WASHINGTON (CN) - Citing Russian aggression, Chinese advances in nuclear capability and North Korean nuclear belligerence, Defense Department officials appeared before the Senate to defend a $19 billion budget they say will shore up U.S. nuclear capability and deterrence.
Convened by the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, Tuesday's hearing came two days after North Korea launched a satellite that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called "a major provocation" and "flagrant violation" of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council guiding the use of ballistic-missile technology.
North Korea needs to know we may not be adept at creating new governments, but "we're pretty good at taking one down," subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said. "They need to know there are things we will not accept, and their existence is at stake."
Much of the hearing, which occurred hours after President Barack Obama unveiled the new $4.1 trillion budget, focused on what the Defense Department needs to maintain the U.S. nuclear triad.
"We must be able to deter not only large-scale nuclear attack, but also limited nuclear attack and deliberate nuclear escalation arising out of conventional regional conflict," said Robert Scher, Defense Department assistant secretary of defense for strategy.
"Our choice is not between keeping or modernizing the current forces," Scher added. "Rather, the choice is between modernizing those forces or watching a slow and unacceptable degradation in our ability to deter."
Scher said some nuclear systems have outlived their intended service lines by decades.
"Delaying modernization and warhead life-extension would diminish the size and degrade the capabilities of our nuclear forces until they age out of service entirely," Scher added.
Extending the life of nuclear warheads, modernizing nuclear weapons delivery systems and infrastructure, and sustaining a nuclear stockpile will be key for maintaining U.S. nuclear deterrence, said Arthur Hopkins, assistant secretary for nuclear defense programs with the Defense Department.
These efforts will require sustained funding "over current levels" for the next 15 years, he added.
The witnesses voiced concern over trouble funding the Navy's next generation of nuclear ballistic submarines, known as the Ohio class after the fleet's lead vessel, the USS Ohio, which remains in active service after launching in April 1979.
With the first of the fleet's vessels set to retire in 2029, the Navy outlined a replacement program back in 2013 that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $92 billion.
Sessions said the Ohio replacement program could "pop the Navy's budget."
Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, the director of Strategic Systems Programs, said the program will take 68 years and the new class of submarines will be in the water until 2084.
Sessions asked the witnesses what keeps them up at night when thinking about nuclear defense.
Benedict said he worries about maintaining training, and instilling the necessary philosophical discipline over the next seven decades to see the Ohio replacement program through.
Scher expressed existential concerns.
"There's a number of countries that have at their disposal some of the most destructive weapons known to mankind," which poses the greatest danger to the United States and its allies, Scher said.
"Miscalculation from North Korea, from Russia - from Pakistan and India ... that keeps me up at night," he said.
Sessions seemed skeptical of rapprochement, or harmonized U.S. relations with adversaries.
"They may get the wrong messages," Sessions said. "Ultimately we have to use these powerful weapons - well hopefully not these - but powerful military force to defend the interests of the United States and the world," he said.
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