While the dual Russian and Chinese nuclear threats have been well established in recent years, Chinese nuclear weapons modernization and a Russian threat of nuclear escalation in Ukraine are fast adding new urgency to the global threat equation.
China is massively accelerating efforts to add new weapons to its nuclear arsenal and is now building ground-silos to house land-launched ICBMs. China is also adding thousands of nuclear warheads to its stockpile. All of this is taking place while Russia is threatening to use its extremely large nuclear stockpile in a war with Ukraine or the West.
“Today, we face two nuclear capable near peers who have the capability to unilaterally escalate to any level of violence in any domain worldwide with any instrument of national power at any time. And we have never faced a situation like that before in our history,” Commander of US Strategic Command Adm. Charles Richard told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to a transcript of his remarks. “I have previously emphasized our need to be able to deter two adversaries at the same time. That need is now an imperative. The strategic security environment is now a three-party nuclear near peer reality,” Richard said.
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Jack Reed D-RI, addressed the now widely known and concerning possibility that Russia might blend its nuclear weapons into the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
“Much has changed since our last hearing in 2021. Russia's ongoing unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine has shaken the international order that has maintained nucleolus stability for the better part of a century. Vladimir Putin's behavior has been reckless to a dangerous degree. Just prior to its invasion, Russia conducted a large out of cycle nuclear exercise,” Reed told Pentagon witnesses at a hearing on Nuclear Deterrence, adding ….”and the Kremlin has since made a series of escalatory statements.”Certainly Russia’s behavior and Putin’s move to put nuclear forces on alert raise the very concerning question of just what might happen if there were no countervailing nuclear force to deter him?
The current situation does seem to bring the importance of nuclear deterrence into focus, given that the prospect of assured nuclear destruction in a retaliatory strike is likely a main reason why Putin has not thus far used nuclear weapons.
“More than ever a nuclear deterrent, the bedrock of our national defense is being relied upon as we witness the realities of European conflict involving a nuclear armed nation,” Richard said.
It would seem almost too self evident to point out that the current nuclear threat posed by Russia is likely to impact both short and near-term US nuclear policy, a key question as the Biden Administration prepares to approve a new Nuclear Posture Review.
US Strategic Command Commander Adm. Charles Richard clearly told Congress that any policy decisions information the next NPR would need to come from and be approved by the President, he did indicate several thoughts of great significance to the discussion. When asked by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on some proposed ideas to change the US Declaratory Policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
A Declaratory Policy, for example, could be a stance assuring “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons or assurances that nuclear weapons would under no circumstances be used against a non-nuclear nation. The US does not have a “no-first-use” policy, not because there would be a plan or an intention to strike with nuclear weapons but rather to ensure decision-makers full access to the scope of possibilities necessary to ensure an effective deterrence posture.
In previous remarks, Richard has been clear that he does not view US rivals as being inclined to envision any kind of a no-first-use policy. In fact, Putin’s recent behavior seems to indicate the opposite. An interesting 2021 essay from the Institute for Defense Analysis called “No First-Use of Nuclear Weapons: A Policy Assessment,” cites comments from Richard saying “China … is developing a stack of capabilities that, to my mind, (are) increasingly inconsistent with a stated no-first-use policy.”
Video Above: Is Nuclear War Likely Between U.S., China & Taiwan? Will Deterrence Help?
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In his recent remarks to Congress, Richard indicated that his recommendation on a Declaratory Policy has not changed, but that decisions in this matter were up to the President. Richard is clearly of the view that adopting a Declaratory Policy could impair the US Strategic Deterrence posture. He explained this to Congress in the context of emphasizing the importance of providing solid reassurance to US allies, countries likely living with greatly heightened concerns at the moment.
“We receive very clear feedback from the allies in terms of their opinion and the harmful effects on extended deterrence and assurance that changes (to the Declaratory Policy) would have,” Richard told Congress, according to a transcript of the discussion.
The last Nuclear Posture Review, published in 2018, called for the introduction of several new low-yield nuclear weapons possibilities to include the addition of nuclear-armed, submarine-launched cruise missiles and a low-yield variant of the Trident II D5 submarine-launched, nuclear armed ballistic missiles.
As the next NPR takes shape, Richard certainly seemed inclined to tell Congress that the current threat situation bears prominently upon his command’s mission and commitment to both sustained modernization and deterrence.
“I do think right now we're getting a very vivid real world example of the importance of extended deterrence and assurance. That if we want our allies to assist us in standing up to aggression, we have to provide that assurance to them, such that they're in a position to go after our mutual goals.
”The Russian invasion of Ukraine and nuclear-weapons threats made by Putin are sharpening focus on the already pressing and somewhat urgent issue of US nuclear weapons modernization. There are a number of fast-progressing, interwoven current programs critical to sustaining the US strategic deterrence posture for decades into the future, and some suggest the current threat environment requires even further acceleration of these programs.
US Strategic Command Commander, Adm. Charles“Chaz” Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while the US strategic deterrent remains ready and capable, there is an urgent need to modernize.
“I'm doing it (the strategic deterrence mission) with submarines built in the 80s and 90s, an air launch cruise missile built in the 80s, intercontinental ballistic missiles built in the 70s, a bomber built in the 60s, part of our nuclear command and control that predates the internet, and a nuclear weapons complex that dates back to the Manhattan era…..and while modernization must be the priority, please make no mistake STRATCOM forces are ready today.”
SASC Ranking member Sen. James Inhofe R-Okla., submitted a question to Richard specifically citing the growing seriousness of the concern presented by Russia’s arsenal and the US need to keep pace.
“Russia has a nuclear arsenal larger and more modern than the United States and currently threatened nuclear escalation during the invasion of Ukraine. Admiral Richard, we've heard for a long time how critical it is that we rebuild our nation's nuclear deterrent. But we're still years away from fielding any new systems,” Inhofe asked, according to a written statement from the committee.
Inhofe’s question points to the reason why STRATCOM and Pentagon weapons developers are continuing to accelerate progress with a handful of crucially needed, next-generation platforms. The Navy’s new Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines are expected to be operational by the end of this decade and performing missions into the early 2030s. The Air Force’s new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM is on a similar timeframe and is expected to emerge in 2028.
An emerging nuclear-capable, air launched cruise missile called the LRSO Long Range Standoff Missile may emerge in just the next several years, and the new nuclear-capable B-21 Stealth Bomber is preparing to take flight and is expected by the mid 2020s as well. The Air Force has also modernized its B61 nuclear bomb and consolidated several previous variants into a single, upgraded B61 Mod 12 bomb which combines earth-penetrating bunker buster capability with an above ground detonation option and lower-yield possibilities.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University