally get some untroubled sleep.
There's plenty to worry about when you are the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, whose job it is to anticipate and defend against catastrophes inflicted by America's enemies. After three years on the job, he will hand over that portfolio Friday to Adm. Cecil Haney, a former deputy StratCom commander who most recently led the Navy's Pacific Fleet.
Kehler, 61, said in an interview last week that he worries most about a crippling attack on the nation's critical computer networks.
“I came in worried about cyberspace, and my worry has increased,” Kehler said. “I lose sleep over what we see as emerging cyberthreats — but I worry more about what we don't see, because I think that's a more insidious threat.”
In fact, he said, the most devastating attacks of any kind are the ones that blindside the nation, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Today a strategic attack can occur in many forms and come through many domains,” Kehler said. “Technologies are advanced so fast, and the cost of entry is so low, what we used to worry about only from peer or near-peer competitors is changing pretty dramatically.”
Ever-tightening defense budgets have been a major challenge during his tenure, Kehler said, and most likely will be for his successor, too.
Kehler said he's fully confident that the U.S. can keep up its deterrent threat — as long as funding continues at scheduled levels.
“The question is, will we be able to say in the future the force is safe, secure and effective?” he said. “My view is that we will — but it will take investment.”
Kehler supports the nuclear triad — air, land and sea — that has protected the U.S. and its allies since World War II, even as critics have suggested eliminating one or two of those legs to save money.
Each leg of the triad offers the president an important attribute, Kehler said. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles are hard for enemies to find and thus highly survivable; the weapons carried by strategic bombers can be used flexibly; and land-based ICBMs can respond quickly.
“These three attributes I believe remain critically important for the credibility of the deterrent force,” Kehler said. “The triad remains viable, and the president has told us to maintain the triad, because it gives him the greatest set of options.”
But the weapons themselves, and the delivery systems that carry them, are getting old. B-52 bombers are more than 50 years old, and Minuteman missiles and Trident submarines are around 40. All are scheduled for replacement in the years ahead — but that schedule could be set back, Kehler warns, if funding levels slip.
“Investment is required,” he said. “All of these are occurring at a difficult budget time. The question is, will we be able to sustain? This is presenting the Strategic Command with a very, very difficult set of choices.”
Kehler is proud to have overseen the early work on StratCom's massive new headquarters building, which is scheduled to open in 2016 at a construction cost of $525 million. He hopes to return for the ribbon-cutting.
He's also pleased with StratCom's strategic-bomber support during the Libyan revolution; the harnessing of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to aid victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan; and helping to set up a new cyberwarfare command.
The last few months, though, Kehler has been forced to deal with what headlines called “a cascade of missteps” at StratCom and its subordinate commands. First, an ICBM unit in Montana failed a safety inspection last spring. Then 17 members of a Minuteman 3 launch-control team in North Dakota were relieved for what Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh described as “not taking the job seriously enough.” In each case, supervisory officers were dismissed.
The cases led to accusations of poor morale in the nuclear force — something Kehler said he does not believe is true. But he said he is concerned about maintaining enthusiasm for a nuclear mission that lacks the drama it held during the Cold War years.
“There's not much recognition in what they do — until something goes wrong, and then everybody points a finger at them,” he said. “These are smart, dedicated, talented people, and they continue to do a great job. We have to keep telling them they're important to us.”
Meanwhile, two senior officers — Kehler's former deputy, Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, and Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who oversaw all land-based nuclear missiles — were relieved in September amid allegations of personal misconduct.
“Both of them have served for the bulk of their time very, very honorably,” Kehler said. “They both have taken it very, very hard.”
Kehler said it's a sign of resilience that StratCom can move on without them.
“We have high standards. When there are questions about whether individuals are meeting these standards, we investigate,” he said. “I believe taking that action strengthens the institution.”
One of StratCom's greatest strengths, he said, is the local Omaha-area community that supports it. He said many service members come to Offutt Air Force Base knowing little about Nebraska.
“They come here, the community embraces them, and the schools treat their children well,” he said. More than a few decide to stay.
Kehler himself said he enjoyed his three tours here, dating back to 1982. But he and his wife, Marjorie, will be retiring to the Washington, D.C., area to be near relatives.
“We're sorry to leave Omaha, but we have to get closer to our families,” he said. “We'll miss Omaha very much.”