Nuclear deterrence is the most important mission for the Defense Department, and the nation cannot afford to let this capability atrophy, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Capitol Hill.
Speaking before the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute at the Capitol Hill Club, Air Force Gen.Paul J. Selvasaid that while the instruments of deterrence have changed, the strategy behind it has not.
Maintaining the strategic nuclear deterrence is the No. 1 mission, Selva said. The United States must maintain a healthy nuclear deterrence, he added, because “nuclear weapons pose the only existential threat to the United States of America and our allies.”
“There is no substitute for the prospect of a devastating nuclear response to deter that threat,” the vice chairman said, noting that the U.S. strategic nuclear triad of manned bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles complicates the situation any adversary would face in contemplating a preemptive strike.
Selva is in the midst of the Defense Department’s nuclear posture and ballistic missile defense reviews, and while he did not comment on specifics in those efforts, he did say that the nuclear posture review will ensure the United States will maintain its nuclear deterrent securely and reliably. “It will also be tailored to the requirements of the 21st-century world,” the general said.
Selva was asked about the North Korean nuclear threat. “While it is unclear whether Kim Jong Un can actually target the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile,” he replied, “it is very clear that he has figured out how to build missiles, and he is willing to proliferate them to any country that will pay for them.”
The North Korean Threat
But even if North Korea cannot target the continental United States, he said, the American nuclear umbrella covers South Korea and Japan. But the North Korean program is shrouded, and much remains unknown.
“Before we can assert Kim Jong Un has a nuclear missile capable of targeting the United States, there are a couple of aspects we must know,” Selva said. “First, he has to have a missile capable of ranging that distance.” U.S. officials believe the recent launches prove he has intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
Second, the North Koreans need to have a guidance-and-control system capable of guiding a rocket over intercontinental distances without breaking up. U.S. officials do not know if Kim Jong Un has that capability.
Third, North Korea also needs to develop a re-entry vehicle that can survive the stresses of an intercontinental missile shot. Once again, U.S. officials do not know if North Korea has this technology.
Finally, the North needs to develop a nuclear weapon that can survive that trip. Again, the United States doesn’t know, Selva said.