Nuclear arms fears surface during Senate hearing

Doomsday queries reflect level of alarm after China, Russia devise new delivery systems

“You can have a nuclear weapon essentially dwelling in low Earth orbit over Washington, and the analogy to the sword of Damocles is inescapable,” Sen. Angus King said during an Armed Services Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“You can have a nuclear weapon essentially dwelling in low Earth orbit over Washington, and the analogy to the sword of Damocles is inescapable,” Sen. Angus King said during an Armed Services Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 20, 2022 at 3:36pm

Should the vice president’s residence be moved to Kansas City to ensure the U.S. government can function after a nuclear strike? 

Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who chairs the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee and serves on the Intelligence committee, posed that question Tuesday to experts testifying at an Armed Services hearing. 

King was referring to the need for U.S. leaders to survive a potential strike by a weapon that China tested in 2021, an orbital bombardment system. In theory, such a weapon could reach U.S. targets with less warning time than other strategic weapons and could evade anti-missile radars. It might even be used in a first strike, experts said Tuesday. 

“You can have a nuclear weapon essentially dwelling in low Earth orbit over Washington, and the analogy to the sword of Damocles is inescapable,” King said. “If the president and the vice president and all the leadership of Congress is gone, we're decapitated.”

King was not the only senator to express concerns at Tuesday’s hearing about China’s growing capabilities, and China is not the only nuclear threat. The doomsday queries reflect the heightened level of alarm among lawmakers and experts about the growing size and complexity of global atomic dangers on multiple fronts. 

Russia, too, has devised new nuclear delivery systems, with more on the way, and has essentially threatened nuclear war, apparently to limit American options amid the war in Ukraine. North Korea appears to now be a permanent nuclear power. Iran could quickly become one. And then there is the prospect of terrorists fashioning a nuclear or radiological weapon. 

“The people that attacked us on Sept. 11 killed 3,000 people,” King said. “They would have killed 3 million if they could have, and I think this is something we have to take extremely seriously.”

King wondered aloud whether a Manhattan Project is needed to enable the detection of loose nuclear materials.

Orbital bombardment concerns

China’s August 2021 test of the orbital weapon showed the potential for a system that could circle the globe and then slow to deorbit and head toward a target on the ground. The warhead in such a system is widely believed to be delivered by a so-called hypersonic glide vehicle that can maneuver. Both the path of its trajectory and the changing pattern of its flight in the endgame could confound U.S. defenses.

Eric Edelman, formerly a top Defense and State Department official, testified that these weapons “could essentially be the basis of a no-warning attack on the National Command Authority,” a reference to the president and others in the line of succession. 

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked Edelman: “It's a first strike use [weapon], and it's also a surprise attack, where we wouldn't have that warning, correct?”

“Correct,” he replied.

The orbital weapon could tighten timelines for decision-making in a crisis, a dangerous dynamic.

“What if the weapon is up there permanently?” King asked. “It's in low Earth orbit, just like Starlink [internet satellites], only it has a nuclear weapon that it can then dive. My calculations are that it will take about 10 minutes to hit the Earth from 1,200 miles.”

Franklin Miller, a former Pentagon and White House official, said such a weapon would reduce warning times and, he added, “we wouldn't be able to tell where it was going.”

Miller said he was not ready to support a move of the vice president to Kansas City. But he did say: “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 in Washington, D.C.”

China's nuclear push

China has had nuclear weapons for more than half a century but theirs has been a relatively minimal force. Even the current estimate of some 350 Chinese nuclear warheads is still less than one-tenth the size of either America’s or Russia’s arsenal. 

But China is projected to roughly triple that number within a decade, senators and experts said Tuesday. 

Besides its orbital bombardment test, China has built new ballistic missiles, missile-firing submarines and massive fields of hardened silos.

And China is not party to any strategic arms control agreements with America.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee chairman, spoke in his opening statement of the arrival of a second nuclear age. 

“The Cold War was essentially a bilateral competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and deterrence theory and communication methods were developed based on two rivals,” he said. “Those rules now must change with the ascendency of China and its growing nuclear arsenal.”

Multiple fronts

Russia, meanwhile, which is limited in its globe-spanning atomic systems by arms control treaties, has a massive stock of lower-yield nuclear weapons designed to travel shorter distances in regional conflicts.

Russia “is developing a suite of weapons outside the terms of the New START Treaty to threaten the United States and Europe,” Reed said. “These weapons, such as cruise missiles, long-range torpedoes and hypersonics, are intended to evade missile defense systems and create a destabilizing challenge.”

Russia has also essentially threatened the United States with the use of nuclear weapons during the Ukraine crisis.

Iran, for its part, is now weeks away from a nuclear capability, independent monitors said this month. By comparison, Reed noted, under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action pact under which Iran agreed to constrain its capabilities for building nuclear weapons, an agreement scrapped in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, Iran would be a year away from a nuclear capability.  

North Korea, meanwhile, enshrined in law last week what its leaders call its right to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike ostensibly to defend itself. The Federation of American Scientists assessed earlier this month North Korea may possess 20 to 30 nuclear warheads.

And as King noted, terrorists remain a potential threat. While considerable technical know-how would be required to make a nuclear device — or even a less complicated radiological one — the amount of atomic material potentially available for smuggling remains a concern. 

Madelyn Creedon, a former Pentagon and Energy Department official, testified that she worries that “boredom” about the terrorist nuclear threat has taken hold in some quarters, because terrorists have so far not succeeded in their plans. 

"I worry that the fear of it, the threat of it, isn't taken seriously — and it has to be," she said.