The head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is warning that after years of upgrading their arsenals, nuclear war between the U.S. and either Russia or China is much more possible than before.
In an eye-opening assessment, U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard warned of a “real possibility” of nuclear conflict in calling on military and government leaders to rethink how to best deter both rivals’ aggressive actions.
Richard warned that Moscow and Beijing have “begun to aggressively challenge international norms” recently “in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War.”
He went on to cite “threats in space” and cyberattacks, in addition to both nations’ heavy investment in nuclear weapons.
“There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state,” he wrote in the February issue of “Proceedings,” the monthly magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute.
STRATCOM is the command that handles the U.S. strategic nuclear response and deterrent.
“Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility,’ and act to meet and deter that reality,” Richard continued.
“We cannot approach nuclear deterrence the same way. It must be tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment we face,” he noted further.
During the Cold War, when the main U.S. rival was the former Soviet Union, both sides followed a doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” or MAD, which held that if one side launched a nuclear attack the other side would retaliate. To ensure a retaliatory capability, the U.S. and the USSR developed a so-called “nuclear triad” consisting of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which would be the hardest to locate and destroy.
But in recent years, both Russia and China have modernized their nuclear arsenals to include the development of hypersonic delivery systems capable of defeating existing U.S. missile defense systems. And while the U.S. ramped up its own hypersonic program during the Trump administration, it is believed to be lagging behind Chinese and Russian programs.
One of President Joe Biden’s first phone calls was to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he recommitted the United States to the New START treaty for another five years, as it was set to expire next week. The treaty limits the nuclear arsenals of both countries.
However, “China is modernizing its arsenal…and has shown no interest in negotiating limits,” the UK’s Independent reported last week, adding that North Korea is close to being able to threaten the U.S. homeland with a nuclear strike. Also, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned a few days ago that Iran is potentially “weeks away” from its own nuclear weapon.
That said, it is the nuclear threats posed by Russia and China that are most concerning, Richard noted.
He argued in his USNI piece that recent actions by both nations will only “increase the risk of great power conflict” if “left unchecked” by the Biden administration. He added that Russia was “aggressively modernizing” its arsenal while China is “also on trajectory to be a strategic peer” and should not be considered a “lesser included case.”
The STRATCOM commander went on to outline measures he believes are vote to improve U.S. preparedness. They include developing a “unity of effort” regarding deterrence of both powers, an analysis of what to do if deterrence failed in a future conflict, and an increasing focus on developing American capabilities that will maintain U.S. strategic advantages over the rivals.
“While this is a sobering picture, it is not intended to discourage; rather, it is meant to highlight reality and reinvigorate a conversation across the enterprise,” Richard wrote. “Our challenges are not insurmountable.”
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