Don’t Mind the Missile Gap

Don’t Mind the Missile Gap

Although calls for a nuclear build-up in response to Russia’s and China’s enlarged capabilities are dominating the debate, they risk repeating another dangerous arms race.


If we are to believe the nuclear hawks, the United States is at a perilous crossroads. China and Russia are expanding their nuclear arsenals and pouring resources into making them more survivable, accurate, and lethal. Beijing is on pace to triple its nearly 500 warheads by 2035 and has, under Xi Jinping’s watch, constructed three new fields to house intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Moscow just last month, Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia’s nuclear triad is fully modernized and “more advanced” than America’s.

This has predictably set off alarms in Washington. The Pentagon projects that “by the 2030s, the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” Republican Senator Tom Cotton insists China alone will achieve “nuclear overmatch” by the end of the decade. A study group convened by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a bipartisan group of experts on the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission both warned last year that the United States will soon be outgunned by the combined strength of Beijing’s and Moscow’s nuclear arsenals.


The recommendations of these harbingers of doom vary in detail, but the thrust is usually the same: There is an urgent need to get serious about counterforce—the offensive capabilities and targeting policy that would allow the United States to destroy an enemy’s nuclear weapons and limit the damage it takes in a nuclear exchange. To maintain its nuclear advantage, they say, America will need to increase the size of its arsenal and field new types of weapons. As one member of the commission, Matthew Kroenig, asserted, quoting John F. Kennedy, “America needs to be second to none.”

The decision to quote Kennedy was unwittingly ironic, as his example is contrarily instructive today. JFK came to office promising he would close the supposed “missile gap” with the Soviets. Anxieties sparked by the Soviet Union’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile and the launch of Sputnik in 1957 combined with distorted press coverage to form the impression that the United States lagged far behind the Soviets in long-range missile capability. Once in office, President Kennedy was surprised to discover that America was actually in the lead. However, he went ahead with his planned defense build-up anyway, deploying a counterforce strategy justified by the apparent necessity of hedging against the possibility of any military imbalance.

This pattern has repeated itself over the decades. Advocates for ambitious nuclear policies dominate debates with warnings that the United States will be vulnerable to another nation’s nuclear weapons—and promises that we can spend and build our way to security. Their ominous forecasts are proven to be off the mark, but some years down the line, that is forgotten, and the cycle begins again with yet another extensive, costly, and dangerous arms race.

In the late 1970s, critics of the era’s landmark arms control treaties argued that these agreements permitted the Soviet Union’s capabilities to march ahead of America’s. Their predictions were dire: If the United States didn’t act fast, the Soviets would soon place Washington’s land-based missiles at risk of a devastating first strike. Under the cover of this threat, it was argued the Soviets would be given a free hand to extend its global influence. These warnings contributed to the demise of Jimmy Carter’s ambitious arms control policies and set the scene for Ronald Reagan’s first-term defense build-up. Russian sources reveal the Soviets never actually had this capability.

Even assuming the predictions are actually true this time, the United States should not feel compelled to keep pace beyond what is sufficient for mutual deterrence—a calculus less complicated than is often imagined. As was the case during the Cold War, being second to none in nuclear forces wouldn’t give the United States—or China or Russia, for that matter—much of anything useful. For starters, a build-up wouldn’t make the United States safer from a nuclear attack. America’s second-strike capabilities are remarkably secure. In an all-out nuclear exchange, neither side could protect itself from devastating retaliatory attacks. Rather than doubling down on counterforce, the United States can revise the way it targets the forces it already has to hold Russia and China at risk more effectively.

True, more counterforce could give Washington confidence in its ability to assure allies and deter rivals in an escalating regional crisis. Perceptions of U.S. superiority might cause adversaries to rethink their aggression against a U.S. ally—especially if they believe Washington has nuclear options that wouldn’t immediately invite destruction on its homeland. One recent study shows the slight edges across the spectrum of capability may be advantageous in conditions of parity (though outright superiority is more of a liability than an asset). However, the hawks are too quick to dismiss the costs and risks of their preferred strategy.

What a build-up is likely to do is exacerbate an arms race already underway. Convincing evidence suggests that China’s and Russia’s modernization drives are motivated in large part by concerns over U.S. investment in missile defense and Washington’s other force improvements. By contrast, there is scant evidence to conclude that China seeks to achieve parity with the United States or to suggest that a nuclear alliance between Beijing and Moscow is even a plausible future.

Rather than making the United States more secure, an expanded and more diverse arsenal of warfighting capabilities could spur counter-efforts by adversaries to augment their arsenals to keep pace and prompt China to set a more ambitious goal than achieving a second-strike capability. This race to the bottom would almost certainly create a more unstable environment with a magnified chance for accidents and miscalculations. In the throes of competition, one or more of the three countries may find good reason to keep their weapons on high alert. Such an arms race would also increase the pressure on leaders to “use it or lose it” and be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a crisis.

As they did during similar episodes during the Cold War, advocates of a nuclear build-up tend to gloss over another critical problem: money. In his challenge to the Eisenhower administration’s refutation of the missile gap, then-Senator Kennedy claimed that even if he was wrong about the gap, it would be better to “gamble with our money” than “gamble with our survival.” But expanding today’s capabilities would gamble both. America’s modernization effort is already underway and is estimated to cost around $1.5 trillion over thirty years. It is already plagued by delays and cost overruns.

Fortunately, the Biden administration has yet to take the bait. In a speech to the Arms Control Association last summer, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan cautioned that, while the United States is at an “inflection point,” it must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Unfortunately, the past shows how anxiety can easily crowd out temperance. If the United States doesn’t calmly consider the costs and risks involved in trying to win today’s nuclear competition, it will find itself running scared straight into a dangerous arms race.

Lucas Robinson is a senior research associate at the nonprofit Institute for Global Affairs (at the Eurasia Group).