WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base testified Tuesday in support of deploying low-yield nuclear weapons on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“We believe that’ll give future adversaries significant pause before they act,” Gen. John Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the importance of modernizing the traditional nuclear triad of bombers, ICBMs and submarines. But it also looks to a low-yield submarine-based ballistic missile and a sea-based cruise missile.
Hyten said the basis for developing those options is the same rationale that underlies the country’s basic nuclear triad — to match Russian capabilities and deter them from an attack.
Russia has emphasized its own tactical nuclear weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in 2000 that Russia would use a low-yield nuclear weapon if conventional forces are overmatched on the battlefield, Hyten said.
And the Russians have 11 different delivery platforms for delivering such weapons, Hyten said, while the United States has only one — an airplane.
“We felt strongly that we needed another delivery option,” Hyten said.
Lawmakers pressed Hyten on whether going down that road would risk escalating a conflict. Hyten quoted Henry Kissinger and said that without the right response options, a U.S. president could be in the position of facing a binary choice between “surrender or suicide.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., cited part of the Nuclear Posture Review that states if Russia complies with its arm control obligations and corrects other behavior, the United States could reconsider pursuit of a sea-launched cruise missile.
Fischer noted that some are describing that missile as a bargaining chip for Russian compliance with nuclear arms agreements and asked if Hyten would recommend canceling deployment of that missile if Russia complies.
Hyten said he doesn’t like the term “bargaining chip” and that every capability in the review, including low-yield nuclear weapons and the sea-launched cruise missile, are in response to a particular threat.
“If that threat changes, then my military advice will change,” he said. “But if that threat doesn’t change, my military advice will stay that we need those capabilities in order to respond to the threat.”
In response to questions from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Hyten said that threats in space are greater than they were several years ago and that one challenge is determining what needs to be classified given the need to plan the timing and tempo of operations.
“I think we have a very good strategy now,” Hyten said. “The problem is not that many people know it. So we’re going to have to work that issue.”
He also addressed talk about the administration creating a “space corps” separate from the Air Force.
“I think that, someday, we’ll have a space corps or space force in this country. But I don’t think the time is right for that right now,” Hyten said. “But I love the fact that the president talked about space as a warfighting domain.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., attended part of the hearing but did not ask questions.
Afterward, he issued a statement: “General Hyten was right to tell us to take cyber seriously and he’s right when he says that ‘war is war’ and we should focus on ‘understanding and defeating our adversaries.’ Washington needs to take that clarity and urgency to cyber war.
“It was discouraging to hear him say that admirals and generals don’t have clear rules of engagement when it comes to this new kind of warfare.”