America's Russian Nuke Obsession

Thinking Beyond Moscow in the New Nuclear Age
America's Russian Nuke Obsession
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When the Chinese Communist Party held a huge military parade on Tiananmen Square on September 3, it did more than mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan. By parading some of China’s most advanced ballistic missiles, it also put America and the world on notice that it has steadily become a major nuclear power. China was jostling for position in a crowded field in what some are calling a “new nuclear age.” Yet even as America’s two-decade vacation from nukes is ending, the country’s nuclear thinking remains obsessed with an old enemy, Russia. In order to navigate the unwelcome return of nuclear weapons to international politics, U.S. nuclear strategy and planning needs to change, as well, and new questions need to be asked about our strategic environment.

For a country focused on terrorism and counterinsurgency for nearly 15 years, talk of nuclear conflict seems a throwback to the days of Fail Safe and On the Beach. Yet the disconnect works at two levels. In Washington, D.C., nuclear weapons have been out of fashion since the end of the Cold War and the standing down of the iconic Strategic Air Command, in 1992. Until Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine, Russia was dismissed by administrations of both parties as a geopolitical has-been, and its nuclear force fit only for further negotiated reductions. Moreover, President Obama’s 2009 Prague call for “global zero” further fueled the belief that nuclear weapons were a horror whose time had come and gone. The fact that the world’s nuclear powers, and some would-be powers, were recommitting to their nuclear arsenals was largely ignored by U.S. policymakers and analysts more focused on immediate threats.

America’s fearsome nuclear arsenal sat quietly in its silos, submarines, and bombers while politicians turned to debates over counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The nuclear enterprise, as it is called, became a military backwater, and morale and standards suffered, with cheating scandals and the public firing of both the nation’s number two nuclear commander and the Air Force general in charge of the country’s ICBM’s. Yet even as the military struggled to restore confidence in the nuclear mission, America’s nuclear war fighters continued their mission 24/7, deep underground in silos, in the ocean depths, or in cramped and aging bombers decades older than their pilots. 

Nuclear strategy has seemed as static as the weapons themselves, maintaining a default focus on Russia, seemingly to the detriment of thinking about a more complicated nuclear environment. The esoteric world of nuclear thinkers, satirized decades ago in Dr. Strangelove, may seem a relic from another era, but it is poised for a big comeback, thanks to the nuclear threats slowly gathering on the horizon. The problem America and its nuclear wizards face, though, is that our thinking is not keeping up with the changes occurring around us.

It is true that nuclear policy studies have never completely stopped. Some corners of government, like the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, have continued to explore a future of nuclear proliferation and war fighting (full disclosure: I have participated in a number of those war games/studies). But this year’s annual Deterrence Symposium, held by U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), revealed a preoccupation with Russia that harked back to the Cold War, driven no doubt by public comments from senior officials, such as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Moscow poses an existential threat to the United States.

From the perspective of the men and women who operate America’s nuclear forces, Russia is indeed their primary adversary and target. After all, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it still has 4,500 nuclear warheads, of which 1,780 are deployed on 311 land-based missiles, between eight and ten ballistic missile submarines (SSBN’s), and around 60 strategic bombers. Russia is modernizing or developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles and adding 40 missiles to its land-based force, commissioning up to ten new Borei-class SSBNs with three already launched, and upgrading its bombers. None of this takes into account, moreover, Russia’s 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads that can be used in tactical situations, not to mention its violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The composition of Russia’s nuclear forces is just part of why STRATCOM remains focused on Moscow. Over the past year, Putin has revived the art of nuclear coercion, threatening the Baltics with nuclear attack and pledging to use nuclear weapons to defend the annexation of Crimea. This type of nuclear saber rattling has not been heard since the Cold War, at least outside of North Korea, whose extreme rhetoric belies its actual capabilities. Putin’s increasingly charismatic style of leadership introduces an entirely new element into nuclear strategy, whereby one man may have direct control over thousands of nuclear warheads.

