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September 15, 2022

From Cyberthreats to Hypersonics, Senator King Urges Top DOD Nuclear Nominee to Address Evolving Threats

Chair of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee questions STRATCOM nominee on wide range of challenges to America’s national security

Watch Senator King’s questioning HERE, and download broadcast quality HERE

WASHINGTON, D.C. U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, today urged the Pentagon’s top nuclear nominee to ensure the United States’ nuclear arsenal and deterrents are adapting to confront evolving threats. In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, King questioned U.S. Air Force General Anthony Cotton, nominee to be Commander of United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), on the growing challenge posed by hypersonic missiles and cyberattacks – stressing the importance of STRATCOM staying ahead of the 21st century weapons. Senator King, Chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, specifically asks General Cotton to routinely test their systems for cyber weakness, a process known as “red teaming.”

“Another area of strategic change has happened in the last four or five years, and that is hypersonics,” said Senator King. “We've thought of strategic forces as nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. Hypersonics are a new threat that is a strategic threat, particularly, for example, the Chinese putting a hypersonic glide vehicle in orbit, which radically changes things like how much time we might have to react to an attack. Do you view hypersonics as a serious strategic challenge?”

“Senator I do, and I see it as a warning challenge,” replied General Cotton. “I think as far as when we have a conversation, if confirmed, I think my fellow combatant commanders will have to have a discussion and understand how to kind of relook missile defense, relook missile warning, understand what a sensor layer looks like that can achieve those effects to give time, because I need to give decision space to the decision maker.”

“Well, I think it's safe to say that the bullet on bullet theory of missile defense is out the window when you're talking about hypersonics,” Senator King continued. “Another area is cyber. You've talked about it. You've indicated how important it is, particularly with [nuclear command, control, and communications]. Will you commit to red teaming and pen-testing and hackers for hire to test the security of the systems that you're developing? I don't think you really know how secure you are until somebody attacks you. And I hope, I want it to be a friendly attack.”

“Senator, if confirmed, that would be one of the first directions I would give to the [National Intelligence Council],” affirmed General Cotton.


Continuing his questioning, Senator King also highlighted the increasing threat of nuclear non-state actors who are not dissuaded by typical nuclear deterrents and asked General Cotton to carefully evaluate the nightmare scenario.

A new strategic challenge or a different strategic challenge and I don't expect really an answer, but perhaps you could consider this for the record. That is non-state actors with nuclear weapons,” said Senator King. “The deterrent theory doesn't work if you don't have a capital city and if you don't care about dying, and we have a proliferation of nuclear weapons and we have rogue states developing nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, the chances of those materials falling into the hands of a terrorist organization, it seems to me, are increasing gradually but steadily. I hope you will give this some thought, because it's a major strategic challenge that doesn't fit within the ambit of what has been our historic deterrence strategy for dealing with nuclear threats.”

As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces – which oversees the United States’ nuclear arsenal and posture – Senator King has been an outspoken voice on the need to address the growing nuclear capacity of our adversaries. Senator King recently expressed concern about the emerging threats of Russia and China’s development of “nightmare weapon” hypersonic missiles, which he has described as “strategic game-changers.”

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