Warrior Maven

China’s Nuclear Weapons Explosion: Will They Sign Disarmament Treaties?

The Reagan administration and Congress explicitly rejected the nuclear freeze, and instead fully modernized America’s nuclear force.

A display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum shows how many nuclear weapons remain in the world on August 12, 2012. (Tim Wright via Flickr)

Dr. Richard Garwin and Professor Frank N. von Hippel in “How to Avoid a Nuclear War with China,” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2023) believe the US community of military hawks has unnecessarily transformed China from a benign, “peaceful rise” strategic partner to a competitor, even an “adversary” of the United States, thus putting a kibosh on nuclear arms reductions.

In their view, US hawks are guilty of: (1) Using “worst case” projections of future Chinese nuclear force deployments; (2) building threatening US missile defense programs; (3) making implicit US nuclear threats over a possible “confrontation” with China about Taiwan; and (4) planning a US “pre-emptively attack” on China’s vulnerable nuclear deterrent.

If the US got rid of this aggressive behavior toward China, von Hippel and Garwin argue, the US would avoid the previous historical mistake of describing our adversaries such as the USSR as an “evil empire,” a demonization they claim almost pushed the Soviet leadership into war with the United States during the Reagan administration.

However, to make the case that a benign and friendly US attitude toward China would do the arms control trick, von Hippel and Garwin invent a history of the end of the Cold War with the USSR that is totally at odds with the facts. They claim the [Soviet proposed] nuclear freeze movement transformed the US-USSR relationship, limited arms racing and brought about the START arms reduction process.

While such a romantic notion might be popular in some circles, the Reagan administration and Congress explicitly rejected the nuclear freeze, and instead fully modernized America’s nuclear force. Reagan proposed reductions long before the freeze emerged as a Soviet strategy to bring US nuclear modernization to a standstill.

Contrary to the freeze idea, the Reagan START process of dramatic nuclear reductions coupled with a simultaneous modernization of our nuclear deterrent, known informally as a “build-down” approach, was proposed by President Reagan in November 1981 at the National Press Club. The proposed reductions strategy, based on a series of National Security Defense Directives, created by the White House National Security Council and Department of Defense staff, sharply changed the previous strategy of building-up both US and Soviet nuclear forces allowed by the 1972 and 1979 SALT arms agreements. Sven Kraemer’s important book “Inside the Cold War” on the Reagan administration’s nuclear strategy details this effort as does Lee Edward’s work at the Heritage Foundation.

Most importantly, at the time, the disarmament and freeze crowd ridiculed Reagan’s notion that dramatic nuclear reductions could be achieved. Not only that, but if the nuclear freeze had gone into effect in 1991, for example, it would have frozen Soviet long-range strategic warheads at as high a level as thirteen thousand, according to then Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) during debate on the START I treaty.

If a freeze had been adopted earlier when initially proposed in 1979, no US nuclear modernization of US forces would have occurred, which was after all the prime objective of the freeze campaign. During House debate on the freeze, supporters couldn’t figure out what parts of the B-52 strategic bomber were to be frozen, having to temporarily adjourn the House and prepare a fifty-page paper on why the wings could not be replaced but the engines could. Thankfully, the freeze failed in a subsequent vote.

The freeze would also have frozen in place thousands of Soviet SS-20 warheads in Europe and Asia, while preventing any US counter deployment. And eliminating for sure any chance for the eventual 1987 INF historic zero-zero agreement that got rid of all Soviet SS-20s.

Nuclear freeze supporters repeatedly alleged the proposed strategic nuclear reductions proposed under START were a “trick,” an idea the Soviets would be quick to reject. Then it was argued, the Reagan administration could continue the arms buildup while pretending to be for arms control with reductions on the table but knowing there was no chance the Soviets would take the proposals seriously.

As for eliminating the multiple thousands of medium range SS-20 warheads deployed by Moscow and pointed at Western Europe and the Western Pacific, the President’s proposed zero-zero INF deal was rejected out of hand by both the US disarmament community and the Soviet Union. In short, adopting a nuclear freeze would have frozen into place marked Soviet nuclear advantages which was why Moscow supported the freeze in the first place.

Arms control with China of some kind might be possible von Hippel and Garwin assert, but first they absolve China of any responsibility for the lack of nuclear arms control and the current significant Chinese nuclear buildup. Instead, just as former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick warned, many critics of US security policy “always blame America first” for the failures of our adversaries, and von Hippel and Garwin do not disappoint.

