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Congress Concerned by Russian Open Skies Surveillance Flights Over U.S.

A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 surveillance aircraft in 2008.

A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 surveillance aircraft in 2008.

Russian overflights of the United States under the Treaty on Open Skies, using advanced digital cameras, drew congressional concern as the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday took testimony on the threat from strategic programs to the homeland being carried out by Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Adm. Cecil Haney, head of Strategic Command, said the United States was not using similar equipment in a recent overflight of Russia because “we haven’t got that far yet.”

Russia’s modernization of its strategic and nuclear forces has been “going on for some time”—15 years. He added Moscow’s military modernization program includes its conventional and asymmetrical force.

Russia is also demonstrating the technological advances it is making in Syria, Adm. William Gortney, head of Northern Command, told the panel. That is apparent in the firing of its latest cruise missiles from aircraft, surface ships and submarines in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

To detect those kinds of missiles, the United States “needs a radar above the horizon” to fill that capability gap, Gortney, who also commands the North American Defense Command, said. The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netter Sensor Device (JLENS), a tethered device looking like a dirigible, which came loose from its mooring in late October at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., provided that kind of radar defense for the East Coast.

North Korea is continuing to make strides in miniaturizing nuclear weapons and improving the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles. Haney said in answer to a question the Pyongyang “has to know [America States has] has a very credible response” if it follows through on threats against the South, Japan or the continental United States. “They have a keen appreciation” of the United States’ strategic power.

Gortney said North Korean missiles capable of reaching the U.S. Pacific Coast with nuclear weapons had “a very low probability of success” now. As to a threat to the East Coast, he added, “I do not see it yet.”

Even with its tests this week, Iran does not have that capacity with its ballistic missiles. But Gortney said the tests were “indicative of where their minds are.” Tehran has agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief of some sanctions imposed by the U.N., the European Union and the United States.

Saying, “deterrence is complex,” non-state actors also need to understand that the United States would respond to a weapons of mass destruction attack, Haney said.

Haney repeated what he said in past hearings and public statements: that there “is no margin to assume new risk” in funding strategic programs. He said the Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine remained his top priority and the administration is committed to the triad. Strategic bombers and land-based missiles make up the other two legs.

He said that it was important to proceed with weapons modernization such as the long-range standoff cruise missile and new nuclear warheads even though new platforms, such as the long-range strategic bomber and new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile programs are still on the drawing board.

Gortney added, “We’re on track with the long-range discriminating radar program” to bolster defense.