Democratic Senators Complain About Border Emergency at Hearing on Russia, China Nuclear Threats

By Tommy Sears
Tommy Sears
Tommy Sears
February 27, 2019 Updated: February 28, 2019

WASHINGTON—Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a hearing on Feb. 26, challenged the deployment of the military in support of President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration at the southern border, as commanders emphasized the need for modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the face of threats from China and Russia.

Air Force Gens. John E. Hyten and Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy testified on issues ranging from modernizing the United States’ nuclear triad (comprised of nuclear-armed air and sea forces and land-based nuclear missiles) and prospects for extending and expanding the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, to the need for additional space-based sensor technology, and heightening the U.S. presence in the Arctic to confront increasing Russian and Chinese operations there.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the panel agreed generally on modernization of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, particularly in response to the same by Russia and, specifically, the development by China of its “first true triad capability” with the Hong-20 bomber, according to Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).

But Democratic senators repeatedly returned to the president’s national emergency declaration in response to border security. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked O’Shaughnessy, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, if most illicit drugs were crossing into the United States at points of entry or elsewhere.

O’Shaughnessy answered, “A little bit of both,” and then explained a coordinated effort by traffickers to divert border agents with large numbers of migrants and, while agents are processing them, to bring drugs across the border.

In further questioning by Perdue, O’Shaughnessy confirmed that barriers reduced the flow of human trafficking by 95 percent. He further explained that JTF North, under his command, is focused on drug trafficking at the border and that “we understand networks.”  In partnering with law enforcement, JTF North’s intel and military capability does exactly what they would be asked to do overseas, while getting training and increasing readiness cost-effectively, he said.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) asked O’Shaughnessy if he or his staff evaluated the legality of the emergency declaration. O’Shaughnessy answered, “That’s beyond the purview of NORTHCOM…we’re actually executing those orders and direction that we were given prior to that declaration.”

Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, emphasized the importance of maintaining the deterrent capability of the U.S. nuclear triad throughout the hearing. He called it “the most important element of our national defense.”

He noted that as opposed to developing new systems, as Russia and China are doing, the United States could maintain deterrence through modernization. But he also warned that these nations’ developments of their own triads were growing beyond New START, the last nuclear arms agreement between the United States and Russia. This circumstance, combined with Russian violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, gave him concern, as he sees the treaties as tools for limiting adversaries’ strategic forces and verifying the capability and size of their arsenals.

While expressing support for INF and New START, Hyten said he’s pessimistic as to INF’s survival, given Russia’s violation of it and lack of interest in renegotiating it, and argued that an extension of New START needs to include expanded terms for elements of Russia’s arsenal not captured by it.

Both Hyten and O’Shaughnessy highlighted the need for greater space-sensor capabilities, to enhance missile defense efforts and track launches. O’Shaughnessy also noted Russia’s and China’s “noticeably stronger foothold” in the Arctic, requiring the capacity to detect attack from that region.

“Their own security strategies are based on holding the United States at risk,” O’Shaughnessy said.


Tommy Sears