Can America Survive a Two-Front Nuclear War with China and Russia?

October 4, 2023 Topic: Nuclear War Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Nuclear WarRussiaChinaDeterrence

Can America Survive a Two-Front Nuclear War with China and Russia?

Deterring a hostile Russia and China, possibly at the same time, has been a fixture of U.S. policy for decades.


A critical national security question has recently emerged: Will the United States need to adjust its nuclear posture in light of the so-called “two nuclear peer” problem? Specifically, this refers to China’s ongoing ramp up of its ICBM force to the point where its nuclear force, in size and capabilities, will approximate forces currently fielded by the United States and Russia. This may well alter the deterrence challenge facing the U.S. A bipartisan study group recently concluded that currently planned U.S. nuclear forces are insufficient to reliably deter China as a nuclear peer, an aggressive Russia, and possibly both simultaneously. Another study argues that Washington adopt a deterrence policy of targeting population to obviate the need to bolster forces. At issue, also, is the degree to which the United States should plan to hold China’s ICBMs at prompt risk with its ICBMs. This paper addresses:

-Counterforce vs Countervalue deterrence strategies? Answering the wrong question.


-Implications of Sino-Russian condominium.

-China’s ICBM buildup as a driver for U.S. force augmentation.

-Additional warheads required and when to upload them.

In the past, U.S. nuclear forces were focused on deterring Russia; China was a lessor included case in the sense that if the U.S. had the capabilities needed to deter the Soviet Union, it surely could also deter China. The emergence of China toward nuclear peer status, seen as a prospect for the mid-2030s, changes that calculation. Quoting from the Biden NPR:

By the 2030s the U.S. will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries. This will create new stresses on stability and new challenges for deterrence, assurance, arms control, and risk reduction.

Deterring a hostile Russia and China, possibly at the same time, has been a fixture of U.S. policy for decades. During the Cold War, even in light of a major nuclear exchange with Russia, sufficient survivable warheads were maintained to deter any incentive by China to “pile on.” This was during a time when both Russia and the United States maintained many thousands of strategic warheads, while China possessed just a few tens of ICBMs. There was both quantity and flexibility then in U.S. forces to deter both. Today, with deployed strategic, accountable warheads under New START capped at 1550, estimates are that China will field one thousand additional ICBM warheads by 2035. Moreover, the intensive, ongoing U.S. program to modernize each leg of the aging Triad leaves little excess capacity to respond with new nuclear program starts in the near term. What to do?

Counterforce vs Countervalue deterrence strategies? Answering the wrong question.

Most simply put, U.S. deterrence strategy for decades has been to hold at risk those assets valued most highly by adversary national leaders. This includes the ability to prosecute conventional and nuclear warfare. Some, however, incorrectly characterize this strategy as a choice between holding forces at risk, most specifically nuclear forces, or threatening cities and population centers with the express purpose of killing innocent civilians, which they unfortunately label as countervalue targeting. If the United States altered its current deterrence strategy to intentionally target population and not forces, they argue, it could avoid the need for a costly buildup in response to China’s ICBM buildup. That argument and its ramifications have been thoroughly countered in a recent piece which, in line with past rigorous studies, calls into question whether authoritarian regimes such as in Moscow and Beijing are adequately deterred by threats to their populace. In these regimes, human lives appear to be viewed as tools of the state and therefore expendable in service to the state, rather than as in democracies where the state seeks to serve its citizens and ultimately is answerable to them.

To be clear, the United States adheres to the international Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and does not intentionally target cities or population. U.S. policy is to minimize civilian casualties in wartime operations. That said, striking targets that are co-located with civilian centers or objects may be consistent with the LOAC if their military significance is high—even though destroying such targets could result in a number of unintended casualties. In some cases, however, such installations will not be targeted because avoiding the prospect of inflicting excessive unintended collateral damage must take precedence.

U.S. deterrence strategy, very importantly, depends on the specific adversary to be deterred and is neither solely counterforce nor countervalue but involves a mix of targets that are all tied to the adversary’s value structure and its ability to pursue warfare. The potential cost incurred in their destruction is intended to ensure that no rational adversary would ever contemplate a nuclear attack of any scale against the United States or its allies.

