Biden administration letting America's nuclear superiority slip through our fingers
The Pentagon's annual report on China's military included a section on the PLA's nuclear buildup. The report states that the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) "is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces." Nuclear warhead production has increased. At least three new ICBM silo fields are being constructed, "which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos." The PLARF's road-mobile DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) force is growing.
China plans to "modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces," including land, sea, and air-based platforms (the triad), according to the report. The Pentagon estimates that by 2027, the PLARF will have at least 700 deliverable nuclear warheads and at least 1,000 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2030. China's ICBM force consists of CSS-10 Mod 2 missiles with a range of 11,200 kilometers, DF-41 missiles that can strike targets 12,000 kilometers away, and CSS-4 Mod 2 and Mod 3 missiles with a maximum range of 13,000 kilometers. With these three missile types, China can deliver nuclear warheads to the entire continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. Some of these missiles have MIRV capability, meaning they can deliver multiple warheads to multiple targets.
China's nuclear weapons expansion has been characterized by the head of U.S. Strategic Command as "breathtaking," a "strategic breakout" designed to give China a "coercive capability" to deter the U.S. from defending its allies against Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, Russia is engaged in its own nuclear buildup, and it may eventually outnumber the U.S. in warheads by ten to one. And China and Russia have gradually become strategic allies as both seek to undermine America's role as the organizer of the liberal world order.
According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, as of July 2020, the United States under the 2010 treaty called New START, negotiated by the Obama administration, fields 1,550 nuclear warheads on 700 strategic launchers (though we have more in our stockpile). This includes 400 Minuteman III ICBMs, 14 ballistic missile submarines that each carry up to 90 warheads, and 20 deployed B-2 bombers that each carry up to 20 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. President Trump had restored some secrecy to the U.S. strategic force and started a modernization program, but the secrecy decision was reversed by the Biden administration, which has pledged "nuclear transparency," and the administration appears set on pursuing arms control with Russia, even as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is anything but transparent about its strategic nuclear force and is engaged in a significant buildup of that force.
But the numbers and the different approaches to transparency and arms control do not tell the whole story. A recent study by the Heritage Foundation noted that the U.S. nuclear force faces three challenges: aging nuclear warheads, delivery systems, and command and control systems; a crumbling infrastructure; and an aging workforce. The Heritage Foundation study notes that the United States "has not designed or built a nuclear warhead since the end of the Cold War."
What does all of this mean? According to Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, the nuclear balance is changing, and not for the better. China, he writes, "may be on a path toward developing 2,500–3,500 nuclear warheads from its new silo building." Meanwhile, the U.S. disarmament community is pressuring the Biden administration — which is staffed by several former members of that disarmament community — to reduce U.S. nuclear weapons and adopt a "no first use" policy — meaning that the U.S. will pledge never to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, effectively ending the role of nuclear weapons in deterring a conventional attack on us or our allies.
In the past, U.S. nuclear superiority helped defuse crises that could have led to all-out war — Soviet occupation of northern Iran in 1946, the Berlin blockade, Chinese attacks on Quemoy and Matsu in the 1950s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the threat of Soviet intervention in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The United States, instead of pursuing arms control with Russia and further reducing our once superior nuclear arsenal in the face of a massive Chinese buildup, should once again use our technological know-how and productive capacities to regain and maintain nuclear superiority.
China is rattling sabers over Taiwan, as it did in the 1950s. Russia is threatening Ukraine and NATO members in parts of Europe, as it did in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Our Asian and European allies are watching how we respond.
U.S. nuclear superiority helped America win the Cold War without fighting World War III. "[W]ithout nuclear deterrence," wrote Edward Luttwak in his masterful essay "How to Think about Nuclear War," "great power conflicts would resume as before 1945." "By what doctrine of theology, by what theory of morality, by what rule of ethics," he asked, "is it decreed that the small risk of nuclear war is a greater evil than the virtual certainty of the large-scale death in great-power wars no longer deterred?" Hopefully, someone in the Biden administration is asking that question.
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