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Learning to Think Nuclearly Again

Putin’s nuclear saber rattling over Ukraine should be enough to shock U.S. policymakers into recognizing that the United States’ nuclear holiday has ended. Yet even as they grapple with the latest Russian threats, Washington is faced with another looming nuclear challenge that may be even more dangerous in the long run. China is undertaking a “breathtaking expansion” of its nuclear capabilities and overturning more than a half-century of a relatively modest nuclear posture, according to congressional testimony in April by U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Along with Putin’s reinsertion of nuclear threats into superpower relations, the specter of a major Chinese nuclear capacity may be the security earthquake that shakes awake the long-dormant Dr. Strangelove. That will be just in time, because current U.S. policies and strategic thinking—including the recently completed Nuclear Posture Review—are unlikely to adequately address the challenges of the new nuclear era.

Richard’s China assessment to Congress followed on the Defense Department’s 2021 Chinese military power report, which detailed Beijing’s nuclear modernization, most notably the Pentagon’s assessment that the People’s Liberation Army may quadruple its nuclear arsenal to as many as 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030. The report caused heartburn in Washington, providing yet more evidence that China is moving to challenge the U.S. military, which has 3,600 such weapons, and its position of global supremacy. Soon after the Pentagon released its report, a senior Chinese official confirmed that Beijing will continue its nuclear modernization, lending greater credence to the assessment despite other claims by Beijing, and further reports have documented China’s development of land-based missile complexes. Combined with news about China’s successful hypersonic vehicle tests in 2021, the consensus on Beijing’s nuclear ambition presents the Biden administration with a new long-term strategic challenge, even as it grapples with Russia’s nuclear threats.

Regardless of the true numbers, and though still dwarfed by U.S. and Russian strategic forces, China thus maintains a viable nuclear triad and is expanding the numbers and types of missiles it deploys, such as midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which can be used against U.S. forces in the Pacific region and Washington’s Asian allies. Beijing has also reformed its nuclear command-and-control system, putting nuclear weapons under the control of the PLA Rocket Force and maintaining strict control through the Central Military Commission, which is personally headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Perhaps most shocking to U.S. analysts was last year’s evidence of successful tests of low-orbit, globe-girdling hypersonic missiles, moving China closer to a capability against which the United States has no defense. As Richard recently stated, China is in the midst of a “strategic breakout” with “explosive growth” that will shift the global nuclear balance.

The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is paralleled by the first major modernization of U.S. nuclear forces in a generation, begun under the Obama administration and continued during the Trump years. “America’s nuclear capability is atrophying,” Matt Pottinger, a deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration, told me. Each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is long overdue to be updated or replaced, with the U.S. Air Force’s 175 planned B-21 bombers succeeding B-1s and 20 B-2s currently in service (the B-21 will be used for both conventional and nuclear missions), a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the Minuteman III force. In addition, aging nuclear warheads will be refurbished or replaced, and many of the older analog systems will be upgraded with digital parts.

By some calculations, the total price tag for U.S. nuclear modernization will exceed $1.5 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates at least $634 billion will be required just through 2030…Given Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, the NPR may understandably fail to set the stage for a pivot to Asia on nuclear issues. But the Kremlin’s threats only underline why it is not enough for the NPR to consider issues such as U.S. nuclear modernization—it is questions of strategy, intent, psychology, doctrine, and escalation that must come to the fore. Nuclear blackmail, attempts to curtail U.S. conventional operations, threatening allies, and even the use of tactical nukes must all be considered as options Beijing might pursue. Deterring such threats will require a more flexible and robust U.S. nuclear strategy tied to geopolitical scenarios and possible contingencies. But even more importantly, all these scenarios must be thoroughly thought through beforehand.

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