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Should the US increase its nuclear arsenal?

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Is it time for the United States to increase its nuclear weapons stockpile? To arms control advocates, this is a dastardly, irresponsible question. But it isn’t coming out of nowhere: Last week, a senior U.S. national security official left the door open to the first expansion of the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal since the 1980s.

On Friday, Pranay Vaddi, a senior director of the National Security Council, outlined the Biden administration’s nuclear strategy during a speech at the Arms Control Association in Washington. The speech wasn’t surprising to anyone who has even a cursory understanding of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Most of it was dedicated toward reiterating U.S. policy goals: getting more countries to decrease their nuclear arsenals, even as the U.S. ensures its own nuclear deterrent is updated. But the warning was as clear as day. “Absent a change in the trajectory of adversary arsenals,” Vaddi said, “we may reach a point in the coming years where an increase from current deployed numbers is required.”

Since the mid-1980s, successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic, have largely based the country’s nuclear weapons policy on two pillars: capping and if possible reducing nuclear arsenals across the board and making sure America’s own is functional. U.S. officials have sought to discourage adversaries from attacking the U.S. and its treaty allies in Europe and Asia even as it gradually aspires toward a world in which nuclear weapons no longer exist. The proof is in the numbers: Since 1967, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has decreased by 88%, from 31,255 warheads to 3,750.

Yet in the eyes of U.S. officials in Washington, the state of affairs in the world is getting increasingly hairy. The kinds of arms control negotiations that were so prevalent since the latter years of the Cold War are all but dead. New START, the last major arms control accord signed between the U.S. and Russia, is essentially on life support after Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended it in 2023.

If anything, the war in Ukraine has only elevated the importance and value of nuclear weapons for Putin. With Russia’s conventional military battered and bruised, Russia’s strategic weapons systems are becoming much more important in Russian defense strategy. Moscow has not only moved tactical nuclear warheads to Belarus, next door to Ukraine, but also is pouring resources into diversifying its nuclear arms by adding more delivery systems. The Poseidon, a nuclear-armed intercontinental torpedo, is now one of Putin’s most cherished weapons systems. (Whether it actually works is another story.) According to the U.S. intelligence community, Russia is also testing components for a space-based nuclear anti-satellite weapon, which if used could wipe out hundreds of low-orbited satellites.

Russia is hardly the only country the U.S. is concerned about on this front. China is doubling down on its nuclear arsenal to strengthen its own deterrent power. The Pentagon’s most recent report analyzing Chinese military capabilities finds that “over the next decade, the PRC (China) will continue to rapidly modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces.” China will have more than 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030 — double its current arsenal.

And although Beijing continues to claim a “no first use” policy — i.e., China won’t be the first power to use a nuclear weapon under any circumstances — policies can change depending on the environment. Indeed, Chinese military documents leave open the prospect of junking this declaration in the event the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is at risk of losing a conventional war.

This is all quite concerning to U.S. officials, amplified by the fact that the United States has so many allies it has sworn to defend. Our extended deterrence commitments, in which Washington would theoretically escalate to the nuclear level to fight off an adversary who has attacked a U.S. ally, include most of Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Extended deterrence, however, is a difficult promise to make credible: Would any U.S. president use nuclear weapons, for example, against Russia, China or even North Korea to defend an ally knowing that doing so would likely put American cities at risk of nuclear annihilation? Would the U.S. even fight a nuclear-armed country in these circumstances, knowing full well that a strictly conventional conflict could escalate to nuclear war? 

President Joe Biden’s administration has apparently calculated that a larger U.S. nuclear arsenal is the cure-all to these problems. The underlying logic is straightforward: By increasing warhead numbers, nuclear adversaries such as China and Russia will eventually come to the conclusion that they simply can’t outcompete the U.S. in this area and that throwing more money into a costly arms race is futile. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is; part of the rationale behind the military buildup in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan’s administration was to bleed the Soviet Union financially.

There’s a cheaper and less risky way of accomplishing what the Biden administration wants to accomplish. But this would require U.S. officials to be self-reflective and recognize that adversary perceptions of U.S. motivations are driving much of Russia and China’s nuclear modernization. Russia, for instance, is compensating for its conventional struggles in Ukraine and views nuclear weapons as absolutely essential to combating what it sees (rightly or wrongly) as U.S. attempts to weaken it over the long term. China, in part, is embracing nuclear expansion to scare the U.S. away from defending Taiwan if Beijing decides to subjugate the island militarily. 

A larger U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal is likely to heighten those threat perceptions, not eliminate them.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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