Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said Russia remains the most urgent and immediate threat to the homeland even as China captures the attention of defense policymakers.
“Russia is the primary military threat to the homeland today. It is not China—it is Russia,” VanHerck told Air Force Magazine on the sidelines of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md.
VanHerck explained that while China is the “long-term existential threat” to America, Russia is the stronger warfighting threat today.
“From a kinetic standpoint—submarines, bombers, cruise missiles, those kinds of capabilities—Russia is the primary military threat,” VanHerck said, calling Russia and China “equals in non-kinetic—cyber, space.”
“They have to both be feared,” he added.
VanHerck’s comments came after he participated in a Sept. 21 panel discussion on homeland defense alongside the head of Space Operations Command Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting and the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command Adm. Christopher W. Grady.
During the discussion, VanHerck stressed his belief that the United States needs more robust forward deterrence should America’s strategic deterrence fail.
“Homeland defense today is too reliant on what I think is the foundation of homeland defense, and that is our nuclear deterrent,” he said. “What that doesn’t do for us is give us opportunities to de-escalate early and deter earlier.”
VanHerck said his objective is to give decision makers more time by moving the decision time “further left.” He named ballistic missiles as another form of deterrence and called for a change in how forces are projected to harden resiliency.
“If your only option to prevent an attack on the homeland is to nuke them, you’re not in a good place,” he said. “We have to create other capabilities and options to create doubt in their mind about ever striking our homeland.”
VanHerck said he needs a policy that describes what American assets should be defended kinetically.
“It probably starts out with continuity of government, nuclear command control capabilities, forward power projection capabilities, defense industrial base, those kinds of things,” he said.
Grady said fast-melting Arctic ice means America’s adversaries will soon be much closer to the homeland.
“They are always here,” he said of recent Chinese exercises near Hawaii.
“Within about 10 years, we’re going to have the Russians and the Chinese operating in that space 24/7/365,” he said. “If you postulate that forward then, and juxtapose that against [the concept of] defend far forward, we’re gonna have to defeat that threat before we can get forward.”
SpOC’s Whiting said defending the homeland from space is no longer as certain as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, when a treaty with the Soviet Union guaranteed noninterference in national technical means of verification, such as satellites.
“Russia and China have demonstrated that they will do that,” he said of their demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities in space.
“Things like missile warning, we can no longer rely on the fact that we’ve built strategic systems,” he said. “We now have to have an architecture that will survive in the face of those threats and continue to provide the information that can help defend the homeland.”
VanHerck also pointed to the new hypersonic missile capabilities fielded by Russia and tested by China.
“Are we going to defend the homeland from hypersonic capabilities? Or, are we going to rely on or allow our strategic deterrence to do that?” he posed.
VanHerck said the question was for policymakers to decide using the upcoming Missile Defense Review, Nuclear Posture Review, and a new National Defense Strategy.
He also stressed the importance of investing resources in improving America’s Arctic capabilities.
“I am the DOD Arctic advocate,” he said.
“To compete in that Arctic, in that strategic environment, you have to be persistent. You have to be present. I need comms up there,” VanHerck stressed. “What matters is, do you apply resources to that problem set?”
He added: “If we’re not going to resource the Arctic, because we’re going to resource somewhere else, that’s a risk our policymakers are going to make, and we’ll move forward, and I’ll salute smartly.”