U.S. nuclear forces include a robust capability to hold adversary nuclear forces at risk. Over the years, this has been a topic of debate. But to be clear, the main area of contention is not U.S. counter nuclear force capabilities but U.S. prompt counter nuclear force capabilities represented largely by its ICBM force. Indeed, most warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and even some conventional weapons systems today, have sufficiently high accuracy and explosive power to hold at risk many of the hardest military targets fielded by adversaries including nuclear forces. Only ICBMs, however, can deliver such warheads to targets within 30 to 60 minutes of a President’s decision to execute such a strike. A prompt counterforce component of the U.S. nuclear triad is important for several reasons:

  • Contributes to robust deterrence in both central strategic and regional scenarios by enabling a full range of enemy assets to be held at timely risk.
  • Complicates enemy attack planning—multiple ICBM aim-points eliminates cheap attack.
  • Enables redundancy and complementarity among triad components.
  • Provides the President with options to limit damage to the U.S. and its allies.
  • In rare cases against certain adversaries, coupled with defenses and other conventional forces, provides limited capabilities to preempt an imminent enemy nuclear strike.
  • While prompt counterforce has potential to be destabilizing in nuclear crises, asymmetries in such capabilities could be destabilizing in a different sense.

This last point deserves clarification. During the Cold War, accurate, large throw-weight, highly-MIRVed, silo-based Soviet SS-18 ICBMs represented a significant disparity in prompt counterforce capability compared with the U.S. ICBM force of lower throw-weight, less-highly-MIRVed Minuteman IIs and IIIs. Fewer than 100 out of a total 300 deployed SS-18s could target each Minuteman silo with two warheads, eliminating most U.S. ICBMs. In the Carter-Reagan nuclear modernization program, this disparity was redressed by fielding two highly accurate ballistic missile systems: the 10-warhead Peacekeeper ICBM and the 8-12 warhead Trident D-5 SLBM (also with prompt delivery capability if not as responsive).

This was controversial: Wasn’t the U.S. making matters worse by incentivizing the Soviets to put their ICBMs on “hair trigger” alert, both decreasing crisis stability and increasing the chance of an inadvertent launch based on false warning? What actually happened was that once their fixed ICBMs were being held at comparable risk, the Soviets adjusted their force by trending to lower throw-weight, less highly-MIRVed, and more survivable mobile ICBMs. At the same time, they demonstrated an increased propensity to limit the silo-based SS-18s in arm control agreements. By taking on a near-term risk of potentially increased crisis instability, the U.S. shaped the arms competition towards a longer-term, more stable evolution in forces. Later on, when New START was concluded, the Obama administration downloaded the Minuteman IIIs to single warhead thus strengthening crisis stability by making them a much less desirable target to attack.

Implications of Sino-Russia coordination

One complexity regarding force sufficiency and deterrence involves the potential for various levels of Sino-Russia security coordination. If the Russian and Chinese nuclear (and conventional) threats were independent and uncorrelated, then the two nuclear peer deterrence problem would be more manageable. If the U.S. and Russia were to agree in some form, once New START expires in 2026, to continue limits on warheads and delivery systems, there would be little need to augment U.S. strategic forces in regard to Russia. If China stopped once it achieved peer status, some adjustment to targeting priorities may be warranted but not likely a pressing need for U.S. force augmentation. If the threats are uncorrelated, planned U.S. strategic forces are likely sufficient to deter.

If China and Russia coordinate in their planning and force posture, then this calculus changes and will depend on the details. Coordination could range from minimal consultations or assistance to, perhaps less likely, a full-fledged alliance between the two countries with integrated forces and force planning. For example, if U.S. forces were engaged in a NATO-Russia conventional conflict, with accompanying nuclear overtones, China, even with minimum coordination with Russia, could exploit this opportunity “on the fly” to pursue its threat to take over Taiwan by force. A proactive (and, notwithstanding, expensive) strategy would be to posture sufficient conventional forces, combined with forces provided by allies, to deter this second conflict while fighting the first, and to retain sufficient nuclear forces to deter one or both conflicts from going nuclear. In light of recent developments, including in the nuclear arena, we must assume some degree of Sino-Russian cooperation in regional conflict.