RealClear Defense

Disarming Amid an Arms Race

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Congressman, Ohio 10
U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Christopher Ruano
U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Christopher Ruano

In a recent issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, our military's senior commander for nuclear forces, U.S. Navy Admiral Charles "Chas" Richards, wrote, "[m]ore than a decade ago, Russia began aggressively modernizing its nuclear forces … Russia is building new and novel systems, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered torpedoes and cruise missiles, and other capabilities." China, too is in the midst of a significant nuclear build-up behind what has been called a "Great Wall of Secrecy." And yet, some argue that the U.S. should abandon the bipartisan Obama-Trump consensus to modernize the nuclear deterrent that protects the American people and over 30 allies. 

Russia is in the midst of a massive nuclear modernization program; for the first time since the end of the Cold War, it is growing its stockpile, and the bulk of this growth is in so-called “non-strategic” or “unconstrained” nuclear weapons of the type the not included by the Obama Administration in the New START treaty. 

Some of these weapons, with names like Avangard, Skyfall, and Poseidon, are like something out of the Cold War classic "Dr. Strangelove:” They do not fundamentally change the nuclear balance, but are dangerous weapons in the hands of a dangerous leader.

While the United States clearly differentiates nuclear from non-nuclear capable systems, Russia’s massive nuclear build-up is occurring with warheads with “new military capabilities” with the potential to be "employed by ships, aircraft, and ground forces," according to senior intelligence community leaders. 

Perhaps these “new military capabilities” are why Russia is conducting nuclear weapons tests in violation of the Clinton Administration's Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); these are tests the United States last conducted in 1992 and foreswore in 1995. Yet Russia (and apparently China) are undertaking nuclear weapons tests with the apparent intention of using them to improve their nuclear weapons capabilities. The U.S., along with its British and French allies, appear to be the only nuclear weapons states that adhere to the test ban—extending the life of nuclear weapons with computer simulations while our adversaries use real test data to improve their nuclear weapons. 

A decade after New START was ratified, the status quo is therefore very much in Russia's favor: Putin had managed to exempt from arms control the bulk of his nuclear modernization program. As former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “[o]nly 45 percent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is subject to numerical limits ... [m]eanwhile, that agreement restricts 92 percent of America’s arsenal.”  

Likewise, there is an unprecedented build-up by the People's Republic of China. In his article in Proceedings, Admiral Richards also warned about the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's plans, Xi Jinping, "China's nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade."

Indeed, China either has or soon will field a triad (like Russia and the United States): heavy bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Of course, Admiral Richard’s statement is not new; it’s entirely consistent with the warning of the previous director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, that “their trajectory is consistent with President Xi’s vision for China’s military, which was laid out at the 19th Party Congress, and stated that China’s military will be fully transformed into a first-tier force by 2050.” As the first-tier forces are those of Russia and the United States, we should consider ourselves warned. 

Time and time again, our nation’s senior national security leaders, military and civilian, have stated that nuclear deterrence is the top priority for the defense of the nation. Indeed, as part of the confirmation process, now-Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I agree that nuclear deterrence is the Department’s highest priority mission and that updating and overhauling our nation’s nuclear forces is a critical national security priority.”

He joined the previous four Secretaries of Defense of both parties in echoing the same principle in favor of the nuclear modernization program signed up for by President Obama and carried forward by President Trump.

Likewise, Secretary Austin was aligning himself with the best military advice of his senior military advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, USA, who stated, "[t]he nuclear Triad has kept the peace since nuclear weapons were introduced and has sustained the test of time.”

Following this advice means recommitting to the bipartisan Obama-Trump nuclear modernization program, which calls for refurbishing and updating the complementary three-legged stool of nuclear weapons delivery systems—heavy bombers capable of fielding gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles and dual-capable aircraft; ballistic missile submarines, with missiles capable of carrying low-yield and larger-yield warheads; and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Every one of these delivery systems is beyond its design life and must be modernized, or they will no longer be available to defend the American people or their allies.

This modernization program also includes the Manhattan Project era complex of nuclear weapons production facilities at places like the Y-12 facility in Tennessee and plutonium manufacture facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. These nuclear weapons production capabilities rarely attract the same attention as the DOD programs, but those programs are for naught if the National Nuclear Security Administration cannot produce the weapons to put on them.

Instead of following the bad advice of those who advocated a five-year extension of the New START treaty without getting anything in return for it, President Biden should have looked for ways to build a bipartisan, unifying approach to national security generally and nuclear deterrence specifically.

He should not double down on this mistake by undermining further the bipartisan consensus behind the Obama-Trump modernization plan or by following reckless advice to impose a No First Use or Sole Purpose unilateral restriction on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, which would only serve to inject new doubts in the capitals of critical allies.

During his inauguration, President Biden spoke of his administration's mission: “Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause." Many of us are prepared to join him in this work. If Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump can agree on anything—as they did on the imperative of modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent to protect American and its allies—it would seem to be an opportunity for unity that President Biden should not ignore.

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