Video Above: A Conversation with Peter Huessy, Senior Warrior Maven Nuclear Weapons Analyst
On Monday June 13, 2022, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that since disarmament appears to be a thing of the past, as most nuclear powers particularly China are modernizing their nuclear weapons, a new and dangerous arms race is starting.
And according to some SIPRI and some disarmament advocates, its America’s fault.
For example, one well known critic of US nuclear modernization postulates China is probably expanding its arsenal not due to any hostile intent, but in reaction to United States capability to strike China first and the construction of a missile defense possibly designed to protect the US from a subsequent retaliatory Chinese strike.
Now if US policy underpins the new arms racing, one would assume the administrations Nuclear Posture Review, would remedy things. But while calling for a diminution of nuclear weapons in US strategy, the review largely followed the 2010 nuclear modernization plan of replacing our ancient legacy Triad of bombers and cruise missiles, land-based ICBMs and submarines and their associated D-5 missiles, while upgrading our nuclear command and control and our warhead infrastructure.
Thus it is understandable that when the NPR was presented to Congress earlier this year, the disarmament community complained the administration had jettisoned its previous commitments or favorable views toward disarmament, including failing to adopt such strategies as no first use of nuclear weapons, eliminating ICBMs and unilaterally reducing the US nuclear force by at least one-third.
But over the seven decades of the nuclear age, nuclear disarmament, or the push to go to zero nuclear weapons, was never a serious idea, although some senior US government officials did propose it. For example, Senator Diane Feinstein in early 2009 after ascending to the position of Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a full-up campaign to zero out nuclear weapons.
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On the other hand, nuclear force reductions have been very real. President Reagan, unlike his predecessors, pushed hard for both nuclear modernization and reductions, and succeeded in both endeavors. The modernization Reagan completed is the nuclear force on which we still rely, and the START family of nuclear agreements he formally proposed or initiated in late 1981 resulted in a nearly 90% reduction in US deployed strategic nuclear warheads. While calling for an eventual elimination of such weapons, Reagan was realistic and knew that deterrence had to be sustained even while major reductions were being negotiated.
What SIPRI gets wrong is that there is nothing inconsistent with combining modernization of nuclear forces and arms reductions. And conversely, forgoing US modernization does not engender restraint in our adversaries. Reagan proved that peace through strength brought the Soviets to the table, and while modernizing our entire deterrent, he also achieved unprecedented reductions in the nuclear forces he inherited.
After all, prior to Reagan, particularly in the previous decade of détente and peaceful coexistence, the 1972 and 1979 SALT arms agreements allowed the Soviet Union nuclear arsenal to grow from two thousand to over ten thousand deployed strategic warheads. And while the Soviets fully modernized its nuclear arsenal over that period, the US largely did not.
SIPRI’s complaint that most nuclear armed powers are today modernizing their nuclear forces reflects a false disarmament narrative. The idea is that if nations simply decide not to modernize, their virtuous restraint will prompt their adversaries to also disarm or show restraint. Nowhere in history has this been borne out.
On top of which, relying on old legacy systems, in the hope that eventually nuclear deterrents around the world will simultaneously “rust to obsolescence,” is a prescription for disaster. Old systems can lose credibility, can become very expensive to sustain, but most importantly, can thus fail without warning, imperiling the very peace they are meant to guarantee.
The US unfortunately starting in 1991 adopted a policy of restraint. From the end of the B2 strategic bomber production in 1997, to the first nuclear capable and initial operational B21 strategic bomber, will be 32 years. The last ICBM (Peacekeeper) was first deployed in 1986 while the new Sentinel ICBM comes into the force beginning in 2029, a gap of 43 years. And the first Ohio class submarine was deployed in 1982 while the new Columbia class “boomer” goes into the water in 2032, a gap of 50 years.
By contrast, while the US took an extended nuclear holiday after the end of the Cold War, Russia and China went in the opposite direction. From 1997-9, Putin planned the massive Russian nuclear modernization effort which now is officially 89% complete. While China decided shortly after the turn of the century to build a super-power class nuclear arsenal that when completed could well exceed the current US nuclear deterrent while quadrupling over just this decade.
Missed also by SIPRI was while building up their respective nuclear arsenals, (55% of Russia’s and 100% of China’s nuclear forces are not controlled by any arms deal), both have adopted a new nuclear strategy often referenced as “escalate to win”.
As explained by former Pentagon official Brad Roberts and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten, escalate to win is a reckless strategy for victory, that jettisons traditional deterrence.” It calls for the early but limited use or threatened use of nuclear weapons in a crisis or conventional conflict. The objective? Getting the US to standdown and not defend its friends, whether Taiwan or Ukraine. In short, the idea of “deterrence” has been transformed by Russia and China from a strategy that served to prevent armed conflict, to a new strategy that supports and serves armed aggression.
Peter Huessy is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and President of GeoStrategic Analysis. These views are his own.