At a hearing on Wednesday, Air Force Generals Paul J. Selva and John Hyten, who serves as the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified before a House panel that nuclear deterrents need to top the priority list for modernization and recapitalization efforts in the U.S. military.

According to Selva, modernization of America’s nuclear force has been back-burnered in recent years in favor of addressing “more urgent needs” in support of ongoing combat operations around the globe.

“But in making those decisions we have squeezed about all the life we can out of the systems we currently possess,” the general claimed, “so that places an extra premium on a very deliberate long-term investment strategy to replace those systems as existing systems age out of the inventory.”

As a result, Selva suggested, the United States is facing a “crossroads” in terms of our nuclear capabilities and ability to deter nuclear attacks.  As far as he’s concerned, nuclear modernization “can no longer be deferred.”

“We are now at a point where we must concurrently recapitalize each component of our nuclear deterrent,” he said, “the nuclear weapons themselves, the triad of strategic delivery platforms, the indication-and-warning systems to support our decision processes, the command-and-control networks that connect the president to our field forces, and our dual-capable tactical aircraft that can be equipped with nonstrategic nuclear weapons.”

He went on to claim that “Any disruption of the current program of record for future acquisition plans will introduce significant risk to our deterrent.”

According to the general’s statements, other nations throughout the world have continued to modernize their nuclear capabilities over recent decades while the United States has permitted nearly every element of our own weapon stockpile, delivery systems and operational infrastructure to live on well past their designed service lives would allow.

“Maintaining strategic deterrence, assurance and escalation control capabilities requires a multifaceted long-term investment approach and a sustained commitment to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent,” the general said, “[and] that nuclear deterrent is only as effective as the command and control that enables it to function.”

Primary among Selva’s concerns are the NC3 systems, which are our command, control, and communication systems designed to provide critical early warning information to the National Command Authority in the event of a nuclear attack.  The Command Authority then uses the data it receives from NC3 to aid in its decision-making process and strategic responses from our own nuclear triad.  According to the general, “any delay, deferment or cancellation of NC3 modernization will create a capability gap that potentially degrades the president’s ability to respond appropriately to a strategic threat.”

During his testimony, General Hyten emphasized the importance of America’s nuclear triad, which refers to the three methods of nuclear weapons delivery afforded to U.S. commanders: land based ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine launched missiles.  According to Hyten, maintaining the triad as America works to modernize its nuclear program is integral to managing risks presented by potential nuclear opponents like Russia and China.

“Based on the collection of potential threats and adversaries that exist in the world,” Selva said, “the Joint Chiefs affirmed the necessity to maintain a triad and to modernize the weapon systems, the indications of warning and the command and control associated with that triad.”

Hyten went on to claim that maintaining the triad was essential to serve as a deterrent; “you have to have a capability that provides the adversary a calculus that he looks at and decides that his options will fail. If the adversary has capabilities to operate from the sea, from the land [and] from the air, we have to be able to turn all those elements. That’s how the triad was developed and that’s how we need to go.”

According to General Selva, modernizing our nuclear triad and supporting infrastructure will allow the U.S. to maintain its qualitative advantage over international opponents and even to compound our advantage over time by “continuing to have a triad that gives us a ballistic missile force that confounds Russian and Chinese targeting, a bomber force that is resilient enough and capable enough to penetrate enemy air defenses and respond to a nuclear attack, and a survivable portion of that triad, in the case of our strategic ballistic missile submarines, that gives us an ability to respond even if an adversary were to believe that they could execute a decapitating attack on our nuclear capability.”

In a final statement that echoed the cold war’s “mutually assured destruction” strategy, Selva closed by saying, “it is our strategy going forward to continue to modernize all three legs of the triad in order to continue to pose unsurvivable targeting challenges to adversaries that match us in number and [are] very close to matching us [in the quality of] delivery systems themselves.”


Image courtesy of the Department of Defense