The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Like President Donald Trump, the Pentagon’s new nuclear policy document sees a dark and threatening world. It argues that potential U.S. adversaries such as China, North Korea, and Russia are rapidly improving their nuclear capabilities and gaining an edge over the United States. But rather than laying out a plan to halt this slide into a more dangerous world and working to decrease reliance on nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) hastens its rise by accepting the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and affirmatively embracing nuclear competition.
The central claim of the Nuclear Posture Review is that the United States must expand its reliance on nuclear weapons to protect the country and its allies—a complete reversal of the Obama administration’s effort to reduce reliance. To this end, the NPR proposes not only replacing an aging nuclear arsenal but further “supplement[ing]” it with two new missiles. It expands the circumstances in which the United States would consider employing nuclear weapons to include the ambiguously termed “non-nuclear strategic attacks” against infrastructure.
The review also includes a litany of other measures that could usher in a future in which nuclear competition is commonplace: increasing capacity to produce plutonium pits in case the United States urgently needs to expand its arsenal dramatically; training conventional forces to fight alongside nuclear ones; improving the readiness of the 150 or so nuclear weapons stationed in Europe for what had been symbolic reasons; and a new distrust of arms control measures, to name a few.
Uncharacteristically, the review contains several clumsy, contradictory, and misleading statements. For example, it gives opposing standards for deciding when the 1970s-era B83 1.2 megaton gravity bomb should be retired. Even prior to the review’s release, there were concerns that Trump’s retaliatory stance would raise the possibility of a disproportionate use of nuclear force, such as against a cyberattack. General Paul J. Selva, the nation’s second-ranking military officer, was forced to deny such claims as “fundamentally untrue.” (However, in expanding the nuclear mission to include the poorly defined category of “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” the document invites such an interpretation.) This kind of confusion surrounding the issuance of nuclear threats is frankly unacceptable, especially for an administration that also sends careless statements about its nuclear posture over Twitter.
One chart is so anxious to show that U.S. adversaries are advancing faster than the United States that it lumps together a range of dissimilar systems from the large Russian arsenal, the small Chinese arsenal, and the tiny North Korean arsenal. It lists highly advanced systems together with ones that have been indefinitely delayed, and even includes North Korea’s unproven missiles. When it comes to the United States, the chart omits myriad ongoing programs that have sustained and improved the world’s most capable nuclear force, as well as all of the upcoming programs to replace these systems with new ones.
On top of a pledge to carry out the Obama administration’s plans to “sustain and replace” nearly every system in the nuclear arsenal, the review calls for two “supplements”: a new option for a low-yield sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) in lieu of the missiles removed from the fleet in the 1990s. Both are necessary, the NPR argues, because they “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” Yet the review validates this perception by scrambling to fill that gap, stating that new flexible low-yield options are “important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression.” The statement weakens the credibility of U.S. strategic forces and signals to China, North Korea, and Russia that they should expect a low-yield strike to be met with a reciprocal and limited response (which they could consider an advantageous exchange).
No matter their yield or delivery method, nuclear weapons will never be seen as a credible deterrence to the kind of low-level aggression at which Russia and North Korea have proven adept.
Moreover, by taking this position, the NPR implicitly accepts the Russian belief that the lower yield of these weapons makes them more credible and more acceptable to use in regional wars. This is wrong for three reasons: first, even “low-yield” nuclear weapons are thousands of times more destructive than the largest conventional ones and risk contaminating huge swaths of allied or enemy territory; second, it is not at all clear that an adversary would be able to quickly ascertain that a nuclear detonation was a “low-yield” strike; and third, even if it could, it may not obligingly limit its response. Under such a theory, if Russia were reckless enough to carry out a small nuclear attack, the United States would have to shock it into restraint through nuclear retaliation. In relying on nonstrategic weapons for deterrence, the NPR exhibits the same mistaken logic that it worries is taking hold in Moscow.
The review neglects to make a compelling case for the necessity of its proposed systems. The claim that deploying a new SLCM could prompt Russia to retire its banned ground-launched cruise missiles is laughable. In general, generic language about “mistaken perceptions” is a thin justification for an expensive and potentially destabilizing new system. Just as the Air Force has struggled to make the case for why a new air-launched cruise missile is needed, the NPR fails to demonstrate that there are missions that cannot be performed by the existing systems and thus, that there is a need for new ones.
The review self-consciously insists that it “is not intended to, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’ ” Yet the arguments about nonstrategic weapons and the capabilities of the proposed “supplements” enable the use of nuclear weapons in a limited regional war. The low-yield SLBM is apparently designed to promptly strike small and mobile targets such as an enemy’s mobile missile launcher or forward command post. If used this way, ballistic missile submarines, which were previously used for strategic deterrence, would also be able to perform battlefield missions.
Overall, the NPR reflects an outdated and simplistic view of deterrence. It argues that nuclear weapons provide unrivaled deterrent effects, so more options mean more deterrence. Today’s military planners, however, have a far more complex and nuanced understanding of deterrence. They plan to employ a range of capabilities across different domains to create a strategic effect appropriate to the specific threat. In some circumstances, issuing a nuclear threat may be necessary to deter an attack. Yet in other situations, it may be more credible and more compelling to threaten to defend against an attack or to impose unacceptable costs in the cyber-domain, in space, with sanctions, or with conventional weapons. No matter their yield or delivery method, nuclear weapons will never be seen as a credible deterrence to the kind of low-level aggression at which Russia and North Korea have proven adept.
This is part of the reason why the Obama administration sought to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons: if an objective can be met with conventional weapons it will be a more credible threat than a nuclear one. Yet the 2018 NPR explicitly says that “non-nuclear forces…do not provide comparable deterrence effects.” This says to our allies, “Don’t be assured by our conventional cooperation; demand nuclear commitments.” And it says to our adversaries, “Don’t be deterred by our conventional posturing; we are serious only when we make a nuclear threat.”
The tension between conventional and nuclear force also arises in the review’s approach toward funding the arsenal. Top defense officials have stated frankly that the Pentagon does not have a plan to pay the expected $1.7 trillion to update and operate the arsenal over the next 30 years. That figure will create serious tensions in a Pentagon wrestling with a dizzying array of other priorities: raising the readiness of U.S. forces, building new fleets of aircraft carriers, fighters, and attack submarines, and investing more funds in future research. Yet rather than attempting to solve the problem with cost the NPR dismisses it, declaring that nuclear weapons are “an affordable priority” comprising “a small fraction” of the defense budget. The fact remains that every dollar spent on a nuclear “supplement” is one that cannot be devoted to strengthening the service members who provide essential deterrence deployed around the world every day.
Each of the NPR’s failings derives in part from the structure of the review process itself, which considers nuclear weapons in isolation from other elements of American power. As a result, the document reads less like a strategy of how best to deter threats to the United States and its allies and more like a piece of advocacy for nuclear weapons—a self-conscious defense of their utility, affordability, and an effort to expand their mission. It is less a Pentagon policy document than a memo from a powerful lobby.
Future administrations would be better served by conducting a “deterrence posture review,” to explicitly consider the cost implications of its recommendations and to develop a strategy that uses all effective capabilities to deter aggression. This effort would encourage planners to integrate different levers of American power in their deterrence planning rather than to privilege one over others.
Yet the most significant problem with Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review is the slanted view it holds of the world and the obsolete theory of deterrence and war fighting that it promotes, which is so poorly suited to today’s threats. Rather than working to reduce nuclear dangers, the nation’s nuclear policy now reflects the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and readily follows them into a more dangerous world.