The United States must maintain and modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad, including through deployment of a new air-launched cruise missile, the Air Force general nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command said on Tuesday.

“It’s essential that we always maintain a fully ready nuclear deterrent capability. There should be no doubt that the nation needs that capability as the backstop of everything we do as a military,” Gen. John Hyten, current commander of Air Force Space Command, said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

Gen. John Hyten, commander of the Air Force Space Command who was nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of the Air Force Space Command who was nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

The United States is projected to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades to operate and update its nuclear arsenal, including replacing all three of today’s nuclear weapons delivery systems: the Minuteman III ICBM, Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, and long-range bombers. While there has been significant public debate, largely outside the Defense Department, of shifting to a less-expensive nuclear “dyad,” Hyten made clear he believes each of the three systems has an important role in ensuring U.S. national security. The bombers are the most flexible weapon, submarines the most survivable in conflict, and ICBMs the most ready and responsive, the four-star general said.

Hyten also came down firmly on the side of deploying a new nuclear-capable cruise missile on bombers. The Air Force said in July it plans in fiscal 2017 to award contracts to replace its aging AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles. Procuring roughly 1,000 of the new long-range standoff missiles, which would be carried by various aircraft and designed for loading with conventional or nuclear warheads, would cost $20 billion to $30 billion. Deployment would begin by 2030.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) noted the argument that a “penetrating bomber” carrying gravity bombs would make such a standoff weapon unnecessary.

“From my 35 years in the military I believe you need the flexibility that an air-launched cruise missile, a long-range strike option, can provide you,” Hyten responded. “There’s always a challenge to a bomber. It doesn’t matter how stealthy that bomber is, it doesn’t matter how capable that bomber is, I believe a long-range strike option, an advanced cruise missile, gives the president of the United States flexibility in the air arm that is essential as part of the triad. I would recommend strongly that we pursue that option.”

These capabilities are all needed to counter the threats posed by Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, Hyten said. He noted nuclear modernization efforts by China and Russia, along with continued provocations by North Korea, including its fifth nuclear test earlier this month and the announcement this week of the successful test of a new rocket engine.

Committee members expressed worries that the United States is not doing enough to keep up with those threats. Hyten said he also has concerns about the “just in time” nature of Air Force strategic modernization (noting he is less familiar with the Navy side), and that 21st century deterrence must encompass all elements of power in the space, cyber, nuclear, and conventional sectors, he said. In that context, Hyten said he would support elevating STRATCOM’s Cyber Command to a stand-alone combatant command.

However, Hyten also expressed concern about the cost of modernization.

“I think the nuclear triad is affordable as we go forward in the future,” Hyten said. “But it should not be looked at as a blank check. I don’t like when I see the numbers that show up in the paper of a trillion dollars or $85 billion or $500 billion. I don’t like to see those numbers because they tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies: If we say it’s going to cost that much then it ends up costing that much.”

The Defense Department needs to define its specific requirements and determine what must be built, Hyten said, but that must include triad modernization.

The general said he would work to increase commonality between Navy and Air Force strategic missile programs to reduce cost and risk, with the greatest potential in leveraging capabilities in Navy missile programs for the microelectronic components of the Air Force’s new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.

If appointed, Hyten would lead the Omaha, Neb.-based command encompassing global strike, cyber, and space missions, among others. He would replace Adm. Cecil Haney, who is retiring.

With his wife and children in the audience, Hyten faced an almost entirely friendly line of questioning from the committee members. The only friction came after he indicated that the president, as commander in chief, could call for a nuclear strike without any separate advice or consent. The question has been highlighted in the countdown to the election pitting Republican Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“I think, general, you ought to read the Constitution. Nuclear strike, depending on the circumstances, would require a declaration of war. Only the Congress can … approve of a declaration of war,” SASC Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. Hyten responded: “Yes sir.”