In the coming months, Americans will hear more about nuclear weapons and their critical role in our national security than they have in years. In particular, they’ll be told that for the first time in the more than 30 years since the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons are more important than ever. They’ll be told that China’s recent and unprecedented decision to massively build up its nuclear arsenal means the United States must follow suit. They’ll be told that to choose otherwise is foolish and even dangerous.
The American people deserve and want to be armed with the knowledge to ask the right questions about nuclear proliferation and its importance for the national security of the U.S. in the coming years. Nuclear policy, like much of U.S. defense policy, has rarely been informed by the views of the American public. On the contrary, the community of experts who drive how America postures its nuclear forces and determine what must be done to implement the president’s vision is relatively small. The choices the U.S. makes with regard to its own nuclear forces can either heighten—or reduce—the risk of nuclear war.
Right now, too many American nuclear experts are beginning to warm up to the idea of an arms race—and, if they have their way, this arms race is likely to look quite different from its Cold War predecessor. They are concerned that the U.S. will face a security challenge that is unprecedented since the end of the Cold War: China is building up the number of nuclear weapons it possesses and will, sometime in the 2030s, join Russia as a nuclear “peer” of the U.S.
This is true: Beginning in 2021, satellite imagery collected by independent, nongovernmental analysts showed that Beijing had started building a large number of intercontinental-ballistic missile silos in its western desert. Before this, in 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense had publicly noted that China possessed a nuclear force numbering warheads in the “low-200s,” a fraction of the 1,800 or so nuclear weapons the U.S. deploys. Last year, the Department noted that if China continued building nuclear weapons at the rate it appears to be today, it may have as many as 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035.
Last week, a bipartisan group of experts, representing a range of views on nuclear weapons, produced a report for Congress that recommended, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. must respond to this—and other developments—by preparing to quantitatively build up its own forces (among other measures). If followed, the recommendations of this Strategic Posture Commission, as the group is known, would mark a dramatic reversal of more than three decades of continuity in American nuclear policy, and supercharge a new arms race.
After the Cold War ended, the George H.W. Bush administration unilaterally drew down literally thousands of nuclear weapons deployed worldwide—partly as a gesture of goodwill to Moscow that Washington would not seek unilateral advantage as the Soviet Union crumbled. Since then, the number of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons has slowly trended downward over Republican and Democratic administration: a consequence of arms control, unilateral nuclear policy choices, and normative considerations.
The commission writes that it partly arrived at its recommendations in light of evidence that “the U.S.-led international order and the values it upholds are at risk from the Chinese and Russian authoritarian regimes.”
It is reasonable for Americans to share concerns that the world is fundamentally more primed for conflict between major powers than it has been in decades. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, backed by overt and covert nuclear threats, paired with China’s more muscular foreign policy in its neighborhood, is a legitimate source of concern for anyone seeking a fairer, more just world built on universal principles and norms. Against this backdrop, arms control—an important tool for predictability and transparency—has considerably frayed. The last remaining U.S.-Russia treaty on strategic nuclear arms was suspended by Moscow earlier this year.
But when Americans are told that the answer to these problems will be found with a decision to reverse decades of progress toward lowering the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national strategy, they should be skeptical.
While no word in Washington is perceived to convey more legitimacy unto a policy product than “bipartisan,” the Strategic Posture Commission report does not, in its topline recommendations, match the true scope of debate around these issues in Washington. Most notably, the Biden administration itself appears to diverge substantially from the recommendations made by this commission. In a speech this June, Jake Sullivan, the president’s adviser on national security affairs, noted that “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.”
He added that “we’ve been there,” and “we’ve learned that lesson”—referring to the Cold War arms race. Proponents of a U.S. nuclear buildup like to note that Russia and China have already chosen to build up, so why shouldn’t we? As Sullivan suggests, the compulsion to “do something” in response to the other side was the source of many poor decisions during the Cold War. That same compulsion is widely felt today as more and more American nuclear policy experts grow more uncomfortable with the prospect that American nuclear superiority—a fact largely taken for granted in the post–Cold War decades—may be coming to a close.
