Is the U.S. About to Enter a New Big Power Nuclear Arms Race?

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — I raise that question after having heard Air Force General Anthony J. Cotton, the relatively new Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), last Wednesday address an inquiry of House Armed Services Strategic Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO).  Lamborn had asked about the rapidly growing “number of targets we must hold at risk … because of China’s nuclear breakout.” He then noted that “the forces available to you remain unchanged.”

“How does the department reconcile this?,” Lamborn asked.

“One of the things the NPR (the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review) enables us to do,” Cotton responded, “is have a conversation on strategy and have a conversation on force posture … I think that conversation is going to have to be had.”

Cotton went on to describe that “when we talk about the forces that we currently have today, that force today was based on [an] adversary, which for the first time in the history of the United States of America we now have two that are nuclear peer adversaries. Now we are going to have to have this conversation with regards to what does it look like now as far as force posture moving forward.”

The next day, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cotton showed he had toughened his response. When Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) asked, “China will field 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and that rivals U.S. nuclear deployments … Do you agree that we must reassess our strategic deterrence requirements given China’s nuclear breakout?”

“Absolutely,” Cotton said, “I think we have to reassess our strategy, at least take a look at our strategy, at least our current strategy, and have a force posture conversation.”

In between those two answers, Cotton had faced variations of that same question in testimony before both congressional committees.

For example, on Wednesday, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), chairman of the full Armed Services Committee, called attention to what he described as “Russia stepping out of New START,” the agreement that limits Russian and U.S. deployed warheads to 1,550 each. Turner then said that “we’re going to have to up our game for deterrence if they’re going to expand their inventory but also expand their nuclear weapons capabilities, which I consider are many first-strike weapon capabilities.”

At another point, Cotton was asked if current U.S. deployed warheads were enough if Chinese and Russian modernizations continue at their current rate through 2030. Cotton responded, “I think we probably need to have a conversation with regard to strategy as well as to force posture to ensure that we can make sure we have what we need, I would say probably with regard to the mid-Thirties and beyond.

At Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS.) asked, “How are we going to meet the rapidly growing threats from China and Russia with a force that’s smaller and … planned 13 years ago?”

Cotton responded, “The legacy system that we currently have is a credible system today. Since 2016, we’ve been modernizing that legacy system …We need to articulate the sense of urgency to ensure we can modernize the systems we currently have funded, and also look at future posture on what other things throughout the inventory for effects, conventional and nuclear, to make sure that we can, I can, meet the objectives given to me for strategic deterrence to the President.”

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All these run-on sentences show where Cotton and his Republican questioners want to go. And when it comes to deterrence, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a former Marine officer who served four tours in Iraq, and whom also has degrees from both Harvard College and Harvard Business School, made two additional major points during his question period.

He first got Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, to confirm that among China’s first targets in any war with the U.S. would be America’s space-based reconnaissance, communications, navigation and early warning satellites because they play critical roles in U.S. military operations.

Moulton then asked, “If war with China could start in space, then deterring war with China seems to require having an effective space deterrent.” Dickinson agreed and Moulton went on saying, “One of the challenges of deterrence is that it is not just enough (to have) capabilities that exceed your adversaries, but they have to believe that.”

As an example, Moulton then directed his questions to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb, who was also testifying.

“We are developing some exquisite space capabilities that you are overseeing,” Moulton asked. “But how do we effectively communicate that to our adversaries so they believe it?”

Plumb responded, “I think they know we have space superiority right now and that this is not an opportunity for them now to move forward. And our goal at the Department of Defense is to make sure that every day President Xi wakes up is not the day that he thinks that this is worth attempts to take Taiwan. We use Taiwan as a pacing scenario.”

Plumb also said, “Getting to the reveal/conceal question,” of what the U.S. should disclose to China or Russia, “we should not overlook statecraft as well. We do communicate back and forth between nations, and they use their statecraft to see or try to see what we’re doing, and I believe there is great value in some ambiguity.”

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The House subcommittee last week also took a closer look at hypersonic weapons, which are those capable at traveling at speeds between 5 and 25 times the speed of sound, or about one to five miles per second.

In his prepared statement for the House hearing, Gen. Cotton described the Chinese 2021 test of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a fractional orbital bombardment (FOB) system capability. That meant it was launched into a low earth orbit and after circling the earth later re-entered the atmosphere where it released a maneuverable glide vehicle travelling at hypersonic speeds toward its target.

Cotton said, “These systems represent a more challenging threat because their non-ballistic trajectories complicate missile detection and tracking, and degrade the target country’s
ability to characterize the scale of an attack.” Such an orbiting vehicle containing a nuclear-armed weapon would represent a highly destabilizing threat. In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and then-Soviet Union tested such weapons. Recognizing their danger, and under United Nations auspices, the Outer Space Treaty banning nuclear weapons in space came into effect in October 1967. Signatory countries include Russia, China, and the U.S.

However, both China and Russia have tested conventionally-armed hypersonic missiles. The Russians have used them against Ukraine, firing at least six just last week.

The U.S. has its own conventionally-armed hypersonic weapons under rapid development. Cotton told the House subcommittee, “Long-range conventional hypersonic weapons will provide senior leadership additional strike options to hold distant and/or defended high-value, time-sensitive targets at risk without crossing the nuclear threshold.”

In addition, Cotton said the U.S. Space Development Agency “is aimed at building a constellation of satellites in low- and medium-earth-orbit that can monitor maneuvering hypersonic missiles flying below the range of today’s ballistic missile detection satellites and above the radar of terminal-phase targeting systems. These satellites will complement other efforts to detect and track maneuvering hypersonic missiles that are difficult targets for current missile warning capabilities.”

The first details of the Biden fiscal 2024 budget request, released yesterday, show major increases for nuclear weapons: the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear warhead-building complex, seeks a record $23.8 billion; the Pentagon wants $37.7 billion to keep the modernization of the Triad delivery systems going; it also wants the largest-ever requested space budget of $33.3 billion; and even a record $11 billion for hypersonic weapons and other long-range missiles.

And yet initial question posed for this column came up during Wednesday’s House subcommittee meeting by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA).

“Are we now, the United States, engaged in a new nuclear arms race?,” he asked the panel.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Plumb answered saying that he wouldn’t characterize it as a new nuclear arms race “based on current numbers and based on the historic arms race when the numbers were multiples of this.”

Instead, Plumb described it as “a capabilities race, perhaps.”

I think Plumb is correct, as more exotic weapons are being developed, such as the hypersonic missiles, and even those using directed energy. However, it is worth remembering something Cotton included in his prepared statement to the House subcommittee: “The recapitalization of our [nuclear] triad is a once in every-other-generation event that will ensure we have capable forces into the 2080s to defend the U.S. homeland and deter strategic attack globally.”

He said these nuclear delivery systems we are currently building will last into the 2080s – more than 50 years from now. I remind you the plutonium triggers being built for the thermonuclear warheads on those weapons could last for 85 years or longer.

Nuclear weapons, therefore, will be an issue for at least that long.

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