Western strategists cannot try to understand Russia under Putin by dusting off Cold War playbooks. Hard questions about changes in Russian nuclear doctrine need to be asked, and the challenge of nuclear coercion needs to be integrated into diplomatic and strategic thinking. Is Putin moving to consider tactical nuclear operations during conflict? Is he dropping the long-standing vow against making a first strike? How will a worsening economic picture affect overall military strategy? Indeed, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group has recently just started tackling these questions, but their discussion must spread out into the broader policy community, such as those who deal with Russian politics and even sociological issues. If it remains the purview of cloistered bureaucrats or nuclear planners, it is unlikely to provide the type of encompassing perspective needed to think clearly about what the threat is and how to deal with it.

For all its apparent dangers, though, Russia remains but one nuclear power. It is a far more complex nuclear environment that U.S. nuclear planners and strategists now must also prepare for, and fit into America’s larger national security discussions. Above all, it requires different thinking than during the Cold War, when a largely stable, primarily dyadic nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was successfully managed for over four decades. The new nuclear era will be multipolar, inherently unstable, and driven by a combination of resentment, ideology, and power politics among multiple players. Our assumptions about deterrence and rationality may be as outdated as our B-52’s still flying nuclear missions.

Not all nuclear threats involve the United States, of course. While both India and Pakistan continue to test new missile systems, their threat is directed at each other. The possibility of a nuclear exchange between Islamabad and New Delhi remains worryingly high, and some nuclear analysts believe that South Asia is the most likely place on earth for a nuclear exchange. For Washington, however, diplomacy may be the only role it can play in the event of a nuclear crisis on the subcontinent.

Other growing or emerging nuclear powers, however, pose a more direct challenge to the United States and its interests or to its allies. They present a more complicated strategic picture in coming years, one requiring a new renewed commitment to intelligence gathering, analysis, diplomacy, and planning. It is also where the most innovative and hardest questions need to be asked, given how little we have thought about these nuclear players.

Next to Russia, China may pose the most worrisome threat among current nuclear powers. In September’s parade, Beijing showcased weapons it has already deployed, including the DF-5B ICBM, which is China’s first missile to carry multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), meaning multiple warheads that can be programmed to hit different targets. Achieving MIRV capability creates a far more difficult anti-ballistic missile picture for the United States and allies like Japan. In addition, China unveiled its new DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile, which can target all of Japan and range out to U.S. air and naval bases in Guam. Still in the development stage is the DF-41 ICBM, which is also MIRVed and has a range of 12-14,000 kilometers, thereby being able to hit the entire continental United States. The DF-41 is a road-mobile missile, meaning that it is more survivable and harder, if not impossible, to target in a U.S. counterstrike. Further developing a survivable force, China also has at least 3 Jin-class SSBN’s, and may have up to eight boats by 2020, with new JL-2 missiles.

Sheer numbers are one part of the story, though. Beyond China’s growing arsenal, U.S. strategists need to pay far more attention how Chinese nuclear policy might change in coming years. Despite some good work in English on Chinese nuclear strategy and posture, we know far less about Chinese nuclear thinking than we do about Russian. This lacuna is made worse by the lack of Sino-U.S. discussions on nuclear weapons matters, and that the Chinese so far refuse to talk to us about arms reduction or limitation. Most importantly, Chinese nuclear doctrine may well be changing as China’s foreign policy and security strategy evolves.

Knowledgeable analysts argue that Chinese leadership circles maintain a belief dating back to the beginning of their nuclear program in the 1960s that the “sole purpose of [Chinese] nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear aggression and prevent coercion” against China. This helps explain, in such analysts’ views, both the relatively small size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal as well as the continuing avowal of the “no first use” doctrine. Chinese leaders, in this view, have never viewed their nuclear arsenal as weapons to be used for achieving military objectives.

Yet a position first adopted by Mao Zedong and faithfully carried through by his successors may not fit China’s changing security environment. A China that now has a global presence must consider how most effectively and efficiently to protect its interests that are far removed from the homeland. Beijing has so far avoided nuclear coercion or saber-rattling of the kind favored by Vladimir Putin. But with a plethora of worsening tensions with smaller nations over territorial disputes, could China resort to such tactics out of frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed?

