It’s time to reconsider our nuclear forces
We’ve known about China’s massive nuclear expansion for some time now. Last year, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified that we are on a trajectory to face two nuclear peers – Russia and China – for the first time in its history.
But things have changed. This week, Richard testified that this three-party nuclear-peer reality has already arrived.
This constitutes a significant shift in threat environment. Richard said the nuclear forces we have today are “the absolute minimum” and that the Pentagon will need to make “immediate and significant” changes to our nuclear posture.
Disarmament advocates greeted his statement with skepticism, but Richard is right. There is no time to waste when it comes to deterring nuclear attack.
The basic design of our current nuclear force posture dates to around 2010, when the overall threat of nuclear attack was expected to lessen over time. Russia was our only peer competitor, and President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review considered Russia to no longer be an adversary. China maintained its historic “minimum deterrence” posture of fewer than 100 nuclear missiles and was expected to stay the course.
The Obama administration generally failed to anticipate the scope and size of China’s subsequent nuclear buildup. Nor did it anticipate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling in Ukraine.
These faulty assumptions drove many decisions about our nuclear posture. For example, the Columbia-class nuclear submarine is designed to hold fewer nuclear missiles than its predecessor, the Ohio-class. That decision “was based in part on the assumption that the multi-decade reduction in U.S. nuclear delivery systems is unlikely to be suddenly and dramatically reversed,” according to a recent RAND report.
Considering that our nuclear arsenal of around 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons was designed for the 2010 environment (with the expectation that threats would decrease) it is surely insufficient to meet the deterrence demands of today’s far more dangerous world.
There is a direct relationship between our adversaries’ capabilities and what the U.S. needs for deterrence. Deterrence hinges on the ability to hold at risk those assets our adversaries value most, including their nuclear forces and accompanying infrastructure. For deterrence to be credible, the United States must maintain the amount and types of nuclear weapons required to convince our adversaries that we can strike these targets if necessary.
Now facing double the number of peer threats that existed in 2010, the U.S. will need to adjust its nuclear forces in kind. That’s not to say that we must match China’s new capabilities one for one, but it does mean that our current nuclear force is insufficient to counter two major nuclear threats.
The U.S. cannot risk a deterrence posture that enables it to defeat only one nuclear adversary and not the other. When it comes to the most dangerous weapons in the world, the U.S. should want to deter all threats at all times.
If the United States fails to adjust its nuclear force posture, risks go up. If Russia and China do not perceive the U.S. nuclear threat to be credible, they will become further emboldened in their aggressive pursuits in Europe and Asia. Worse, they may calculate that the benefits of using nuclear weapons would outweigh the costs.
The Biden administration is expected to release its Nuclear Posture Review soon. If it has not already considered future adjustments to U.S. nuclear forces, it must do so immediately. In particular, it should review options to add more nuclear warheads to our current forces as well as to develop additional kinds of tactical weapons.
With something as dangerous as nuclear war – the only existential threat to the United States – the United States cannot afford to skimp on deterrence.
Patty-Jane Geller is a policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.