OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — The chief of U.S. Strategic Command said Thursday that the size, yield and other indications seen in North Korea’s most recent nuclear test “equates to a hydrogen bomb” and that he must now assume Pyongyang can build one.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who oversees U.S. nuclear forces and monitors North Korea, told reporters meeting with him at his headquarters on this installation that he cannot confirm a hydrogen bomb was tested but the test was significant “because of the sheer destruction and damage you can use and create with a weapon of that size.” The Sept. 3 blast is believed to have been at least 100 kilotons in size, large enough to reshape the size of the mountain above the test site that Pyongyang used.
“The change from the original atomic bomb to the hydrogen changed our entire deterrent relationship with the Soviet Union,” Hyten said. “It is significantly of concern not just to Strategic Command, but to everybody in the free world. It should be of concern to people in the neighborhood, which is Japan and Korea, as well as China and Russia.”
Hyten said that if North Korea can mount a bomb of that size on a missile, it could potentially destroy a city. The United States has the ability to deter a nuclear attack on itself or its allies because of the nuclear weapons it maintains, but it’s a “different question” whether America can stop North Korea from building them.
“Do I, U.S. Strategic Command, have the ability for the United States to deter an adversary from attacking the United States with strategic weapons,” he said. “Yes, because they know the response is going to be the destruction of their entire nation, and I think that does provide a powerful deterrent.”
Hyten’s comments came in an interview with journalists traveling with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is visiting nuclear weapons sites this week as tensions with North Korea continue to simmer as a result of the nuclear test and an Aug. 29 operation in which Pyongyang launched a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile some 1,700 miles over northern Japan.
Hyten suggested Thursday that the debate about deterrence in the United States needs to evolve from the 1,550 nuclear warheads it maintains under the New START Treaty it signed with Russia in 2010 to account for other adversaries and other threats, including cyber warfare.
“It is the starting point for any deterrence equation, but it’s not the end point,” Hyten said of the treat. “We have to worry not just about attacks that could hurt this country in the nuclear realm, but we have to worry about large-scale conventional attacks as well as space and cyber attacks that could seriously damage this country.”