The Biden administration’s nuclear policies and budget are too ambiguous or otherwise wide reaching to provide the type of conflict deterrence that is expected of them, according to several experts.
“How are you going to contain Russia and China?” said Harlan Ullman, a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “The policy statements don’t tell you. They’re aspirational.”
Ullman’s comments referenced the few statements made by the Biden administration about its National Defense Strategy (NDS) and National Security Strategy (NSS), neither of which has been released in unclassified form, and which were largely constructed on classified information.
He noted also that the Pentagon would be unlikely to deliver on any large-scale strategic modernization efforts, given the fact that the nation was at a record $30 trillion in debt and was facing immense economic strain from 40-year record-high inflation.
Further, Ullman said that the administration’s concept for nuclear deterrence was being pushed beyond its limits, and would prove an Achilles’ heel in the administration’s strategy unless more work was done to credibly improve the nation’s non-nuclear, or “conventional” forces.
“How are you going to deter Russia and China, and from what?” Ullman said. “Nuclear deterrence has been expanded far beyond its usefulness. It’s going to prevent a major world war, but let’s not believe it can do lots of other things.”
A Growing Strategy and a Shrinking Military
Ullman delivered the comments amid a series of discussions on the nature of the Biden administration’s grand strategy at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank.
The talks coincided with a series of Congressional hearings over the past week, which examined the administration’s proposed defense budget for FY23, and the role of the NDS and NSS in guiding that budget.
Republican lawmakers criticized the budget as being a real cut to military spending given that the budget only allots a 2.2 percent inflation rate instead of the actual 8.5 percent, as well as for proposing to cut the number of ships and aircraft in the military amid growing tensions between the United States, China, and Russia.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that the proposed budget would place the United States at “real risk.” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), meanwhile, said that the budget did not meet the needs of President Joe Biden’s own strategy.
China, and the Limits of Nuclear Deterrence
At the Brookings event, another expert questioned the efficacy of the NDS and NSS for championing the idea that mere nuclear firepower could deter adversaries from engaging in unwanted behavior, especially given the recent failure of just such a strategy in preventing the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
“Both [the NDS and NSS] viewed and continue to view China as the primary threat to U.S. security,” said Melanie Sisson, a fellow at Brookings. “The NDS, in particular, defines the role of the military in providing American security today, and in this new period of competition, by being prepared to fight and to win a war with China.”
“[But] We can’t assume that being able to win a war with China will create general deterrence, [or] that it will deter China not just from starting a war, but also from behaving badly in other ways,” Sisson added.
Like Ullman, Sisson believed that the administration was making a mistake in believing that it could credibly deter China merely by establishing capabilities that could win a hypothetical war. As such, she said that the Pentagon would need to do more to illustrate its strategy of “integrated deterrence” in action as opposed to couching its meaning in buzzwords and slogans.
“Deterrence isn’t a thing that one has,” Sisson said. “It’s an effect that we can produce. It’s the outcome of a strategy.”
“I really want to know more about what the administration means by ‘integrated deterrence’ and don’t want just the bumper sticker slogan about ‘we’re going to work across all of the domains’,” Sisson added.
To that end, Sisson said that the administration could provide real value by engaging in targeted initiatives designed to limit the potential for catastrophic conflict with China, such as engaging in talks with Chinese leadership to reach an agreement to take nuclear command and control systems off the table for cyber attacks.
China Continues Nuclear Development with Eye on Taiwan
Such efforts are increasingly likely to be deemed necessary as relations between the United States and China continue to bottom out to historic lows amid tensions over trade, IP theft, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the continued de facto independence of Taiwan.
As tensions have soared, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has continued the historic expansion and modernization of its nuclear arsenal, placing new emphasis on the capability of the United States’ own aging nuclear stockpile.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that China’s ultimate aim in building such an arsenal was to develop a military capable of ejecting the United States from the Western Pacific, and that the regime was deliberately pursuing military technologies capable of undermining or otherwise circumventing U.S. defense systems.
The test of a hypersonic weapon by the Chinese military in July was one such example of this effort in practice, he said, and at least one other U.S. official has said that the United States could not defend against such technology.
The tensions have also highlighted the apparent disparity in growth between the American and Chinese militaries, and led some experts to question whether the United States actually has a strategy in place for potential conflict with China’s communist regime over Taiwan.
To that end, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) said in April that the United States was effectively “ceding the Indo-Pacific” to China.
Relatedly, comments delivered by Adm. Charles Richard, the current commander of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, during a hearing of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee on May 4, suggested that U.S. military leadership was uncertain of the exact trajectory of Chinese military capabilities.
“We don’t know where China is going to end up in capabilities and capacity,” Richard said.
Richard also noted that China was in the process of a “strategic breakout” that would challenge the world order and that the United States would need to vigorously pursue “competitive overmatch,” or overwhelming superiority in force, to deter the CCP from expansionary or otherwise aggressive behaviors.
That mission was rendered further complex, he said, by the deepening partnership between the CCP and the Kremlin, which placed the United States in the unprecedented position of needing to simultaneously deter two near-peer nuclear adversaries.
“We are facing crisis deterrence dynamics right now that we have only seen a few times in our nation’s history,” Richard said.
Richard further added that the CCP “will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future” due to its observations of Russia’s success in preventing Western interference in its invasion of Ukraine by threatening nuclear action.
The remarks echoed similar comments by experts that China’s growing nuclear arsenal could easily be used to give cover to more conventional aggression by allowing China to effectively intimidate the United States away from interfering in any expansionary activities, such as an invasion of Taiwan, which Richard said the CCP planned to carry out by 2027.
Stuck in the Middle with Nukes
Caitlin Talmadge, a fellow at Brookings, said that the United States would need to develop a “more coherent way” to use non-nuclear means to achieve deterrence across domains, now that China was developing enough nuclear punch to counter the United States’ nuclear forces. To that end, she said nuclear would nevertheless continue to color military and diplomatic strategy.
“We’re back to the world where nuclear weapons actually do cast a shadow over conventional and sub-conventional conflict.” Talmadge said.
Despite this, there was little transformation in U.S. nuclear policy or strategy over the last decade and a half, according to Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at Brookings, who said that, barring some classified unknown information, there was a broad continuity in nuclear policy through the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations.
“President Obama rejected a policy of no first use, and he insisted on retaining the option to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear aggression,” Einhorn said. “Trump did the same and Biden will do the same in his [nuclear posture review].”
As such, Einhorn said that the American public could likely expect a middling approach to nuclear modernization that neither excessively modernized nor shrunk the strategic weapons arsenal of the United States. That approach he said, would take into account the fact that the administration was unlikely to find support for expanding American nuclear capabilities given current fiscal concerns and the risk of triggering an even more costly arms race. Likewise, he said, there was little chance of the administration not pursuing some modernization efforts given the threat-rich environment facing the nation.
“Given today’s very threatening strategic environment with growing threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, I don’t think there’s going to be much support for limiting U.S. nuclear capabilities and options,” Einhorn said.