WASHINGTON — US Cyber Command should be elevated to an independent, unified combatant command, the nominee to head US Strategic Command told lawmakers Tuesday. 

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the evolution of the cyberthreat means its "simply a matter if when, not if," US Cyber Command is elevated. During the more than 90-minute hearing, Hyten also threw strong support behind modernizing the nuclear triad.

Hyten commands Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The White House is reportedly moving toward separating US Cyber Command from the National Security Agency, a step touted by proponents as easing responses to threats, budget prioritization, strategy and policy.

The committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said earlier this month he opposes changing the "dual-hat" arrangement without  further scrutiny. Hyten, responding to a late question from McCain, said he agrees such a move is best left to a "future date."

Amid questions from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., over the apparent willingness of Russian and Chinese hackers to attack US targets and America's readiness to respond, Hyten suggested cyber is attractive to potential adversaries because the cost of access is "very low."

Though complicated by important legal and privacy questions, the military needs to have the ability to identify a foe and "eliminate that actor from cyberspace," Hyten said.

"From a military perspective, I would like to treat it as a domain where we conduct operations," Hyten said. "You're right to be worried, because in many ways, we're not embracing the military aspects of this."

On modernization of the nuclear triad, Hyten told senators that, if confirmed, he would continue as an advocate. In particular, he was "strongly" supportive of pursuing the air-launched cruise missile "because of the flexibility a long-range strike option can provide you."

"There's always a challenge to a bomber, it doesn't matter how stealthy it is," Hyten said amid questions from Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. "I believe an advanced cruise missile gives the president flexibility in the air arm that is essential as part of the triad."

The next-generation air-launched cruise missile faces some opposition from some congressional Democrats who say it is expensive, wasteful and dangerously escalatory. The argument is that the Long-Range Standoff weapon is redundant because the US will have two bombers, the B-2 and the B-21, which are themselves able to penetrate enemy airspace and drop a  nuclear bomb on a target.

The Air Force has shown interest in buying at least 1,000 of these missiles, and wants to deploy them through the 2060s, doubling the size of the fleet.

As each element of the triad ages out, Hyten said each element needs to be modernized, but especially the nuclear command and control capability.

"Our nation's nuclear deterrent force must always remain safe, secure, effective, ready and reliable," Hyten said. "As our potential adversaries upgrade their own capabilities, it's essential that we move forward to update and modernize the three elements of the nuclear triad."

The discussion comes as officials and experts are predicting a "bow wave" of nuclear-modernization costs the Pentagon will find difficult to absorb — a projected total of about $350 billion between 2014 and 2023.

Hyten rejected such projections, which has risen as high as a trillion dollars, saying the nation has to modernize "smartly."

"I don't like to see those numbers because they tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies," Hyten said. "We need to define our requirements specifically, decide what we have to build, and within the defense budget — because it is the backbone of what we do, we have to modernize the triad — the money will be there."

Email:    jgould@defensenews.com  

Twitter:    @ReporterJoe  

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

More In AFA - Air & Space