The pace of Chinese nuclear weapons modernization and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent move to put his nuclear forces on “high alert” have created a fast-changing global threat landscape of great consequence to Pentagon decision makers.
While the dual Russian and Chinese nuclear threats have been established to a certain degree in recent years, there have been several extremely impactful developments in recent years that add tremendous urgency to the equation. China is accelerating efforts to add new weapons and warheads to its nuclear arsenal and is now building more silos to house land-launched ICBMs. China’s nuclear modernization is taking place as Russia makes veiled threats to use its nuclear stockpile in a war with Ukraine or the West.
“Today, we face two nuclear-capable near-peers who have the capability to unilaterally escalate to any level of violence in any domain worldwide with any instrument of national power. And we have never faced a situation like that before in our history,” Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I have previously emphasized our need to be able to deter two adversaries at the same time. That need is now an imperative. The strategic security environment is now a three-party nuclear near-peer reality,” Richard added.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, addressed the concerning possibility that Russia might use its nuclear weapons in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “Much has changed since our last hearing in 2021. Russia's ongoing unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine has shaken the international order that has maintained [nuclear] stability for the better part of a century. Vladimir Putin's behavior has been reckless to a dangerous degree. Just prior to its invasion, Russia conducted a large out of cycle nuclear exercise,” Reed told Pentagon witnesses at a hearing on nuclear deterrence. Reed added that “the Kremlin has since made a series of escalatory statements.”
Russia’s behavior and Putin’s move to put his nuclear forces on high alert raise the question of what might happen if there were no countervailing nuclear forces to deter him?
The current situation appears to underline the importance of nuclear deterrence, as the prospect of mutually assured destruction in a retaliatory strike is likely a key reason why Putin has not thus far used nuclear weapons. Adm. Charles Richard underlined the key role that the United States’ nuclear arsenal plays in this context. “More than ever, a nuclear deterrent, the bedrock of our national defense, is being relied upon as we witness the realities of European conflict involving a nuclear-armed nation,” Richard said.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.