The U.S. can still choose to avoid an arms race, and it should make this choice because its security interests can be better served through other means—even in a world where the combined number of Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons aimed at our homeland is greater than our deployed forces by a factor of two. Nuclear deterrence, after all, does not demand nuclear superiority; the compulsion felt among many in Washington to build up is a product, instead, of how the U.S. has done nuclear strategy since the 1960s.
There are other ways forward, and the American people should ask the experts, thinkers, and leaders who work through these issues to consider these better alternatives. For instance, one solution might be found today with non-nuclear technologies and weapons. Missiles armed with conventional warheads have grown so precise and capable that, for years, Russian and Chinese experts have been concerned that such capabilities could degrade their nuclear forces. As Sullivan suggested in June, one answer for the U.S. could be offsetting any new perceived nuclear “gap” with upgraded conventional weapons that might be fit for that purpose.
Another solution may be found through a wholesale rethink of how the U.S. implements its strategy of nuclear deterrence. Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. moved toward a strategy that privileges the limitation of damage against its homeland in a nuclear war. While this may sound like a laudable objective, it was in no small part responsible for contributing to arms-racing dynamics during the Cold War and even heightening the risk of unwanted nuclear war in a serious crisis.
Washington might reassess the wisdom of such an approach and adopt a strategy that instead understands that nuclear deterrence can hold with a smaller number of deployed nuclear weapons: As long as any American adversary can be assured that the U.S. will be able to retaliate for any nuclear attack against our homeland or our allies and deliver unacceptable damage in return, deterrence might hold. And nuclear weapons aren’t the sole contributors to avoiding the failure of deterrence; America’s capable conventional forces play a role too.
Finally, proponents of a buildup should be careful what they wish for. One reason to avoid an arms race in the twenty-first century is simply that the U.S. is not well positioned to win one. For starters, fiscal and political constraints in Washington mean that the country will never go back to spending close to what it once spent, as a percentage of gross domestic product, on nuclear weapons and national defense. With defense spending already bulging close to $800 billion in nominal terms, various constituencies within the Department of Defense feel that their priorities are not being met; allowing nuclear weapons spending to surge would be both infeasible and imprudent.
More practically, the U.S. is already modernizing its nuclear forces and has budgeted to do so. The decisions driving this modernization should not be treated as sacrosanct, but the plans are already sealed into hard-fought programs of record, which have very little leeway for expansion or change. In fact, choosing to alter these realities will undoubtedly eat into other non-nuclear defense priorities that could actually play a much more important role in deterring the emergence of a major crisis with American adversaries that could spiral into a war where nuclear weapons become salient.
A final arms-racing constraint is America’s ability to actually build more nuclear weapons. Early in an arms race, the U.S. could get away with what’s known as “uploading” existing forces: removing warheads from storage and putting more of them on our currently deployed submarines and intercontinental missiles. But should Russia and China, two authoritarian states with far more political and economic flexibility to respond, do so along similar lines, the U.S. would find itself hard-pressed to build more nuclear weapons. America’s plan to build plutonium pits is hamstrung by cost overruns, mismanagement, and delays and is designed to do little more than support the maintenance of aging nuclear weapons, in any case.
Nuclear deterrence doubtless remains important for U.S. national security and the security of American allies. It has, for instance, allowed the U.S. and our European partners to arm Ukraine without suffering Russian attacks. (At the same time, it has also restricted our ability to further help the Ukrainians by making the prospect of directed armed involvement in Ukraine too risky.)
The changing global nuclear environment and the fever that’s gripped nuclear experts in Washington amid the emergence of “two nuclear peers” in Russia and China are likely to elevate these questions in national politics. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, presidential candidates may be asked about nuclear weapons, arms races, and even nuclear war.
These are important questions that deserve serious thought and consideration. American taxpayers and citizens are owed better answers than those recommendations that would see the country sleepwalk into a nuclear buildup out of a compulsion to “do something” about what America’s authoritarian adversaries have chosen to do with their own nuclear weapons. Keeping the U.S. and its allies secure does not require making choices that lead to an arms race that will inevitably endanger everyone.