The U.S. can no longer afford to defer efforts to modernize its nuclear arsenal as China, Russia and other countries upgrade their own arsenals, according to a top U.S. general.

Air Force General Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the armed forces have made modernizing its nuclear arsenal, including weapons, infrastructure and personnel, its top priority after noting the U.S. will lose its strategic deterrent if modernization efforts are not implemented immediately.

“Nuclear modernization can no longer be deferred. Previous decisions to defer modernization have resulted in overlapping acquisition programs today, which present two major consequences,” he said in written testimony for the House Armed Services Committee.

“First, any disruption to the current program of record or future acquisition plans will introduce risk to our strategic [nuclear] deterrent… Second, the cost of funding modernization and replacement of the entire nuclear enterprise all at once is substantial.”

Silva noted the efforts of countries like China and Russia to modernize and expand their nuclear arsenals, as well as the threat posed by rogue countries like North Korea, necessitates maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent.

“The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter a strategic attack against the United States, its allies, and its partners,” he said. “Simply put, nuclear weapons pose the only existential threat to the United States and there is no substitute for the prospect of a devastating nuclear response to deter that threat.”

The Pentagon is set to spend $20 billion on modernization in fiscal year 2016, with that amount set to double by 2020.

“Despite these risks and costs, there is no higher priority for the Joint Force than fielding all components of an effective nuclear deterrent, including weapons, infrastructure, and personnel,” Selva noted.

Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified alongside Selva and concurred with his assessment on the state of readiness of America’s nuclear arsenal.

“Maintaining strategic deterrence, assurance and escalation control capabilities requires a multifaceted long-term investment approach and a sustained commitment to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent,” he said, adding that “nuclear deterrent is only as effective as the command and control that enables it to function.”

President Donald Trump has made modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal a top priority, tapping Secretary of Defense James Mattis to “initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

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