The dawn of the nuclear age changed every aspect of military calculations except for, unfortunately, the Pentagon’s counting skills. The United States continues to bear the consequences of this failure every day.
With the advent of the nuclear age in 1945, the world discovered that a single bomb could destroy a city, and a large number of bombs could wipe out much of life on Earth.
Up to then, counts of weapons and personnel were key measures of power in war and peace. Such arithmetic lost its meaning with the advent of these new devastating weapons.
In the nuclear age, a country that deployed 1,000 nuclear weapons rather than an adversary’s 500 is not twice as powerful since a handful of weapons could devastate both countries. But the Pentagon and political leaders did not learn this critical lesson.
Instead, during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in massive buildups of nuclear weapons—in the tens of thousands. The numbers games fed an arms race that, despite the post-Cold War reductions, continues to influence strategic thinking today without making either Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor, or the United States safer. In other words, the Pentagon and political leaders still have not learned that counts of military strength are not the same when nuclear weapons are involved.
The crux of the problem: the generals and the politicians continued the “Old Think” that numbers of weapons were a major gauge of power. The numbers game regularly produced “requirements” for new nuclear weapons.
The implications of this Old Think are reflected in how the Biden administration is forming reactions to China’s plans to expand its nuclear force. According to the Pentagon’s most recent “China Military Report,” Beijing now has an estimated stockpile of 400 nuclear weapons and could have as many as 1,500 by 2035.
In releasing its analysis, the Pentagon as usual neglected to mention that even with a larger Chinese nuclear force, the U.S. force will remain much greater. Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command and responsible for nuclear deterrence, conveniently ignores the fact that the United States has a nuclear stockpile of 5,428 nuclear weapons, including 1,633 deployed strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons, compared to the estimate of 400 for China.
That major discrepancy in stockpile sizes matters, but it still misses the point. Again, this is a numbers game that may have been relevant for tanks and battleships before 1945 but is not today. Further, the Pentagon analysis focused on the U.S. military response to the Chinese buildup rather than options for diplomatic initiatives or pursuing arms control negotiations, though difficult, with China.
Adm. Richard has frequently highlighted the “unprecedented” expansion of China’s arsenal. Speaking to reporters in July 2022, he warned, “The threat posed to this nation, our allies from China is expanding at a breathtaking pace. We don’t know where that’s going to wind up.”
To the politicians, that is a clarion call for a buildup of nuclear weapons on top of the current nuclear “modernization” program—perhaps building more weapons than had previously been planned, but confining analysis to military factors ignores other critical opportunities to show strength. The important areas of U.S.-China competition are economic and ideological, with competing visions of individual rights vs. state control.
But the admiral joins a long list of military and political leaders who, over the last decades, have hyped foreign threats to reduce the broader competition to purely military terms and argue for more nuclear weapons.
There was the fictitious 1955 “bomber gap” that led to a massive increase in the United States bomber and nuclear weapons stockpiles.
In his run for the 1960 nomination for president, John F. Kennedy issued dire warnings of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. It also was not true.
Albert Wohlstetter, an early and prominent nuclear strategist, wrote in 1960 that there were several things wrong about the so-called “missile gap” that led to the belief that “the problem is one of simply a disparity in the number of vehicles and is soluble completely by an increase in the number of our Polaris and Minutemen.”
Next, there was the “window of vulnerability” in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, which the Reagan administration used to justify its massive nuclear arms buildup.
The result of these hyped scares spread by politicians and the military was the United States’ expansion of its nuclear arsenal to a nonsensical 27,500 nuclear weapons in 1975. The Soviet Union went to an even more absurd level of 39,000 weapons in 1985.
While these exorbitant numbers have declined, the Old Think prevails for still high levels of nuclear weapons—with the “China scare” being only the most recent example.
The United States, to be sure, should be concerned about China’s determination to throw its economic and military weight around the world, particularly in the Asian sphere. Its seizure of unoccupied islands, declarations of control over sea lanes, buildup of military bases on foreign soil, threats to swallow Taiwan, and human rights abuses are abysmal.
Tackling these challenges will require careful handling and constant contact with Chinese leaders. It should not require more nuclear weapons.
President Joe Biden recently set the proper tone by stating that the U.S. emphasis should be on competition rather than confrontation with China. The official U.S. summary of a meeting between Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping put it this way: “President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
The response should not be confined to: while we may talk with the Chinese, we should also manufacture more nuclear weapons while building up allied forces in Asia.
What difference will more U.S. nuclear weapons make? None. Indeed, a smaller nuclear force that has a robust capacity to survive a nuclear attack and respond in kind can be more than sufficient.
China, at least until recently, and North Korea, currently, have aptly proved that a modest nuclear force is more than adequate to deter a nuclear attack or even a risk of a conventional war—even as China builds more. North Korea has fewer than forty nuclear weapons.
The apprehensions over Chinese policy are real whether China has 400 or 1,500 nuclear weapons. Walter Slocombe, who has held a variety of Pentagon posts including under secretary of defense for policy, dismissed the numbers games: “I think that in some ways the least of our problems on China is the possibility that they go from 200 to 1,000. There is a very flat return to numbers after a certain point, and I would say the number is about 200, maybe a little bit more.”
Leonor Tomero, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, added, “I don’t think we should get into a numbers game... We have 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons deployed. If that doesn’t deter, you know, will 2,000 do the trick, right. At a certain number, the arithmetic is irrelevant.”
Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO and under secretary for arms control and international security at the U.S. Department of State, added in a Foreign Affairs article, “Even if it quintuples its stockpile, as some experts are predicting, China’s number of warheads will still be well below the numbers in the U.S. arsenal in 2030.”
There have been some attempts to bring new thinking into the nuclear domain. A number of important studies and recommendations have advocated a smaller U.S. nuclear force.
In 2010, Gary Schaub Jr. and James Forsyth Jr., two professors who respectively teach at the Air War College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, wrote that 311 nuclear weapons would be more than sufficient to protect American security:
This may seem a trifling number compared with the arsenals built up in the cold war, but 311 warheads would provide the equivalent of 1,900 megatons of explosive power, or nine-and-a-half times the amount that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued in 1965 could incapacitate the Soviet Union by destroying “one-quarter to one-third of its population and about two-thirds of its industrial capacity.”
Gen. James E. Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of the United States’ nuclear forces, argued in 2012,
the United States’ nuclear deterrence could be guaranteed with a total arsenal of 900 warheads, and with only half of them deployed at any one time. Even those in the field would be taken off hair triggers, requiring 24 to 72 hours for launching, to reduce the chance of accidental war.
He added, “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War. There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”