This is…not good.
The United States is “furiously” writing a new nuclear deterrence theory that simultaneously faces Russia and China, said the top commander of America’s nuclear arsenal—and needs more Americans working on how to prevent nuclear war.
The quote is from Navy Admiral Chas Richard, the head of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for strategic nuclear deterrence, the conventional-weapon global strike, and operating the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid.
Writing “a new nuclear deterrence theory” is not a college essay. Nor can it “furiously” be done overnight, as if that essay were due tomorrow.
The nuclear deterrent, which is what people like Richard often call the nuclear arsenal, has never deterred smaller wars. Vietnam and Afghanistan saw nuclear superpowers invade, undeterred by other nuclear superpowers. And now Ukraine.
Richard is looking back to the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States attained an uneasy equilibrium after the Cuban Missile Crisis, with telephonic hotlines between Moscow and Washington. But that equilibrium, often referred to as deterrence, was always unstable and was disrupted in the early 1980s by the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and nearby parts of the Soviet Union. A stroke of great luck brought Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev together, and they almost decided to end nuclear weapons.
The equilibrium was broken again when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The remnants were weak enough, and the rulers sufficiently concerned about losing control of Soviet nuclear weapons and materials that the two former enemies collaborated on regaining that control. Threat or collaboration, it’s always been between two parties.
China has around 300 nuclear weapons, according to the best estimates. The United States and Russia have about 1500 deployed each, for a total of ten times what China has, and several thousand more in reserve or out of service. China has indicated that it plans to build more.
Looking back at the Cold War equilibrium, one might consider the potential addition of China to nuclear superpowers as the equivalent of the three-body problem. The mathematical three-body problem is not easily solved. This upsets Richard.
“We’ve got some better two-party stuff that’s actually working quite well in the current crisis that is radically different,” Richard said. “Non-linearity, linkages, chaotic behavior, inability to predict – all attributes that just don’t show up in classic deterrence theory.”
“But that’s a two-party version,” Richard said. And does not take into account worrisome developments in China’s hypersonics that might carry nuclear warheads, President Xi Jinping’s ambitions toward Taiwan, the lessons Beijing is taking away from Western response to Ukraine, or the possibility that China and Russia may find it advantageous to combine their ambitions and force the United States to face simultaneous nuclear threats.
The military has to consider what-ifs. During the Cold War, for reasons including renegade air commanders like General Jack D. Ripper, both sides feared that the other might mount a sneak nuclear attack. This was particularly the case during the 1950s, when both sides had more than their share of activists feeling that the other needed to be subdued.
It is less of a concern now. The most likely scenarios leading to nuclear war are escalations of wars that start conventionally, like Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The article was published in August. No state has used a nuclear weapon against another state since then. Rather than look to the man in charge of numbers of nuclear weapons, we might look at why we no longer fear a sneak nuclear attack and why nothing like that has happened.
We must look at what non-nuclear actions are needed to avoid war among the nuclear powers. Perhaps the reason there has been no nuclear attack is that states calculate that it is not in their interest, rather than calculating numbers of nuclear weapons against numbers of nuclear weapons. Richard is not the person to do that. He is correct that he needs help, and that help must come from a broader way of thinking about peace.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner