WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, warned Congress Wednesday that Washington faces a heightened nuclear deterrence risk when it comes to 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 sits on the Nuclear Weapons Council, and his appearance came during the first hearing assembled by the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. The panel was set to hear testimony from the interagency panel’s six voting members who are tasked with managing 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 note that China is “watching the war in Ukraine closely and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future. Their intent is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027 if not sooner.”
Richard said China has doubled its nuclear stockpile within two years, despite expectations it would take Beijing until the end of the decade to do so.
“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.
Richard used the warning to reiterate his call for “a low-yield, non-ballistic capability that does not require visible generation.”
He confirmed to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., this was a reference to the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear development program, adding additional fodder to the congressional debate over whether to proceed with the Biden administration’s proposal to cancel the project.
Another voting Nuclear Weapons Council member, Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security Administrator Jill Hruby, said the Biden administration would not meet its statutory requirement to produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.
It’s unclear what impact this would have on U.S. nuclear modernization efforts as Hruby noted scientists at the National Nuclear Security Administration have yet to determine the effects of using old plutonium pits in new weapons.
“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.”
Still, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., criticized the plutonium pit production program for running behind and over budget, while Richard and Angus King, I-Maine, who chairs the subcommittee, came to Hruby’s defense.
“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 nuclear modernization efforts have meant a greater portion of the defense budget is going to maintain the nuclear triad — it now comprises 6.4% of the defense budget — but noted it’s still drastically lower than the 17% of the budget it encompassed 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.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.