Realism must drive nuclear policy
To successfully maintain the relative peace the United States has enjoyed for decades, we must consider what would convince adversaries that we would make them regret attacking a vital interest. Deterrence is an art, not a science, and it takes a clear eyed assessment of a variety of factors that will be varied from the leaders of one country to the next. An ideological objection to nuclear weapons themselves and an idealistic policy agenda could result in actions that tempt a nuclear exchange.
Admiral Charles Richard, head of Strategic Command, testified last week at the Senate and warned, “For the first time in our history, the country is facing two nuclear capable strategic peer adversaries at the same time, which both must be deterred differently. Chinese and Russian advances are eroding our conventional and strategic deterrence.”
Regarding the Chinese, Richard said, “They are well ahead of the pace to double their stockpile by the end of the decade. I further submit that the size of a national weapon stockpile, by itself, is a very crude measure of what they can do with that capability.” He went on to describe the various ways China is improving its nuclear forces and said, “China is capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy regionally now and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges.”
On the issue of Russia, he said, “It is easier to describe what they are not modernizing, which is nothing, than what they are, which is pretty much everything, including several never before seen capabilities and several thousand nontreaty accountable weapon systems.” President Biden has criticized previous investments in the nuclear deterrent and in strategy adaptations. His administration stated its aim to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” The review of the threats and the nuclear deterrent is now underway.
But during the recent hearing with Richard, Senator Tom Cotton pointed out that two political appointees of Biden have already indicated to the foreign press that the United States has been considering changes to our nuclear policy and posture. Cotton said that he was “concerned that low level political appointees” at the Pentagon could now be subverting the integrity of the review by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Cotton added, “Those political appointees gave an interview in Japanese media implying a reduction of funding for our nuclear forces and perhaps even the enactment of a sole purpose nuclear policy, yet neither of those appointees have been confirmed. Were you and Austin consulted before they made these public comments?” Richard confirmed that nobody with Strategic Command had been consulted. Cotton asked, “Do you believe it is in the best interest of our country to go toward a sole purpose nuclear policy?” Richard said he did not and that doing so would “remove a level of ambiguity that has had useful deterrent value to us.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “Now it is your job to provide input and to recommend options to the president and the secretary if you are asked, but that does not mean making public comments to try and box in such decision making.” But reality and the national objectives of our enemies can indeed box in options for the president. Perhaps Warren has to direct her ire at the Communist Party or the Russian Federation.
The hearing revealed the central problem with the nuclear idealists that tend to reside on the left side of the political spectrum. A desire to scale back or limit nuclear options, whether with testing or deployment, drives their agenda. But if maintaining a robust deterrent based on varied threats drives the strategy, officials could very well rightfully conclude that action to modernize our nuclear forces, and even growing them or adding other kinds of delivery systems while having more options for employment and testing, could maximize the credibility of our nuclear deterrent and thus increase our chances of preserving peace and stability.
A desire to weaken our nuclear forces could have the unintended effects of raising the likelihood of the crises we want to avoid. Congress should heed the warnings from Richad and fully modernize the nuclear deterrent, which at its high mark remains less than 7 percent of the defense budget. The administration must adopt a policy that would further complicate the calculations of our adversaries instead of simplify them. Indeed, the risks of nuclear employment continue to increase, so our national commitment to maintain the most credible deterrent force must hold.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior national security fellow with the Hudson Institute and contributing foreign policy editor at Providence Magazine.