U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley testifies before a U.S. House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on President Joe Biden's proposed defense budget request in Washington, March 23, 2023. (Photo: Reuters)
NEW YORK: Iran could make enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in “less than two weeks” and could produce a nuclear weapon in “several more months,” according to the top U.S. military officer.
Speaking to members of Congress on Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told lawmakers the United States “remains committed” to preventing Iran from fielding a nuclear weapon.
“We, the United States military, have developed multiple options for national leadership to consider if or when Iran ever decides to develop an actual nuclear weapon,” Milley added.
Milley’s comments echo those that U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl made last month. Kahl told lawmakers it would take Iran “about 12 days” to make enough fuel for a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.
The estimate is a drastic change from 2018 when the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. At that time, it was estimated that Iran would need about a year to produce the weapons-grade fuel needed for one nuclear bomb.
The news comes as both Milley and the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, warned lawmakers in separate hearings Thursday that Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East through its support of terrorist groups and proxy forces.
Since January 2021, Iranian proxies have attacked U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria 78 times using drones and rockets, according to CENTCOM Commander General Erik Kurilla.
China competition driving defense budget
Meanwhile, the looming threat of China in the Pacific is the focus of this year’s proposed defense budget, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday.
“This is a strategy-driven budget and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” Austin said, adding that the proposed budget includes a record $9.1 billion to build a stronger force presence in the Pacific, improve defenses of Guam and Hawaii, and allow more cooperation with Pacific allies and partners.
The so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative includes procuring two Virginia-class fast-attack submarines and one of the new Columbia-class submarines set to replace the soon-to-be-decommissioned Ohio-class submarines.
Milley said Thursday that the U.S. submarine force “is incredibly capable, and very deadly and extremely lethal” and would make a “huge difference” in deterring any kind of aggression by China.
But while China is adding about 20 ships a year to its military fleet, the U.S. budget proposes decommissioning 11 ships while building nine.
The U.S. military has honed its focus on China as the Chinese military has continued its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its aggressive rhetoric toward the democratic island of Taiwan, vowing to take control of it by force if necessary.
In response, the U.S. has increased the number of military trainers in Taiwan, deploying more than 100 troops to the island, up from roughly 30 one year ago, according to officials. The force deployed is meant to provide Taipei with defensive capabilities without provoking Beijing.
When asked whether a National Guard State Partnership Program for Taiwan would be advisable, practical and possible, Austin replied, “I think it is.”
More than 100 ally and partner nations across the globe have benefited from the State Partnership Program, a Defense Department initiative that will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. For example, the international training of Ukrainian forces following Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014 essentially stemmed from Ukraine’s partnership with the California National Guard.
While National Guard elements are in Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy is not connected with a U.S. state in a State Partnership Program.