HASC Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Hearing

Executive Office Building

By Thomas Low – NDIA Junior Fellow

In a recent hearing, held on March 1st, by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, witnesses reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to maintaining its strategic forces posture.  Witnesses included the Honorable Sasha Baker, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of United States Strategic Command, General James Dickinson, Commander of United States Space Command, and General Glen VanHerck, Commander of United States Northern Command & North American Aerospace Defense Command. Each testified in an open hearing to explore the policies, programs and priorities associated with the United States strategic forces.

In Chairman Cooper’s opening remarks, he underlined the need for the Pentagon to be “years ahead of industry” and have capabilities “that are the envy of the world.”  Ranking member Lamborn lamented the state of the current security environment and said that with China and Russia continuing their hypersonic missile and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests, we need to modernize our own nuclear arsenal and strengthen the NATO alliance. He expressed that we should continue to support the Sea Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile (SLCM-N), the B83 Gravity Bomb, and W76-2 warhead and that no changes should be on the table in US Nuclear Declaratory Policy. 

In her opening remarks, the Honorable Sasha Baker emphasized that we need a layered, interoperable missile defense strategy, and that the Missile Defense Strategy will detail how the US can work with allies and partners.  She also confirmed that non-nuclear armed hypersonic weapons research is a strategic priority. 

Admiral Richard affirmed that we are in the midst of a profound shift in the nature of the geopolitical threats the US is facing.  We now have to deter two, nuclear-capable near-peer adversaries at the same time.  He stressed the importance of strategic deterrence, saying that “every other operational plan in the department of defense is based on the assumption that strategic deterrence is holding.”

General Dickinson acknowledged that China and Russia are our main competitors in space.  He expressed particular concern about the dual-use implications of China’s recent SJ-21 satellite test “tugging” another satellite out of its orbit to another. Dickenson stated that Space Domain Awareness (SDA) is a top priority for SPACECOM and that “countering competitor influence”, “strengthening relationships and attracting new partners”, and “building and maintaining a cooperative advantage” are areas of focus. 

General VanHerck asserted that the US needs a more flexible array of options to respond to a more diverse range of threats.  He voiced concern that, while a strong and resilient nuclear triad is the backbone of deterrence, we have put too much emphasis on deterrence by punishment.  This limits the options available to decisionmakers and increases risk of escalation.  VanHerck said we must move to a model of “integrated deterrence, that employs all elements of national influence, leverages allies and partnerships, and provides leaders with a wide range of timely deterrence options.”  VanHerck detailed four strategic principles NORTHCOM and NORAD are focused on: All domain awareness, information dominance, decision superiority, and global integration.  Finally, the general explicitly stated that “operating under a Continuing Resolution has accelerated the erosion of our competitive advantage” and urged that the FY2022 NDAA be passed as soon as possible.

During Ranking Member Lamborn’s questioning, General Dickinson expressed support for an east and west coast launch capability, and General VanHerck said that he is sure that we will see more funding being allocated to the hypersonics area.  Undersecretary Baker stated that in her personal conversations with allies and partners, she has not encountered anyone who has expressed desire for the US to change its Nuclear Declaratory Policy.

During Member Carbajal’s questioning, General Dickinson stated that he was “very comfortable with our strategic posture for the space enterprise” when it comes to cyber-attacks.  He also said that SPACECOM has partnered with over 100 private companies now and is in the midst of developing a new framework for commercial integration to support Space Domain Awareness. 

In response to Representative Brooks, Admiral Richard stated that in his “best military advice, no changes should be made to the US Nuclear Declaratory Policy”, and that a change from strategic ambiguity “would have a very negative effect on the assurance of our allies.”

Undersecretary Baker assured the subcommittee that significant investment is being put into the testing infrastructure for hypersonic weapons, and Representative Langevin said that he expects substantial support from the Hill for that investment.  Representative Langevin also asked about the electromagnetic spectrum.  Admiral Richards replied that he was happy with the 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy.

Representative Waltz expressed support for the Tactically Responsive Launch Program (TacRL) and General Dickinson stated that SPACECOM is looking at that capability along with large constellations of satellites to increase space architecture resiliency. 

When asked about further nuclear testing, Undersecretary Baker stated that the department supports the moratorium on nuclear testing and Admiral Richards said that he saw no reason to return to testing. 

In sum, Members and witnesses affirmed support for investing in space architecture resiliency, research in the hypersonics area, and confidence in the US strategic deterrent capability.  The Pentagon estimates that China could have a thousand nuclear bombs by 2030, while India and Pakistan are believed to be engaged in a nuclear arms race of their own, and North Korea is estimated to have built up to sixty nuclear devices.  In an increasingly nuclear-capable security environment, maintaining the health and readiness of US strategic forces remains of utmost importance.

Members and witnesses were also hopeful that the FY2022 NDAA will be passed soon.  The National Defense Industrial Association has called for immediate action from Congress to pass full-year funding for fiscal year 2022 while warning against extending continuing resolutions through the rest of the fiscal year. In a white paper, “Risks to National Security, a Full-Year Continuing Resolution for 2022,” NDIA says a CR significantly reduces defense purchasing power and risks signaling a lack of seriousness and competence to counter Russian aggression in the Ukraine and Chinese missile tests. 

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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