Senator Deb Fisher, the ranking member of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the SASC and her House counterpart as Chairman of the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Representative Doug Lamborn, on Tuesday February 14 both called for Congressional debate and assessment of what they described as a deteriorating strategic nuclear balance.
It is without doubt, the nuclear balance between the United States and its allies, on the one side, and Russia and China on the other, is a critically important matter which needs more attention.
And it is thus good news such a discussion will soon begin on the Hill for at least four reasons: (1) China’s nuclear buildup to somewhere between 900-1500 warheads by 2030-2035; (2) Russia’s refusal to allow New START compliance inspections; (3) the expiration of nuclear New START agreement in 2026; and (4) the adoption by both Russia and China of a nuclear strategy characterized by threatening to wage coercive limited nuclear strikes with high precision weaponry.
Previous assessments of the relative strategic balance between the US and its adversaries have dismissed concerns over the stockpile of nuclear forces sustained by Russia as inconsequential, the assumption being that after a certain level of nuclear warheads is achieved, more is not necessarily better or useable.
Dr. Henry Kissinger quipped years ago that he did not know what one would do with nuclear superiority even if one achieved it. On the other hand, US scholars such as the Atlantic Council’s Mathew Kroenig have argued superiority matters, and the US needs to achieve nuclear superiority and then maintain it.
On the other hand, since the SALT treaties of 1972 and 1979, such nuclear agreements have centered on the US and the USSR and now Russia having the same number of allowed, countable nuclear weapons under the treaty terms. One Senate requirement proposed in 1972 by Senator Scoop Jackson (D-WA) was that no future agreement allow Moscow to have more capability to rapidly build up their warheads by taking advantage of their especially “heavy” or multiple warhead capable ICBMs.
In short, numbers do matter. At least all of the seven major bilateral nuclear arms agreements with Russia the US has agreed to since 1972 have made a “equal numbers” requirement very clear.
Given the assumption that Russia and the US have relatively even deployed warhead numbers under New START, China’s new deployments that may reach the New START allowable numbers should be cause for concern, as its “breathtaking” expansion may be part of an effort by China to reach not only parity with the US but superiority. [Even adding in France and Great Britain to the US side of the ledger doesn’t resolve the potential imbalance.]
This applies especially to the theater level, what China calls a phase specific requirement, where China “envisions offensive limited nuclear warfighting” in a region as the key military capability even in a situation where the overall nuclear balance favors the United States. In fact, Chinese military literature explicitly calls for China to eventually have a superior nuclear force with which to prevent the United States from coming to the defense of its allies, including Taiwan, and thus allow victory for China without having to fight the United States. As General Liao Xilong, a member of the Central Military Commission explained, “Whoever possesses a stronger nuclear capability will be able to control the process of war.”
Russian refusal to allow inspections complicates US assessments of the strategic balance. As Mark Schneider, the nation’s premier expert on Russian nuclear forces has explained, under New START the Russians can lawfully deploy over 2300 long range strategic warheads, not the official 1550 in the New START agreement. That is because US and Russia bomber weapons only count as one irrespective of how many warheads are deployed on each aircraft.
On top of which, Russia can easily add 1000 warheads to that number by surreptitiously just adding warheads to their START accountable systems. In addition, certain strategic weapons such as the current Backfire bomber and exotic systems such as the under development long-range underwater torpedo, are according to Moscow, not restricted by the New START agreement, and this could add another 1000 warheads to Moscow’s strategic arsenal.
Finally, Russia’s theater or short-range nuclear systems are estimated at a minimum of 1900 and explains Schneider probably are as high as 4000 such warheads and shells, thus putting Moscow’s overall potential nuclear force they can bring to bear on the United States to in excess of 6000 warheads or even as high as 9000.
Whatever the number is, it would seem obvious the US Congress and administration should have a serious discussion of the Russian (and Chinese) build and breakout capability in nuclear forces and whether the current strategic balance is jeopardizing stability and heightening the prospects of military conflict.
Irrespective of the actual current Russian deployed systems and Moscow’s breakout potential, the New START agreement has been extended for five years to 2026 and thus any follow-on agreement needs to be put on the table and proposed forthwith but with key new provisions.
There are problems with what might be in a simple follow-on agreement. US disarmers want to eliminate all US ICBMs or reduce strategic warheads allowed by a new treaty to no more than 1000 warheads, a reduction which would limit US Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles (SNDVs) to under 250 (60 bombers plus 192 missiles on 12 Columbia class submarines) from the 700 allowed today. This would restrict the US build-up capability to a maximum 1536 long range missile warheads or fast flyers, basically allowing the US to only sustain at best only at most the current new START numbers. This zeroes out the US upload capability to match either the current Chinese build or a potential Russian breakout.
Finally, US deterrent policy has assumed for most of the nuclear age that such weapons were primarily to stop an adversary from attacking the United States or Western Europe either with massive conventional or a combination of nuclear and conventional forces. Although the Warsaw Pact is gone along with the Soviet Union, Russia remains a top revanchist power seeking to realign the borders of sovereign states, states that are friends and allies of the United States.
To achieve its goals, Russia in 1999 adopted a new nuclear strategy. President Yeltsin called for the building of highly capable, precision guided, battlefield nuclear weapons, a strategy now being implemented by President Yeltsin under the framework American experts have described as “escalate to win.” In his 2007 the Nuclear Doctrine and Forces of the People’s Republic of China study, Mark Schneider revealed dozens of Chinese military calls for developing the ability to threaten to fight limited nuclear wars against the United States to ensure that the United States stands down in any such conflict over Taiwan.
The overall strategic nuclear balance may favor the US over China for the time being, but it is imbalanced with respect to Russia. Over time, depending on the extent of the current Chinese nuclear production, that favorable balance may disappear and when combined with a Russian and-Chinese cooperating military, indeed dangerous challenge the US.
With what retired Admiral Charles Richard of the US warned would be for the first time in US history, facing two peer-capable nuclear armed enemies. And unfortunately apparently willing to play reckless games of nuclear poker because they think they hold the aces in the hole and can win a nuclear war.