If Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. military would provide possible “options” on how to respond but America’s goal remains to avoid a nuclear conflict with Moscow, the top general in the U.S. Air Force said Wednesday.

Asked how the U.S. would react if Russia resorted to nuclear arms in Ukraine, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of the Air Force, said the decision would be up to the president, based on options provided by the military.

“I can’t tell you how we should respond,” Brown told Courtney Kube of NBC News at the Aspen Security Forum. “Our responsibility is to provide the president options.” 

The U.S. has an array of nuclear arms that can be delivered from land, sea or air but the overarching objective is to deter Russia from launching a nuclear attack in Ukraine, Brown said.

“It’s all about deterrence,” Brown said. “The goal is not to get into a conflict broader than the conflict that’s already going on today and definitely not into a nuclear conflict.”

He added, “You want to make sure that those range of options don’t lead us down a slippery slope that we can’t recover from.”

The Biden administration has not said how the U.S. would respond if Russia resorted to nuclear weapons in Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials say they have seen no signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to employ smaller, tactical nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

Brown also spoke about plans with NATO allies to help train Ukrainian pilots and build up the country’s air force.

The general said the U.S. was looking at helping Ukraine strengthen its air force with new Western aircraft, though he said it was up to Kyiv whether planes would be American made.

“I can’t speculate about what aircraft they may go to,” Brown said, adding it would almost certainly not be a Russian aircraft.

The U.S. has “a responsibility, like we do with all our allies and partners, to be prepared to train them in various capabilities and capacities,” Brown said. “Part of this is understanding where Ukraine wants to go, and how we meet them where they are.”

Reuters first reported that the U.S. military was looking at possible training for Ukrainian pilots for a modernized air force, which until now has relied on Russian-made, Soviet-era warplanes.

Brown is considered a contender to succeed Gen. Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s top U.S. military officer. 

The general also addressed questions about how the Air Force would manage the needs of its personnel while abiding by a recent Supreme Court ruling overturning guaranteed abortion rights under the Constitution. 

“We have a responsibility to comply with the law. But we also have an obligation to take care of our airmen and their families,” Brown said, without elaborating.

Taking care of families was an important element of retaining airmen and it had to be undertaken in a way that was sensitive to each family, he said.

Brown cited his own family’s experience, as his oldest son is on the autism spectrum. He and his wife had to make sure they would have “the right level of support” before taking on a new assignment, Brown said.

After the recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Defense Department said the military will continue to provide abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Federal law prohibits the Pentagon from performing or paying for other types of abortions, the memo states.

Recruiting challenges

With the Army and other branches of the U.S. military struggling with recruiting goals, Brown said he was optimistic the Air Force would meet or come close to meeting its objective. 

Brown is the first African American to lead one of the military’s service branches. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Brown issued an emotional video message describing the racism he faced as one of a small number of African Americans in the Air Force’s ranks. 

“It was full of emotion, and partly because it was a conversation with my son that spurred me to do that video. But that emotion was based on my own experiences as well, that I felt throughout my Air Force career, actually throughout my life to be honest with you,” Brown said.

The general said that Floyd’s death had sparked a national discussion about race relations, and a constructive discussion inside the Air Force.

 “I do think things are getting better,” Brown said. “And the one thing about George Floyd’s death, as tragic as it has been, is it opened up our nation to conversation. And the conversation that happened inside of our Air Force, inside of our department of Air Force with the Space Force, has been really helpful,” he said. 

“Because too often it was things like this we didn’t talk about. We talk about it much more openly today,” Brown said.

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