The commander of the United States Strategic Command, which supervises the nuclear arsenal, told Congress on Wednesday that the United States confronts a heightened nuclear deterrent danger from Russia and China.
“We are facing a crisis deterrence dynamic right now that we have only seen a few times in our nation’s history,” Adm. Charles Richard told the Senate’s strategic forces panel. “The war in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory — their strategic breakout — demonstrates that we have a deterrence and assurance gap based on the threat of limited nuclear employment.”
Richard is a member of the Nuclear Weapons Council, and he appeared at the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee’s first hearing. The panel was scheduled to hear testimony from the interagency group’s six voting members in charge of nuclear policy.
“The nation and our allies have not faced a crisis like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in over 30 years,” said Richard. “President [Vladimir] Putin simultaneously invaded a sovereign nation while using thinly veiled nuclear threats to deter U.S. and NATO intervention.”
He went on to say that China is “closely observing the situation in Ukraine and will almost certainly employ nuclear coercion to their benefit in the future.” Their goal is to have the military capabilities to reunify Taiwan by 2027, if not sooner.”
According to Richard, China has doubled its nuclear stockpile in two years, against forecasts that it would take till the end of the decade.
“The biggest and most visible one is the expansion from zero to at least 360 solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile silos,” he said, noting China has also made significant advances in its air- and submarine-launched nuclear-capable missiles.
The warning was utilized by Richard to renew his request for “a low-yield, non-ballistic capability that does not need visible development.”
He verified to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that this was a reference to the nuclear development program for sea-launched cruise missiles, adding to the legislative dispute over whether to proceed with the Biden administration’s request to stop the project.
Another voting member of the Nuclear Weapons Council, Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security Administrator Jill Hruby, stated that the Biden administration will fail to satisfy the statutory goal of producing 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.
Hruby said that experts at the National Nuclear Security Administration have yet to assess the implications of employing existing plutonium pits in new weapons, so it’s unknown what influence this might have on US nuclear modernization efforts.
“We’re making new pits because we’re concerned about pit aging,” said Hruby. “We don’t want to put old pits in new weapons if we think in 30 years those weapons will be in the stockpile, they may have aging problems, but we don’t know for sure.”
Nonetheless, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., blasted the plutonium pit manufacturing program for falling behind schedule and over budget, while Richard and Angus King, I-Maine, who leads the panel, defended Hruby.
“STRATCOM supports this or any other measure that [the National Nuclear Security Administration] can execute that minimizes the delay and ultimately reduces the operational risk that I’m going to have to carry because we can’t meet the requirement,” said Richard.
King acknowledged that nuclear modernization efforts have resulted in a larger portion of the defense budget being dedicated to maintaining the nuclear triad — it now accounts for 6.4 percent of the defense budget — but noted that this is still significantly less than the 17 percent of the budget it occupied in 1962.
“That doesn’t mean it’s still not a lot of money,” said King. “I refer to it as the pig in the budget python. It’s a very large expenditure that we’re going to have to cover over a few years.”