Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday he’s concerned over the Pentagon’s lack of dialogue with China on strategic stability issues, to include nuclear weapon and space capabilities.

“We need to have that conversation start with the Chinese. We really do. We need to be able to sit down…and talk about these issues with China,” Hyten said during a Brookings Institution discussion. “That’s my one concern right now is that we’re not talking to each other a lot. I know President Biden and President Xi have talked a couple times this year. That’s important. But I hope we can broaden that conversation all the way down to the mil-to-mil level as well.”

Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

From a capability perspective, Hyten said he’s particularly concerned about China’s “almost unprecedented” nuclear modernization initiative.

“Now you see hundreds and hundreds of fixed silos coming in. You can see the commercial imagery that’s come out of the press over the last few months and it seems like every couple weeks there’s new pictures of more silos coming in,” Hyten said. “[With] China, there’s no limit. They could put 10 reentry vehicles on everyone of those ICBMs if they wanted to. There’s nothing to limit that ability.”

Hyten added he hopes that strategic stability discussions with China could work toward similar limits that exist in the New START treaty with Russia, the bilateral agreement that limits the U.S. and Russia to no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads.

The Biden administration and the Russian Federation agreed earlier this year to extend the deal through February 2026, after the Trump White House previously tried and failed to start negotiations to replace New START with a trilateral treaty that includes China.

Hyten also cited concern with the speed at which China appears to be building up its nuclear arsenal with modernized capabilities, comparing with efforts such as the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program to deploy a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) by around 2030. 

“Then you compare that to our [nuclear modernization] with the GBSD program, if everything goes right we’ll have 400 new silos, initial operational capability in 2030 and full operational capability in 2035. It’s going to take us 10-15 years to modernize 400 silos that already exist. And China’s basically building almost that many overnight,” Hyten said. 

Air Force Maj. Gen. Anthony Genatempo, the service’s top nuclear procurement officer, said in June that GBSD “is being built and will be fielded in full compliance with the New START treaty that is currently in place and will be adaptable enough to move forward with whatever form the New START treaty takes in the future” (Defense Daily, June 14). 

Northrop Grumman is set to build GBSD under a $13 billion contract awarded in 2019, with the program expected to total $100 billion over its lifecycle.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, introduced a bill in late June that would look to pause GBSD development until 2031 and instead focus on extending the service life of the current Minuteman III ICBMs to 2040 as a means of potentially saving tens of billions of dollars (Defense Daily, June 30).