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U.S. Strategic Commander Urges Deterrence at Harvard IOP Forum

The Harvard Institute of Politics.
The Harvard Institute of Politics. By Megan M. Ross
By Joshua S. Archibald and Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz, Contributing Writers

Commander of the United States Strategic Command John E. Hyten ’81 urged American leaders to continue deterring the country’s adversaries from using nuclear weapons at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Wednesday.

IOP Resident Fellow John O. Noonan moderated the talk, which touched on subjects ranging from cybersecurity to the militarization of space to efforts to modernize nuclear infrastructure.

Hyten’s talk comes amid heightening nuclear tensions. The Trump administration threatened last month to withdraw from a bilateral treaty with Russia banning short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Earlier this week, satellite images showed North Korea is attempting to develop a long-range nuclear missile despite American efforts to quell the country’s nuclear program.

Hyten said strong American nuclear capabilities would deter adversaries from taking military action and help secure nuclear peace.

“You don’t want to fight a nuclear war,” he said. “And if each side understands that they have ready, available forces, they won’t cross that line.”

He said he is concerned by American adversaries’ increasing investment in nuclear weapons programs over the past several decades. He pointed to Russia and China’s recent increases in military spending.

These kinds of investments could pose military threats to the U.S. in the future, Hyten said, and could cause the U.S. to fall behind other nations in military capability. He urged the U.S. to “invest as a nation in these capabilities,” while maintaining diplomatic efforts to reduce the number of nuclear missiles around the world.

For Hyten, though, cutting spending on the nuclear program without significant diplomatic progress could be detrimental to the country’s security.

“If you want to save money, change the threat,” he said. “Don’t change our level of security in this country, change the threat.”

He said that, above all, America should remain prepared for any nuclear conflict that might arise.

“Wars won’t be eliminated,” he said. “But I don’t want them to go without overwhelming superiority.”

Alisha Anand, a Tufts University graduate student who studies nuclear policy and who attended the event, said it was “really fascinating to understand how the U.S. military is thinking about the future of nuclear deterrence.”

Elizabeth G. Herington ’20, another attendee who participates in Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, praised Hyten’s focus on preventing escalation of tensions.

“The military is here to protect us and to prevent anything bad from ever happening, as opposed to this threatening role that I think that it often gets painted as,” she said. “I think that his emphasis on how we need to have these capabilities so that we never have to use them was really interesting.”

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