The head of United States Strategic Command warned that the country’s strategic advantage over adversaries such as Russia and China is “shrinking” and “without change, unless we recapture the ability to take intelligent risk,” the future could “put our whole nation at greater risk.”
“Today, our forces are still dominant, the finest in the world, yet they are equipped with many of the exact same weapon systems fielded during the Cold War, including the triad and our NC3 capabilities,” STRATCOM Commander Gen. John Hyten told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces last week during a hearing on fiscal year 2020 priorities for defense nuclear activities. “Moreover, our competitors are moving fast — particularly in the area of their strategic forces. Status quo no longer favors us; however, our underlying personnel, budgeting, and acquisition structures evolved since the end of the Cold War to preserve the status quo. This must change.”
“We must counter this situation with ruthless determination to reward and promote thoughtful risk management aimed at applying innovative technologies and new business practices,” Hyten said in prepared remarks. “We must improve our ability to protect our nation’s commercial sector where innovation thrives. We must move fast in space, in cyber, in all our strategic systems to once again regain the advantage.”
Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) Director Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe cited the Navy as “the most survivable leg” of the nuclear deterrence triad — intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) equipped with submarine-launched ballistic missiles — with the Ohio-Class SSBNs and their Trident II (D5) strategic weapon system.
SSBNs are “responsible for a significant majority of the nation’s operationally deployed nuclear warheads.” The SSP, which provides “unwavering and single mission-focused support to develop, sustain, and secure the sea-based leg of the triad,” is composed of about 1,700 sailors, 1,000 Marines, 300 Coast Guardsmen, 1,200 civilians, and more than 2,000 contractor personnel.
The SSP has strategic weapons facilities and waterfront restricted areas in Kings Bay, Ga., and Bangor, Wash., with Coast Guard Maritime Force Protection Units commissioned at both facilities to protect the submarines.
“Together, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard team form the foundation of our security program, while headquarters staff ensures that nuclear weapons-capable activities comply with safety and security standards,” Wolfe said.
“As we face increasingly agile, advanced, and persistent cyber threats to our nuclear enterprise, SSP must be constantly vigilant of our adversaries’ means and methods of obtaining critical technology and information about the Navy’s SWS,” he told the subcommittee. “In order to protect our technical advantage from significant harm today and into the future, we are laying the groundwork with our industry partners to revolutionize our business practices. Securing program information within the industrial base and adjusting procurement approaches will ensure long-term stability of our design, development, and sustainment efforts. The ability to drive concerted progress within the nuclear enterprise is critical to the security and survivability of our current and future SWS and the platform on which it is deployed to defend the nation.”
Hyten warned lawmakers that “with no margin to extend the Ohio-class further, the Columbia-class SSBN must field on time to avoid a deterrent capability gap in the triad.”
“It is also essential that we maintain our technological advantage in this critical mission, and Columbia will do just that,” he said. “To this end, the Navy has elevated the Columbia program to its top shipbuilding priority, leveraging other efforts and implementing advanced procurement to reduce risk and ensure it is ready for its first strategic deterrent patrol in 2031. We must continue to support our industrial partners and give appropriate prioritization to funding throughout the life of the program.”
Hyten stressed that it is “increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian models — gaining veto power over global economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — seeking dominance within their perceived regional spheres of influence, and expanding their global reach.” North Korea and Iran “remain threats but not to the same degree as China and Russia.”
“For over two decades, China and Russia have studied the American way of warfare; observing first-hand how we train and fight. They now understand the advantages we gain from integrating capabilities across all domains to accomplish strategic objectives. To counter our dominance, China and Russia are actively seeking to exploit perceived vulnerabilities and are directly challenging us in areas of long-held strength,” he said. “Their development of asymmetric capabilities across all-domains is not meant to challenge single aspects of our deterrence strategy; rather, their advancements in technology, strategy, tactics, and doctrine aim to invalidate our entire deterrence strategy.”
China is “pursuing advancements in offensive hypersonic strike weapons, advanced robotics, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence through a combination of research and development, forced transfer of intellectual property, and outright cyber theft,” Hyten noted, and “is pursuing a strategy of denying the United States the advantage of space-based systems during crises and conflicts.”
Russia has completed “roughly 80 percent” of their nuclear modernization goals, including increasing ballistic missile submarine reliability and stealth as well as fielding new Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs).
“Russia has an active stockpile up to 2,000 Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (NSNWs), which are not accountable under the New START Treaty. These include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines, and Moscow’s antiballistic missile system,” he said. “Russia’s diverse and flexible NSNW capabilities facilitate a doctrine that envisions the potential coercive use of nuclear weapons.”