U.S. Nuclear Strategy in the Face of China’s Rise

U.S. Nuclear Strategy in the Face of China’s Rise
U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Jeremy M. Starr
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The strategic challenge of the 21st Century for the United States will be for it to maintain its position in international politics in the face of a competitive peer challenge from China.  While this challenge has many facets, one of the most important is the role nuclear strategy plays in allowing the United States to maintain its position.  The founders of U.S. nuclear strategy—in particular, Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter—were quick to discern the value of nuclear weapons and their usefulness for America’s interests.  As these nuclear founders identified, nuclear weapons are used for purposes of deterrence and coercion.  To deter aggression, or to deter escalation within a conflict, the United States must have a counterforce nuclear strategy and nuclear superiority at the tactical, theater, and strategic levels.  In order to coerce, it must possess nuclear superiority in each of these domains as well.  The result of this was strategic stability during the Cold War.

In both a deterrent and coercive role, nuclear weapons have greatly served the interests of the United States.  Nuclear weapons allowed the United States to credibly extend deterrence to Europe and Japan without generating an economically debilitating level of conventional power—the “First Offset” strategy of the Eisenhower administration.  Nuclear superiority contributed greatly to the stability of the Cold War and U.S. dominance in its wake. 

However, with the end of the Soviet threat, the U.S. took a “strategic holiday” and permitted its nuclear force structure to atrophy, as it lived off the “nuclear capital” it accumulated during the Cold War.  Faced with a China that is now a peer competitor, the costs the costs of this inaction are now evident in the growing doubts of American allies and the boldness of China’s actions.  China is a unique geopolitical challenge for the United States.  China is not the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were very threatening—a revolutionary superpower which sought to overturn every aspect of the established order.  However, China is not the Soviet Union; there is no economic radicalization, no revolutionary ideology it seeks to spread by force.  Moreover, it is far wealthier than the Soviet Union and thus will be even more powerful.  Accordingly, fundamentally, China is a threat to the dominant position of the United States in international politics due to its intentions and capabilities.  These facts make it a peer competitive threat even greater than the Soviet Union.

China’s conventional and nuclear capabilities continually expand.  With the growth of its military power, it advances its interests in international politics.  These interests are evidently expansionist, from naval exercises in the Baltic Sea to explicit and startling territorial claims—acquiring control of the East and South China Seas, asserting its claims with India—while establishing naval bases in the India Ocean and Africa, and land bases from Central Asia to Europe through its “One Belt and One Road Initiative.”  These actions and claims reveal an ambition to challenge the United States and its alliance relationships.

China’s expansion forces the United States to confront the costs of its “strategic holiday,” and illuminates the need to reverse it immediately.  Given the growth of China’s nuclear capabilities, for the United States maintain its interests in the Asia-Pacific, including credible extended deterrence to its allies in Asia, the United States needs to go “back to the future” and capture once again the components of strategic stability.  Just as in the Cold War when the United States faced its last hegemonic challenger, the U.S. needs to have a counterforce strategy and nuclear superiority.  These were the causes of strategic stability during the Cold War.  The U.S. needs to regain them, quickly, or strategic stability will be lost.

In order to check and potentially to reverse China’s gains in Asia, the United States must achieve what it did when it faced the Soviets:  possess a counterforce strategy with the modern force and command and control structure to support it.  This will convince allies that it possesses a credible extended deterrent—the military capability and political willpower to confront China, and to win the confrontation, should it come.  That is the essence of U.S. nuclear superiority, which is, in turn, the key to strategic stability. 

To accomplish it, Washington needs to reverse its “nuclear holiday.”  It needs to modernize and expand its nuclear infrastructure and force posture to reassure its allies and deter China.  U.S. conventional and cyber capabilities are very important, but in the strategic context, they are necessary but not sufficient.  Washington’s strategic aims cannot be won solely by conventional or cyber means against an opponent with nuclear superiority, or one that doubts the credibility of the U.S deterrent.  To extend the U.S. deterrent credibly, and to provide the force structure necessary to coerce, a counterforce strategy and superiority at each rung of the escalation ladder contribute to strategic stability.

A counterforce strategy will hold Chinese military and leadership targets at risk, and so deter Chinese’s aggression or escalation to higher levels of conflict.  Second, it will reassure allies so that they are confident that Washington has linked its security to theirs. Third, it permits the U.S. to damage limit should deterrence fail.  Fourth, it provides the necessary precondition for a diplomatic effort to reverse Chinese territorial gains and further ambitions.

Concerning force structure, this requires, first, the sustained and forward deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to deter a conventional conflict from escalating to the nuclear level.  Moreover, this tactical capability must be deployed in sufficient numbers.  For example, during the Cold War, tactical nuclear weapons were regularly deployed onboard U.S. naval surface vessels—especially cruisers and aircraft carriers—and attack submarines.  The U.S. needs to return to a similar posture.  Second, should deterrence at a tactical level fail, the U.S. must have a robust theater nuclear force posture and strategy to fight a nuclear conflict and to hold Chinese nuclear capabilities and leadership at risk. The return of TLAM-N would be a positive first step.  Third, should deterrence at the theater-level weaken, the U.S. must possess a sufficiently large and accurate strategic nuclear posture to hold Chinese forces and leadership at risk and make damage limitation possible to prevent escalation to the strategic level. 

The U.S. needs each of these components to ensure strategic stability and its global interests.  While obtaining strategic stability, China would have no incentive to escalate and should be deterrent from aggression against Taiwan, Japan, or in the South China Sea.  Second, strong “linkage” between allied and American interests would result, thus ensuring that credible extended deterrence results.  Third, should coercion be necessary, the U.S. would have a force structure that supports this policy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. does not possess these capabilities to the extent necessary.  That invites a strategically dangerous and potentially catastrophic situation given China’s ambitions.  The successful strategic history of the U.S. tells it what it needs to do.  To maintain strategic stability in Asia, and to preserve and advance its interests in the face of the greatest test of the 21st century, the U.S. needs to commit to a nuclear strategy and force structure that permits it to check China’s ambitions.


Bradley A. Thayer – visiting fellow, Magdalen College, University of Oxford.

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