Just as importantly, now that China has expanded its territory to include manmade islands in the South China Sea, will Beijing’s nuclear doctrine change from its focus on the homeland to extending a nuclear umbrella to vulnerable Chinese territory offshore? What if Chinese forces are attacked at foreign bases, such as in Pakistan; would the employment of nuclear weapons be seen as a legitimate response to the inability to strike back at an enemy who might not be operating near Chinese waters?

Similarly, Chinese leaders may perceive that their military modernization efforts are resulting in a conventional arms race in Asia, with other nations building aircraft carriers (like Japan), deploying more submarines, and fielding anti-ship missiles, that threatens their conventional forces. If Beijing is not assured of maintaining regional conventional dominance, could it at some point begin to rely on nuclear weapons as elements of a warfighting strategy and not merely for retaliatory purposes? Similarly, U.S. nuclear strategists need to think about the potential implications of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to put the nation’s armed services under one unified joint command. Could that type of reorganization result in the 2nd Artillery Corps, China’s nuclear force, being considered as part of more traditional military operations?

Non-military pressures could also result in changes to China’s nuclear doctrine. For example, should China’s economic slowdown prove to be more severe than initially anticipated, thereby causing budgetary pressure on the PLA, could Beijing shift its military doctrine in part to rely more on nuclear weapons as a cost-saving measure, just as the United States did during the 1950s? Given the depth and number of contentious issues between the United States and China, combined with America’s treaty commitments to nations with their own disputes with Beijing, will nuclear weapons be seen as a uniquely effective means of intimidating Washington, not to mention other powers, or preventing a conventional war from breaking out in the first place?

Other threats are even less understood. Compared to what we know about China, North Korea remains a black box, and no one has even really begun to think about the operational implications of a nuclear-armed Iran. One might assume that Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons not unlike the Chinese supposedly do, as a means of assured retaliation for any attack on its territory. But given our almost unbroken track record of being caught by surprise by North Korea, it would be foolhardy to assume we understand anything of Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or operational policies, especially as they relate to the question of the survival of the Kim family regime. As for Iran, the world has never dealt with the specter of a theological regime bolstered by nuclear weapons. Not merely questions of what kind of understandable doctrine Iran might adopt, but the issue of command and control raises nightmarish possibilities.

And none of this discussion, it should be noted, even attempts to fit the question of non-state actors such as terrorist groups getting their hands on nuclear weapons, whether through proxy relationships with nuclear powers or through A.Q. Khan-style illicit nuclear activities.

This new nuclear future requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to rebuild our intellectual infrastructure. Some of what is needed is to revive Cold War-era activities, but geared to a more complex environment, focused on multiple nation-state actors. Game theorists will be needed to run endless new scenarios with several players, while historians and cultural specialists will need to undertake the kind of research that can provide nuance and depth about a broad cast of nuclear states. From a more narrow military perspective, understanding how nuclear weapons fit into hybrid and limited war will have to inform operational planning and doctrine in the West. Even more importantly, the theory of extended deterrence will likely require a complete overhaul, as will assumptions about alliances.

U.S. policymakers will have to ask searing questions that they have avoided for a quarter-century. How do we respond to nuclear blackmail? What risks are we willing to incur by ignoring direct nuclear threats designed to forestall U.S. military activities abroad? Are we really willing to trade Seoul for Pyongyang, or Los Angeles for Tokyo? The Congress will have a major role in ensuring that such public discussions occur within the full context of U.S. foreign policy debates. The questions themselves seem like the return of creatures from a black lagoon of the global past, but not preparing for them may assure a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

Nourishing a new strategic culture is the only way to ensure the consistent and steady analysis of political, security, economic, social, and cultural facets of statecraft and warfighting in this new nuclear age. Asking the questions above, and many others, cannot be done during times of crisis or when faced with the need to make quick decisions. The risks are far too high to adopt our usual approach of dealing with problems only when they manifest themselves. In 1945, American policymakers understood that Alamogordo and Hiroshima had changed every assumption they held, and they committed to trying to understand what it all meant. Today we can do no less. 

Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Asia Bubble (forthcoming, Yale).

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