America's top nuclear commander: Russia and China can't be our friends if they're developing weapons we can't deter

  • America's top nuclear commander warned Tuesday that Russia and China are not "friends" of the United States, while the two nations sprint to develop hypersonic weapons a threat, the United States currently cannot defend against.
  • "You can't call them [Russia and China] our friends if they're building weapons that can destroy the United States of America," U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten said.
  • Hyten added that the Pentagon has nearly a dozen programs tasked with developing and defending against the new breed of weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony following the talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 4, 2017.
Sergei Karpukhin | Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony following the talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 4, 2017.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — America's top nuclear commander warned Tuesday that Russia and China are not "our friends" as Moscow and Beijing sprint to develop hypersonic weapons, a threat the United States currently cannot defend against.

"You can't call them [Russia and China] our friends if they're building weapons that can destroy the United States of America and, therefore, we have to develop the capability to respond," Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

Hyten added that the Pentagon has nearly a dozen programs tasked with developing and defending against the new breed of weapons.

"I always wish we started [working on hypersonics] five years ago or 10 years ago because then we wouldn't be worried ... but we didn't so we have to step up now, and we are," he said.

The Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin a $928 million U.S. Air Force contract in April for an undefined number of hypersonic strike weapons. Per the multimillion-dollar contract, Lockheed will be responsible for designing, engineering, weapon integration and logistical support.

Read more: Russia and China are 'aggressively developing' hypersonic weapons — here's what they are and why the US can't defend against them

A hypersonic weapon is a missile that travels at Mach 5 or higher, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound. That means a hypersonic weapon can travel about one mile per second.

Hyten's warning also comes as the U.S. is embroiled in an escalating trade conflict with China and as the national security community warns that Russia is continuing to attack America's elections.

Hyten, who has previously called Russia the "most significant threat" to the U.S., recently described a grim scenario for American forces facing off against hypersonic weapons earlier this year.

EJ Hersom/Department of Defense photo

"We don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us," Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

"Both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities," he said then. "We've watched them test those capabilities."

Hyten's comments came on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin's boasts about new nuclear and hypersonic weapons, which he described as "invincible" during a state of the nation address.

"I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country's development: You have failed to contain Russia," Putin said during his address.

Of the six weapons Putin debuted in March, CNBC has learned that two of them will be ready for war by 2020, according to sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the St. George Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the St. George Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

And while Hyten, who hails from Huntsville, has warned in the past of Russia's pursuit of hypersonics, he downplayed Putin's capabilities on Tuesday.

"What Putin talked about in his March press conference right before the election in Russia, all of the capabilities like hypersonics, nuclear torpedoes, nuclear cruise missiles, all that kind of stuff," he said. "Guess what? He still can't find our submarines, he still can't take out 400 missile fields across the country, he still can't do anything about those so our deterrent capability is still unquestioned, unchallenged and can dominate and can respond to any threat."

Hyten's comments reflect national security assessments that Moscow's military might may not be all that Russia's government makes it out to be. Notably, the Russian economy does not have the wherewithal to compete with the colossal U.S. defense budget.

"We are the dominant military power on the planet in every domain and everybody understands that," Hyten said.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the country referred to by Hyten. The U.S. general said: "He still can't find our submarines."