By Daryl G. Kimball
The writer is the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association (ACA). Following is the preliminary Assessment of the Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, ACA issued on 12 October.
WASHINGTON, D.C. 15 October 2023 (IDN) — Following more than a decade of deteriorating relations and uncertainty on disarmament diplomacy, the three states with the largest nuclear arsenals—Russia, the United States, and China—are on the precipice of an unconstrained era of dangerous nuclear competition.
With the impending expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in February 2026 and the disappearance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia is now considering “de-ratifying” the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At the same time, China is expanding and diversifying its relatively smaller nuclear arsenal so it can maintain a retaliatory capacity that its leaders believe is sufficient to withstand potential U.S. nuclear or conventional strikes and U.S. missile defenses.
The experience of the Cold War teaches us that an unconstrained arms race has no winners, only losers. Leaders in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington need to seize the opportunity to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks, negotiate sensible and verifiable reductions of their arsenals, and refrain from building new destabilizing types of weapons rather than proceed down a “lose-lose” path of nuclear competition.
Countering two “near-peer” nuclear adversaries
Regrettably, the final report of the bipartisan Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, issued on 12 October, suggests that in response to Russia’s nuclear and military behavior and the anticipated growth of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, the United States must be prepared to add more capability and flexibility to the U.S. strategic deterrent to counter two “near-peer” nuclear adversaries. Moreover, as the risk of military conflict with Russia and China grows, the report also advises that the United States must be prepared to fight and “win” two simultaneous wars, by enhancing its missile defense capabilities and, if necessary, bolstering its nuclear weapons capabilities, including new theater-range capabilities.
If there is a military conflict between nuclear-armed states, deterrence will have failed, and in the ensuing conflict, there will be no “winners.”
Once nuclear weapons are used in a war between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China, there is no guarantee a nuclear war could be “limited”. According to independent estimates, a large-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia would kill and injure more than 90 million people in the first few hours, and many more in the days and weeks afterward.
Some commissioners, in their individual capacities, have argued in separate papers (see Project Atom, pages 38-48) that “deterring China and Russia simultaneously [requires] an increased level of U.S. strategic warheads” and enhancing U.S. sub-strategic nuclear capabilities. We disagree.
As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted in remarks on 9 December 2022, at StratCom Headquarters: “Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”
In the current context, any decision to increase the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons above New START levels could trigger a dangerous action-reaction cycle. It would not enhance deterrence in the face of China’s growing nuclear capabilities or Russia’s existing capabilities. It would more likely encourage China to deploy more nuclear weapons on an even wider array of delivery systems over the coming decade and prompt Russia to match any increases in the U.S. strategic force.
Under New START, the United States (and Russia) can now deploy as many as 1550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 missiles and bombers. Each has additional non-strategic nuclear weapons. China’s total nuclear force is estimated to include just over 400 nuclear warheads of all types.
New types of nuclear war-fighting weapons
Increasing the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons or adding new types of nuclear war-fighting weapons to the the arsenal would not only be counterproductive, but prohibitively expensive. A July 2023 Congressional Budget Office report estimates that, if carried out, the current plans for nuclear forces delineated in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) fiscal year 2023 budget requests would amount to a staggering $756 billion over the 2023–2032 period or an average of over $75 billion a year.
Despite reckless behavior on the part of Russia and China in pursuing a more diverse array of nuclear weapons, the scale and diversity of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal still exceeds what is necessary to hold a sufficient number of adversary targets at risk so as to deter enemy nuclear attack.
In his address on June 2, 2023, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated that “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors to effectively deter them.”
While the Commission’s final report does recognize the value and importance of continued U.S. efforts to engage Russia and China in the nuclear arms control enterprise, it underplays the importance of stronger U.S. leadership on arms control in preventing an unconstrained nuclear arms race.
For more than 50 years, U.S. presidents of both parties have recognized the value of nuclear arms control to constrain adversary capabilities that can threaten the United States, its allies, and the world.
This is why the Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review states that “Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use.” The President’s National Security Advisor said on 2 June 2023 that the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and with other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.”
Rather than take actions that might accelerate dangerous nuclear competition, the United States must exercise prudent nuclear restraint and energetically pursue effective arms control and disarmament diplomacy with Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states inside and outside of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
As Sullivan emphasized on June 2, with respect to Russia: “It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces—and we’re prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does. And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences—the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”
Sullivan noted that the type of limits the United States can agree to after the New START Treaty expires “will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup,” which is “why we’re also ready to engage China without preconditions—helping ensure that competition is managed, and that competition does not veer into conflict.”
Considering that new bilateral nuclear arms control limits with Russia may be difficult to achieve so long as Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on, the United States could seek an executive agreement or simply a reciprocal unilateral arrangement verified with national technical means of intelligence that commits Russia and the United States to respect New START’s central limits until a more permanent and comprehensive nuclear arms control arrangement is concluded.
At the same time, U.S. and other world leaders should urge China, France, and the United Kingdom to cap the size of their nuclear arsenals as long as Russia and the United States meet their fundamental nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, which involve participating in genuine negotiations to halt and reverse a potential nuclear arms race. [IDN-InDepthNews]