Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Modernizing the United States' nuclear strike capability is critical to the country's defense, the U.S. Strategic Command's commander told a Senate committee this week.
The "nuclear triad," composed of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and aircraft classified as bombers, "is the most important element of our national defense, and we have to make sure that we're always ready to respond to any threat, "Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
He added that each part of the triad is critical to nuclear deterrence, calling the bombers, which can quickly be recall by the president before weapons are deployed, "the most flexible element of the triad."
Submarines have the capability to "hide from our adversaries and make sure we can respond to any surprise attack" and ICBMs, located in 400 places across the country and difficult for an adversary to target them all, create "a significant advantage for us," he said.
Hyten said that Russia's triad modernization, begun in 2006, is about 80 percent complete, and that China is developing a similar program. He mentioned Russia's plans to construct a thermonuclear torpedo and a hypersonic glide vehicle, previously announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as being particularly concerning.
He stressed that a new class of nuclear missiles is not necessary. Instead, he urged improving communications systems, sensors and radar capabilities, and noted that U.S. nuclear capability is a small percentage of the overall defense budget.
The modernization project is expected to cost $494 billion in the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office said in a report in January, a 23 percent increase from an estimate in a similar report in 2017. The January report said that only six percent of the defense budget is concerned with the U.S. nuclear strike capability.
During the committee hearing, Hyten was asked about the potential of cyberthreats. He responded by saying that he had never lost connectivity with any element of the triad.
"That shows you how resilient, reliable and effective the current command and control system is," Hyten said, "but what concerned me about it is I really can't effectively explain that to you because it's been built 50 years ago through different kinds of pathways, different kinds of structures."
He added that replacing older equipment with more modern technology could actually make the system more vulnerable to cyberattacks.
"One of the great things about being so old is the cyberthreats are actually fairly minimal," he said.