The Chinese nuclear capability is improving at an incredible pace, and could soon be useable in actual conflict, Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command warned.
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had just ordered all briefs on Beijing’s nuclear weapons contain no intelligence information vetted more than one month earlier “because it’s probably out of date” that quickly.
Richard testified that China is capable of accurately deploying nuclear weapons anywhere within its region, and it “will soon be able to do so at intercontinental range.”
“I can’t get through a week right now, without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” Richard told senators in a hearing alongside Army Gen. James Dickinson, who leads U.S. Space Command.
Additionally, he said Moscow was also getting ahead of Washington.
Russia is “aggressively engaged” in “conventional nuclear capability development and modernization, and are now roughly 80% complete while we are at zero,” said Adm. Charles Richard.
“It is easier to describe what they are not modernizing — nothing — than what they are, which is pretty much everything,” Richard said.
While China’s nuclear stockpile is vastly smaller than the United States’ and Russia’s nuclear arsenals, it is undergoing an “unprecedented expansion,” Richard said in his opening testimony.
Russia and the US are limited to some 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments, according to the latest START treaty.
It is estimated that China has only about 320 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Despite China’s nuclear weapons arsenal has grown dramatically, Russia remains the primary nuclear threat for the United States, Richard said. While the U.S. has yet to field any recent updates to its nuclear forces, Russia is about 80% complete in modernizing its nuclear capabilities, the admiral said.
“While we are at 0% [modernization], it is easier to describe what they’re [Russia] not modernizing — nothing,” he said. “What they are [upgrading] is pretty much everything, including several never-before-seen capabilities.”
Currently, the US nuclear posture is undergoing review. The purpose of the review is to “reduce the goal of nuclear weapons in our defense strategy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, during the hearing.
Richard said he supported the ongoing review, but he cautioned against some lawmakers’ recent targeting of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the planned $95 billion replacement for the military’s 1970s-era Minuteman III ICBMs, as a potential cut to save money.
The Minuteman III missiles must either be replaced by the GBSD or retired, Richard said, calling them “leftovers of the Cold War” that have become too obsolete to be life-extended with temporary fixes.
Without ICBMs, the United States would be forced to change drastically its approach to nuclear operations, Richard said.
“I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers,” he said.
This would place some of the Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress and/or B-2 Spirit bombers armed with nuclear weapons and prepared to fly at all times.
Richard urged senators to watch the actions of the Chinese and Russians to modernize their nuclear forces as they debate the future of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
“It’s the only weapon system you don’t have to pull the trigger on for it to work,” he said of the nuclear weapons that he oversees.
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