As noted above, they blame the US for putting together worse case projections of Chinese warheads, building dangerous missile defenses, jettisoning the ABM Treaty*, and threatening China with first strikes, thus making it inevitable China would not agree to any arms reductions, but massively increase its nuclear forces, because what else could China do when faced with such a hostile United States? And if the United States is the bad actor in the US-China arms competition, then of course it would be easier for China and their allies to demand concessions from the United States.

But left unasked by von Hippel and Garwin: (1) have the Chinese communists ever agreed to a single arms reduction deal? (2) If missile defenses are dangerous, did the CCP sign up to their own version of an ABM Treaty? (3) Did China oppose the Soviet deployments of SS-20s? Of course not, as the answer in all cases is “No.”

On the other hand, did China help plan and financially support the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea? Yes. Did China supply tons of weapons to North Vietnam to invade the Republic of Vietnam? Yes. Did China deliberately proliferate nuclear weapons technology through the Khan network to rogue terrorist states such as North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, and Iran? Yes.

But nowhere do Garwin and von Hippel even mention these Chinese practices. Or the now well-known Chinese plan to be the world’s #1 military and economic hegemon by 2048, the one-hundred-year anniversary of Chinese communist rule, explained in detail by Mike Pillsbury in his book “The 100 Year Marathon”.

Even more breathtaking is the failure of von Hippel and Garwin to acknowledge China’s current pro-nuclear proliferation activities, especially the multiple dozens of Chinese individuals and organizations, design bureaus, military entities and other CCP controlled organizations that are intertwined with the North Korean nuclear program elements. Over multiple decades, China has sustained and advanced Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, as David Asher’s work at the Hudson Institute reveals, most recently discussed at a 5th of May Hudson Institute seminar.

But before the US engages China in arms talk, the US should have a clear-eyed view of why arms reductions succeeded with the USSR and then Russia. Unlike the cleverly spun but mistaken narrative of von Hippel and Garwin, the Cold War with Russia did not magically end because fuzzy minded freeze advocates met with their Soviet counterparts and reached deals their respective governments could not. No such deals were ever concluded by the disarmers.

Reagan significantly built up the US economy and military and used that as leverage to force the USSR to make major concessions. In addition, the Reagan administration took tens of billions in annual foreign exchange out of the Soviet exchequer by decontrolling the price of oil and stopping concessionary western bank loans to Eastern Europe satellites and the Kremlin.

Warren Norquist’s September 2000 essay in the Intelligencer in 2003 on how Reagan won the Cold War details all these strategies, especially how Reagan made the cost of Moscow maintaining its empire unaffordable.

When General Secretary Gorbachev took office in 1985, the Soviets tried to intimidate Reagan. Moscow walked out of the nuclear arms talks. And sent new sophisticated weapons to Nicaragua and Cuba, accelerated deployments of the SS-20s, increased the Soviet defense budget, sent more troops to Afghanistan, and increased support for terror groups such as the Salvadoran FMLN and the PLO.

The western press, however, ignored these actions and continued to describe Gorbachev as a peacemaker. So, the Reagan administration turned the tables on the Soviet leadership. Not intimidated at all, the Reagan strategy continued to make the Soviet empire hugely costly to sustain, with a major campaign of public diplomacy to win the Cold War conflict.

Reagan said in Berlin if you really want peace, Mr. Gorbachev, “tear down this wall.” And at Reykjavik if the Soviets really wanted to reduce nuclear dangers, why not defend people with missile defenses? And when meeting with Pope John, Reagan pointedly asked that if the Soviets really were for human rights, why put Solidarity in jail and Poland under martial law?

We know that Reagan’s campaign worked. But not with any assistance from the disarmament community. START I and II, signed in 1991 and 1993, respectively, were not fully supported by the disarmament community. The ban on mirved land-based missiles in START II was unfair to the Russians we were told, but usually not mentioned was that Moscow relied very heavily on such first strike weapons for coercive diplomacy. Even Gorbachev in a 1996 New York Times essay complained START II and its land based mirv ban “would bankrupt” Moscow, as indeed Russia could not afford to deploy enough land-based missiles if all were with a single warhead.

Unfortunately, the DUMA rejected START II in 1999 and added a condition on the agreement and that was the US had to keep missile defense research in the lab. Even defending against rogue states such as North Korea and Iran would be impossible under such conditions. The US Senate of course rejected the Duma conditions, echoing Reagan’s repeated rejections of previous Soviets gambits to kill missile defense.

