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Do we have the wrong nuclear weapons to deter Russia and China?

FILE - A fallout shelter sign hangs on a building on East 9th Street in New York, Jan. 16, 2018.
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE – A fallout shelter sign hangs on a building on East 9th Street in New York, Jan. 16, 2018. According to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, close to half of Americans say they are very concerned Russia would directly target the U.S. with nuclear weapons, and 3 in 10 are somewhat concerned about that. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Last Thursday, Admiral Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said the U.S. is “furiously” rewriting its nuclear weapons doctrine. 

Americans, as he implied, are unprepared for what could happen next. Great power conflict is coming. “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China,” Henry Kissinger told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview published Friday.  

Unfortunately, both Moscow and Beijing look prepared to use their most destructive weapons in such a war.  

The situation, Richard told the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala., is “unprecedented in this nation’s history.” America, he said, has never “faced two peer nuclear-capable opponents at the same time, who have to be deterred differently.” 

Up to now, America has employed a one-size-fits-all deterrence strategy, a leftover from the Cold War. During that period, both the United States and the Soviet Union maintained the capability to destroy each other many times over. As Barry Goldwater indelicately put it, the Soviets knew the U.S. could “lob one into the men’s room in the Kremlin.” As a result, no Kremlin general secretary surged armor through the Fulda Gap in Germany, the great fear of Allied war planners in the post-war period. The concept of “mutual assured destruction,” as it came to be known, kept a tense peace.  

Now, many fear that Cold War deterrence concepts no longer work. Vladimir Putin, for instance, gives the impression he is not deterred by the prospects of Armageddon. On Feb. 27, he put his nuclear forces on high alert. On March 1, he actually sortied his ballistic missile submarines and land-based mobile missile launchers in what was called a drill. 

Russia’s nuclear doctrine is called “escalate to deescalate” or “escalate to win,” which means threatening or using nukes early in a conventional conflict. It is apparent that Putin’s threats have in fact worked to keep the U.S. and its partners from fully supporting Ukraine. As Richard said in Huntsville, “Moscow is using both implicit and explicit nuclear coercion.”  

“They’re trying to exploit a perceived deterrence gap, a threshold below which they mistakenly believe they may be able to employ nuclear weapons,” the admiral pointed out, referring to Russia’s tactical nukes. American officials worry about Russia, in the words of Defense One, “using smaller warheads in limited numbers on specific targets, rather than launching the global thermonuclear war they had feared for decades.” 

There is great cause for concern. Among other reasons, the U.S. does not have the right type of “non-strategic” weapons. It has gravity nuclear bombs, but Russia knows they are particularly vulnerable while stored on the ground or carried on planes flying through contested airspace. Moreover, there is almost always a long interval between the ordering of a strike and putting a plane over the target. In the “nuclear business,” that’s a critical deficiency. 

Moreover, the U.S. Navy needs a new generation of short- and medium-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles, largely because various presidents, including the current one, have blocked development. Congress is trying to remedy the situation, but America is still in the unenviable position of having the wrong type of weapons to deter Russia’s use of low-yield warheads. Putin probably believes the U.S. would not start an all-out thermonuclear war over a tactical strike. 

Kissinger and other analysts have come up with elegant-sounding theories of deterrence, but there is only one factor that matters: what an adversary thinks. It is safe to say that deterrence is now failing because America’s adversaries think no American president would ever promise to launch megaton-size weapons to prevent low-yield strikes. 

Consequently, there is, what the Hudson Institute’s Peter Huessy tells me, a “credibility gap.” The failure to have a sufficiently credible response, he says, is one of the most important deficiencies our nuclear forces face. Putin’s nuclear threats show he knows America does not have the right weapons. 

And Beijing knows that as well.  

Although China officially has a no-first-use policy and in June Defense Minister Wei Fenghe publicly stated that Beijing would use nuclear weapons only in self-defense, Chinese generals and civilian officials this century have periodically made unprovoked threats to annihilate American cities.  

Then, beginning last July China started to go after others in earnest, especially Japan and Australia. This March, its Ministry of Defense promised the “worst consequences” for countries helping Taiwan defend itself.  

And in May, North Korea got in on the act, saying it might launch nukes to attack others in a first strike. 

 Once nuclear deterrence breaks down, the worst can occur quickly. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.   

Tags China–United States relations Henry Kissinger Nuclear weapons of the United States Nuclear weapons program of the United States Politics of the United States Russia nuclear talks Vladimir Putin

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