U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Chinese regime’s expansion of its nuclear force is the most “disturbing” military threat he’s seen in his lengthy, 50-year-long career.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything more disturbing in my career than the Chinese ongoing expansion of their nuclear force,” Kendall, a former Army officer who also worked in the Pentagon for decades, told lawmakers during a congressional hearing on Tuesday. The 74-year-old’s military career started in 1971 after graduating from West Point, according to his biography on the Air Force’s website.
“For decades, they were quite comfortable with an arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons, which was fairly clearly a second-strike capability to act as a deterrent,” Kendall stated. “That expansion that they’re undertaking puts us into a new world that we’ve never lived in before, where you have three powers—three great powers, essentially—with large arsenals of nuclear weapons.”
The Air Force secretary said that the United States and then-Soviet Union came close to nuclear war “a couple of times.” However, due to those communication channels, it was averted, he told lawmakers.
“Nobody wants a nuclear war. We do not want to go back to [the Cold War] world of 30 years ago,” he added. I thought we would never be in this position again, and here we are. So, we need to be wise. We really need to start talking to them.”
For decades, the United States and Russia held by far the most nuclear weapons, although a Pentagon report released in November said the Chinese regime is looking to increase its nuclear warhead capacity to about 1,500 by 2035. The United States had about 5,400 nuclear warheads as of 2020, while Russia is believed to possess around 4,500 nuclear weapons, said the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan organization.
“Russia’s latest move on the New START treaty is not helping—it’s going in the wrong direction,” Kendall said, referring to Russia’s recent announcement that it would suspend complying with the nuclear treaty program that it had signed with the United States.
During the hearing, Kendall called on lawmakers to fund key military priorities, including bolstering the B-21 Raider bomber program and Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missiles. By doing so, the United States would counter the Chinese Communist Party’s growing military threat to the West.
“We must develop, produce, and field” these programs if the United States wants to keep its “air and space superiority,” he warned. “In order to proceed with any of these programs, the Department of the Air Force needs timely authorizations and appropriations.”
In last November’s Pentagon report, China has also made worrisome gains in building capabilities that “blind and deafen the enemy,” including knocking out communications and early warning satellites, expanding its use of artificial intelligence, and intensifying its efforts in cyberwarfare. The Pentagon, in last year’s national defense strategy, said China remains the greatest security challenge for the United States, and that the threat from Beijing will determine how the U.S. military is equipped and shaped for the future.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said during the CCP’s top meeting last year October that China would strengthen its strategic deterrent systems, which is a term often used to describe nuclear weapons, in the years to come.
However, China’s pacing in developing nuclear weapons may be faster than what U.S. officials may anticipate. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, stated last year in a congressional hearing that “whatever the time estimate that the intelligence community gives you on anything from China, divide it by two and maybe by four and you will get closer to the right answer.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.