A US Congressional Committee has recommended that the US heavily modernize and diversify its nuclear arsenal to fight Russia and China’s nuclear forces and infrastructure in response to what it perceives as a dual threat from two peer rivals.
Experts have, however, criticized the measure, citing the prohibitive cost that could be used for other military projects, the unnecessary undertaking given the already advanced and capable state of the US’s nuclear inventory, and the consequence of it instead triggering an arms race, countering the purpose of deterring Moscow and Beijing.
This validates a previous analysis by the EurAsian Times from August 2022 that touched upon how US military commanders reported an effort underway to “furiously rewrite” their “nuclear deterrence theory.”
Nuclear modernization and expansion are driven by making one’s nuclear forces “survivable,” meaning they are diverse and robust enough not to get destroyed by nuclear attacks. This means a military retains some atomic weapons to retaliate after sustaining a nuclear strike.
According to the report by the Congressional Committee on the Strategic Posture of the United States, the current global environment is “fundamentally different to anything experienced in the past, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.” The report comes 14 years after the last central review was published in 2009.
The recommendations include deploying more tactical nuclear weapons in Asia and Europe, producing more B-21 stealth bombers and Columbia-class nuclear submarines, and better using emerging technologies such as hypersonics and Artificial Intelligence.
In a Twitter thread, Matthew Kroenig, a commission member, posted the recommendations, reiterating that the US and its allies must be ready to deter and defeat both adversaries simultaneously.
Kroenig pushed the doctrine of ‘counterforce targeting’ (not explicitly named in the thread), which involves hitting an adversary’s nuclear infrastructure like nuclear launch sites, nuclear command and control bases, and facilities holding nuclear weapons with one’s atomic weapons.
He cited China as the reason. “China will field large-scale, counterforce-capable missile forces that threaten US strategic nuclear forces on par with the threat Russia poses to those forces today.”
“Prepare to upload some or all of the nation’s hedge warheads; Plan to deploy the Sentinel ICBM in a MIRVed configuration; Increase the planned number of deployed Long-Range Standoff Weapons; Increase the planned number of B-21 bombers,” he said.
MIRV stands for Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles, where the tip of the missile has several nuclear warheads released from the casing while reentering the atmosphere. This caters to some of them being shot down and ensures a successful strike. Some may also be decoys to mislead enemy air defenses.
“Uploading” warheads means fusing the nuclear warheads with the missiles at all times and not keeping them separately, as is a standard safety practice across militaries. The fusion does not happen casually, and the missiles and warheads are kept separately, combined only during tensions and confirmed nuclear threats. This was during the Cold War when the US and the USSR saw several moments of nuclear brinkmanship.
‘Nuclear Arsenal Already Powerful’
A section of nuclear strategists have long pointed out that for reducing nuclear tensions between Great Powers with large and technologically advanced militaries, diplomacy and arms reduction treaties are more effective than nuclear expansion.
The success of multiple arms reduction treaties between the US, Soviet Union, and its successor, the Russian Federation, which even saw mutual inspection of each other’s nuclear facilities to validate the arms reduction targets, is often cited as an example.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Charles L. Glaser, James Action, and Steve Fetter point out that the US nuclear force already “contains a huge amount of survivable destructive potential.”
“Each United States’ 14 Ohio-class submarines carries 20 ballistic missiles, each carrying up to eight warheads, yielding 90 to 455 kilotons. A typical submarine carrying an average of 90 warheads can inflict the damage required for assured destruction.
“The United States usually has between eight and ten ballistic missile submarines at sea — not to mention 400 silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and up to 66 bombers available for nuclear missions,” they said in the piece.
Around 70% of the US’s nuclear weapons are on these submarines and stealth bombers like the B-2 Spirit. The rest are in the continental US, in nuclear missile silos that release Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) like the Minuteman III.
An adversary would have to fire several hundred missiles to target all the ground-based ICBMs. This would still leave the bombers, deployed in various bases in Europe in Bomber Task Force (BTF) missions, and the nuclear-powered and Trident missile-armed SSBN submarines, some of which are always on patrol, unharmed.
They would easily be in a position to carry out a retaliatory launch. Moreover, it is challenging for even advanced militaries like China or Russia to be able to track them all the time.
“Given these capabilities, under an infrastructure-targeting doctrine, the United States would simultaneously meet the requirements for deterring Russia and China. (An) expansion of its nuclear force would (therefore not) be necessary,” the article said.
‘Will Provoke Rather Than Deter’
Lastly, such a nuclear buildup by the US would trigger an arms race instead of deterring Russia and China. They would respond by adding more warheads and developing newer delivery systems.
In other words, more nuclear weapons meant to deter an adversary will provoke the state. Russia or China would calculate that the new atomic arms, claimed for defensive, “survivable” purposes, can also be used to hit them first.
They would either, therefore, build newer weapons as a technological riposte or strike first themselves during extreme and rare occasions of high tension.
“If the United States could fully target China’s and Russia’s nuclear forces, Beijing and Moscow would worry that its arsenal was inadequate. Each would face a more significant US nuclear threat than if it were the United States’ only nuclear peer.
“China and Russia might respond by building up their forces, which, given the logic of counterforce targeting, would create pressure on the United States to do the same. The result could be a steady expansion of all three countries’ nuclear forces and the ensuing damage to political relations that arms races typically generate.”