“Strategic deterrence” is a phrase often used when discussing the possibility of nuclear war. America’s nuclear deterrence strategies include a comprehensive missile defense system, but perhaps more importantly, the international understanding that the United States has an absolutely massive stockpile of nuclear weapons ready to be launched in retaliation after a nuclear strike. Simple as that may make it sound, nuclear deterrence can often be boiled down to something as simple as, “if you kill some of us, we can kill all of you.” It may seem brutal, but as history has shown, it has also proven to be quite effective.
In an interview with Department of Defense News, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, explained that this deterrence model can no longer be thought of as only a nuclear concept in the evolving face of 21st century warfare. Like the idea of mutually assured destruction, Hyten said he can boil down STRATCOM’s priorities into fairly simple concepts: “one, above all else provide a strategic deterrent; two, if deterrence fails provide a decisive response; and three, respond with a combat-ready force.”
The most important difference in the strategy 21st century warfare demands, according to Hyten, is the sheer number of potential adversaries on the world’s stage. For decades, the United States had a primary threat in the form of the Soviet Union, but today many threats are dire enough to warrant that same level of concern.
It’s now a multipolar problem with many nations that have nuclear weapons, … and it’s also multidomain… We have adversaries that are looking at integrating nuclear, conventional, space and cyber, all as part of a strategic deterrent. We have to think about strategic deterrence in the same way,” Hyten said.
Hyten’s vision for STRATCOM in response to this modern military climate is to integrate all of our nation’s military capabilities – “nuclear, space, cyberspace, missile defense, global strike, electronic warfare, intelligence, targeting, analysis” – so they may be more effectively brought to bear in a single decisive response to a threat. In effect, because nuclear warfare is such a massive response that it is often left off the table, America needs to employ the entirety of its kinetic and technological might in a way that serves as the equivalent of nuclear strike, if only in that the response needs to be swift and devastating in order to function as a deterrent.
We can’t [assume] that having 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons under the New START Treaty somehow deters all our adversaries. It doesn’t,” the general said. “We have to think about all the domains, all the adversaries, all the capabilities, and focus our attention across the board on all of those.”
However, the basis of the deterrent principle remains nuclear, so Hyten emphasized that America’s nuclear arsenal needs to be modernized, before it ages out of use. The General claimed that within 15 years, the U.S.’s nuclear superiority over global competitors will no longer exist, and without updating, the nuclear triad we rely on for deterrence today could no longer be viable.
They are viable today. They are safe, secure, reliable, ready, [and] they can do all the missions they need to do today,” he said. “But in the not-too-distant future, that won’t be the case. Sadly, we’ve delayed the modernization of those programs really too long. And now if you lay all the modernization programs out on a single table and you look at when they all deliver, they all deliver just in time.”
“I don’t want a future Stratcom commander to ever face a day where we don’t have a safe, secure, ready and reliable nuclear deterrent,” he said. “It has to be there.”
Image courtesy of the DoD