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September 20, 2022

King Outlines Evolving Nuclear Threat Landscape, Assesses America’s Defenses

Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair presses experts on nuclear terrorism, hypersonics, tactical nuclear weapon use by Russia

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), chair of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation’s nuclear arsenal, today highlighted the wide range of evolving nuclear challenges threating America’s national security. In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator King pressed Franklin Miller, Principal of the Scowcroft Group, and Eric Edelman, Director of the United States Institute of Peace, on how to wisely address new 21st century threats including nuclear terrorism, hypersonics, and Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Senator King began his questioning by calling attention to the serious threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of non-state actors and terrorists and discussing possible ways to prevent the nightmare scenarios.

“Here's my concern: terrorists with nuclear weapons. Deterrence depends upon the other side having a fear of death and a fear of destruction and a fear of the loss of their country and their infrastructure and their capital city. What about people who, A, don't care about dying and B, have no capital city?” asked Senator King. “We need another theory or an adjunct to the theory of deterrence to deal with the threat of terrorists with nuclear weapons. We've got countries, Iran and North Korea, probably the most likely with building with fissile material. Iran's a week or two away from enough fiscal material. How do we deal with this threat? Mr. Miller, your thoughts? It seems to me this is a whole new category that, frankly, I don't think we're addressing.”

“I think [terrorists] are outside the realm of nuclear deterrence. That's the realm of special operations forces, it's the realm of intelligence, it's the realm of conventional forces. It’s also the realm of prevention, it's the [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons], it's working with allies and likeminded states to prevent those people from getting the fissile material and from getting the weapons knowledge,” replied Mr. Miller. “As you pointed out, you can get the weapons knowledge, but that's different than classic deterrence.”

“I agree. That's the problem. The theory of deterrence doesn't apply to the situation, which I think is one of the most serious likely threats,” continued Senator King.

“We need to hunt those people,” Mr. Miller assessed.

“I would suggest perhaps a Manhattan Project to figure out how to detect nuclear material from space or from a distance as our best defense because deterrence won't work,” Senator King hypothesized.  

Continuing his questioning, Senator King explored how the threat of hypersonic weapons “changes the strategic balance,” and how the United States should prepare for the new threats.

“It seems to me, Mr. Miller, that hypersonics changes the strategic balance altogether. And you suggested, I think it was you that was talking about the danger, you can have a nuclear weapon essentially dwelling in low Earth orbit over Washington,” said Senator King. “If the President, the Vice President and the leadership of Congress is gone, we're decapitated. There's no one to make the decision to launch, which undermines the deterrence because of the lack of a second strike, as you outlined. Should we have the Vice President live somewhere else in the country? Should we disperse our leadership in some way? Because I think you raise a very important point. Without the threat of a second strike, of a retaliatory strike, deterrence doesn't work.”

“I’ll be very careful in answering your question, because once upon a time I was involved in continuity of government programs. We need a survivable continuity of government to include nuclear command and control. Even a fractional orbital ballistic system would not come out of the clear blue sky. It would not come in a time of total peace,” replied Mr. Miller. “In a time of building tension I think it is incumbent on the government to establish a survivable nuclear command and control system which may include dispersing senior officials to more remote locations than Washington, DC. I think the government has practiced that in the past. It can always be improved. But I think the point that you raise is particularly important.”

Concluding his questioning, Senator King raised the discussion that has surrounded President Putin’s potential consideration of tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

“Mr. Edelman, what is our doctrine with regard to response to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon?” asked Senator King. “The President made a statement to Mr. Putin. Is that a doctrine? What is our deterrent strategy for the use of a low yield nuclear weapon, either as a demonstration in the middle of the Arctic Ocean or in terms of a strike on a city in Ukraine?”

“Senator, I think our deterrent posture has always been based on the notion of calculated ambiguity that we would determine at the time of use how we would respond to a weapon and a use of a weapon. I think that remains very useful today,” replied Mr. Edelman. I think this goes back to some of the foundational thinking about deterrence in the Cold War, and in particular the work of Thomas Schelling, who, famously, in Strategy of Conflict, wrote in 1960 that the risk that leaves something to chance in the mind of your adversary, the notion that if they do this, they're moving down a road, the consequences of which they cannot calculate, is perhaps the strongest deterrent that we have in that regard. I thought the President's statement to Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes on Sunday was exemplary.”

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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