The Nuclear Posture Review released last week is notable for five major reasons. First, it calls for updating each leg of the United States’ strategic triad. Second, it addresses the importance of modernizing the nuclear command and control system and infrastructure. Third, it calls for the development of new strategic systems, including submarine-launched cruise missile and low-yield warheads. Fourth, it calls for tailored deterrence against adversaries and new forms of attack, including a possible nuclear response to a significantly damaging cyber attack. Fifth, and most importantly, the NPR recognizes the world is not as it was. We are witnessing the return of great power politics. This includes intense security competition among the great powers and compels the United States to modernize its nuclear infrastructure and force posture to reflect that reality. Russia and China, great power rivals of the United States, have consistently modernized their nuclear arsenals and infrastructure. The United States has not. We live in a world where China and Russia have more modern nuclear weapons than the United States and place greater weight on those weapons—as military weapons to be used in combat with the United States and its allies, as well as signs of their military prowess.
Reflecting contemporary reality—the world as it is now, rather than twenty years ago when U.S. predominance was unchallenged—the NPR provides the United States with greater flexibility to strengthen deterrence and the position of the United States in international politics.
This matters in a world where the U.S. position is more complicated than it has been in the post-Cold War world for two reasons. First, Chinese and Russian capabilities have grown considerably. Both states have modern arsenals and nuclear infrastructures that allow them to sustain their nuclear capabilities and to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons. If the United States does not modernize its ability to adapt and sustain its arsenal it weakens its deterrent and provides either China or Russia or both, with an incentive to race to nuclear superiority. Such a bid for superiority would be disastrous for U.S. national security. It is a distinct possibility if the United States does not demonstrate the capability to sustain all of the components of its nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. All of those interested in strategic stability have an interest in the ability of the U.S. to offset the growth of the Chinese and Russian strategic arsenals.
Second, U.S. allies are concerned about the ability of the United States to defend them in the face of great power China’s expanded military capabilities and intent. Statements from Xi Jinping indicate his ambition is that China will be the most powerful state. China has demonstrated willingness to expand its interests and territorial control in the East and South China Seas. Beijing’s global ambitions and presence are evinced by the PRC’s base in Djibouti, the expansion of China’s influence in Africa, its declaration that China is an “Arctic nation” and should be involved in Arctic affairs, and its “string of pearls” bases around the Indian Ocean. Indeed, one of the most significant steps taken by China is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to safeguard trade between China and southwest Asia and Europe. In the years to come, the BRI will ensure Chinese domination of central Asia and, through expanding trade and political influence, a larger voice in European politics.
In Europe, there are similar concerns. NATO allies, and neutral Sweden and Finland, are worried about Russia due to its aggressive actions against Ukraine, belligerent military exercises, modernization of its strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal and nuclear alarming nuclear doctrine—which would see nuclear weapons use to cause de-escalation—as well as its violation of the 1987 INF Treaty.
The measures suggested by the NPR, including the development of a submarine-launched cruise missile—which would restore a capability the U.S. possessed until the 2010 decision to eliminate it—will do much to provide credibility. Likewise, a potential ground-based intermediate range missile system will augment U.S. capabilities, but also serve to put Russia on notice that the U.S. will not accept its INF Treaty violation without a response. To do otherwise would weaken the position of the U.S. and set a disastrous precedent.
The NPR is an important step forward for aiding the U.S. position in the world in the face of historical challenges from its great power rivals. History has returned, and the United States needs a nuclear arsenal and infrastructure appropriate to its inevitable tasks and trials.
Bradley A. Thayer, P.hD., is a visiting fellow at Magdalen College, University of Oxford