Subsequently, with the 2002 Moscow treaty and the 2010 New START agreement, (and taking into account the special bomber counting rules,) Russia can maintain a START treaty compliant 2200-2400 warheads, some 82% below the previous peak deployments.

But despite these reductions, from 2002 onward, Moscow got economic and strategic military breathing space to fully modernize its nuclear forces, to where today they are now 90% complete with that effort, with a breakout potential of many additional thousands of strategic warheads. Little of this breakout would be affordable if the START II ban on multiple warhead land-based missiles had been implemented.

Von Hippel and Garwin imply the US is leading an arms race with its current modernization. But the Russian or Chinese nuclear buildups were initiated many decades ago and preceded US modernization efforts. US nuclear modernization effort is also largely consistent with New START. And as an arms control deal von Hippel and Garwin support, how can they complain the US nuclear deployments allowed by the New START agreement are somehow starting an “arms race?” After all, ninety five percent of all US nuclear forces are controlled by START, while fifty-five percent of Russian and one hundred percent of Chinese nuclear weapons, respectively, are not.

While the US civilian, military and aerospace workforce heroically sustains America’s aging legacy forces while simultaneously building the new Triad, the US will not actually begin to deploy or put into service America’s modernized nuclear capable platforms—ICBMs, submarines, or bombers---until 2029. The deployment will be completed by 2042, but nearly a half century after the US completed the Reagan era initiated nuclear modernization programs we are now relying upon, none of which would be in place if the Soviet inspired nuclear freeze of 1979 had been adopted.

As for the US ICBM force, von Hippel and Garwin continually make reference to standing down the Minuteman III and Sentinel force, even unilaterally. If eliminated, some sixty-five percent of the US allowed Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles under the New START agreement would be gone. And the US would also simultaneously jettison a considerable portion of a hedge capability should the US have to buildup its nuclear forces when New START expires in 2026.

To be clear, America’s ICBMs are not now and never have been on a launch “on warning” posture, which von Hippel and Garwin repeatedly and incorrectly assert is the case. The missiles can only be fired by order of the US President. No warning of an attack can launch the missiles. And in the 75 years of the nuclear age, no US President has ever ordered the ICBM missiles to be launched.

However, as Admiral Rich Mies, the former Commander of the United States Strategic Command explains, if the Russians are so reckless to launch nearly 1000 warheads at the United States to try and destroy 400 Minuteman missiles and 45 launch control centers, the US has the option of launching back some significant number of our ICBMs even after the US has certified that Russian warheads have detonated on US soil. We could, after confirming that missiles are headed for the US, launch on warning even though such a launch strategy has never been part of the US deterrent posture. However, that high uncertainty created in the minds of Soviet and now Russian military planners is one reason deterrence has held. Every day that the Russian strategic rocket forces commanders wake up, and do the calculations, the US works to make sure they come up with the same answer: “Not today comrade.”

It is true as von Hippel and Garwin point out that a 1979 false computer warning referenced a Soviet launch of many hundreds of missiles at the US. Von Hippel and Garwin believe---mistakenly—such an error might happen again and prompt a US President to use the US ICBM force before the missiles are destroyed in their silos. But a SASC 1980 report by Senators Hart and Goldwater explained that the “glitch” was permanently fixed, and no such training tape warning could be duplicated, as it has not been in the past 45 years.

Getting rid of ICBMs would also reduce the American nuclear assets to only five military bases with submarines and bombers, which could be destroyed with no more than the Russian use of ten warheads. Again, as Admiral Richard Mies has explained, Moscow would then still be in possession of 99% of its nuclear forces, available to strike other targets in the US, while some two-thirds of the US nuclear arsenal would be gone, with a resulting strategic imbalance heavily weighted against Washington.

Whether China decides to engage in arms reductions or controls with the United States is now unknown. But what is well known is unilateral US nuclear concessions will not help US security, Peace through strength will. After the Cuban missile crisis, during which the US had just deployed the new Minuteman I missile, nuclear war was prevented because as President John Kennedy remarked Minuteman was “America’s first ace in the hole.”

*[Ironically, in the post ABM treaty era, 2002-2023, accountable Russian strategic nuclear weapons were reduced from 6000 to 1550 under the Moscow and New START treaty, a 75% reduction, making it obvious that the ABM treaty was not necessary for nuclear arms reductions to take place.]

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