The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Is deterrence possible with China and Russia?

Getty Images
This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the July 1944 Trinity tests at Alamogordo, N.M., and the two atom bombs dropped on Japan that August, the nuclear age would alter the nature of war. For a time, nuclear weapons were considered just larger conventional weapons. After all, massive fire bombing raids on Tokyo, Nagoya, Dresden and Berlin killed more people than the strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thermonuclear weapons (1,000 times more powerful than nuclear weapons) changed the strategic calculus. For the first time in history, a thermonuclear war would produce only losers and no winners. One consequence was the emergence of deterrence as the central strategic foundation of the Cold War. Thermo and nuclear war had to be prevented. The importance of deterrence persists today, although extending nuclear deterrence to lesser forms of conflict prevention has not proven successful.

By luck or skill, while the number of nuclear-armed states would grow to nine with several other “breakout” possibilities, no weapons have ever been used in anger since. While Russia has threatened using nuclear weapons in Ukraine or if its homeland were attacked, so far this is just rhetoric.

The two most powerful nuclear states, the U.S. and Russia, have mutually limited their arsenals by New START to 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 deployed/800 total launchers. Russia has suspended the agreement but so far has not abrogated it. Russia maintains more non-strategic/tactical nuclear weapons. But the UK and France each possesses around 250 strategic warheads in its submarine forces.

China reportedly is moving from a strategic nuclear minimum deterrent of relatively few warheads to a future force estimated by Western intelligence to be as large as 1,000 nuclear warheads or more deployed in its submarine and land missile forces and by its bomber fleet. 

During the Cold War, the bilateral nuclear standoff was described as two scorpions in a jar. The expectation was that the alternative to the scorpions stinging each other to death was finding some form of coexistence. Today, metaphorically, there are three scorpions.

With three scorpions, the strategic permutations and combinations are orders of magnitude more difficult, complicated by technology. Of the many questions raised in this new era, is deterrence even feasible with three scorpions?

Are three-way arms limitations, confidence-building measures and crisis management measures, including hot lines, even possible? China now shows no interest in even discussing arms control. 

What about defenses and targeting strategies? Technology can deliver some of the capabilities promised and never achieved in Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative with rail guns, lasers and space-based weapons. With pinpoint accuracy and penetrating non-nuclear warheads, these weapons have strategic significance. All this makes the nuclear dimension more complicated and uncertain.

Sixty years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara postulated assured destruction as the metric for determining the strategic nuclear inventory. Obliterating a certain percentage of the Soviet population and industrial base was sufficient to prevent war because of the unacceptable costs. That became ironically known as MAD, for mutual assured destruction, as the guarantor of deterrence.

Is some form of assured destruction applicable today? In terms of defense, how will damage limitation targeting to destroy as many of the opposition’s nuclear weapons be employed? Or would the three major powers require more warheads leading to an (uncontrolled) arms race? These questions certainly imply that a replacement concept for deterrence is urgently needed. 

What should constitute this new mutual three-way deterrence is what I call “triterrence.” Triterrence encompasses the new superpower relationships among China, Russia and the United States. But other powers’ nuclear weapons cannot be ignored.

Triterrence is predicated on three foundations. First, the agreed mantra that nuclear and thermonuclear war must never be fought and can never be won must be expanded. Nuclear war can never even be risked.

Second, while arms control talks and limitations may not be possible in the short term, crisis management and confidence building measures must be undertaken. That could include as first steps military exchanges, as proved successful during the Cold War. Last, the U.S. should undertake talks with Britain and France to lay out possible courses of action as foundations for establishing triterrence with China and Russia.

With China expanding its nuclear forces, the U.S. modernizing its forces and technology, from precision non-nuclear weapons to space and hypersonics, could a 21st century high-tech multi-dimensional version of the 19th century naval arms race  be provoked? The parallel must stop there. But will it?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Biden foreign policy China Cold War NATO New START Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine US-China relations

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video