America’s Nuclear Zeitenwende

Overshadowed by Hamas’s attack on Israel, the release of the congressionally mandated Strategic Posture Commission (SPC) report heralded the arrival of an American nuclear Zeitenwende – a sea change setting us on a new course. By issuing consensus recommendations for significant changes to the size and composition of the deployed nuclear forces of the United States, the bi-partisan members of the SPC signaled that we have crossed the Rubicon from the post-Cold war nuclear order to the terra incognita of two peer nuclear adversaries’ intent on brandishing their growing nuclear weapons capabilities to overthrow the rules-based international order. The SPC commissioners warn that this “new global environment is fundamentally different than anything experienced in the past,” constituting “an existential challenge for which the United States is ill prepared, unless its leaders make decisions now to adjust the U.S. strategic posture.”

A new way to think about nuclear weapons

It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the SPC’s consensus conclusions have reoriented the nuclear debate, shifting the focus away from how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and towards a focus on how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the strategies of our adversaries (by building a nuclear posture that will credibly deter them). In doing so on a bi-partisan basis and by articulating comprehensive recommendations to address “this unprecedented two peer threat,” the SPC commissioners can legitimately lay claim to having produced the most important national security document of the post-Cold war era.

Nevertheless, the SPC’s recommendations have not received the widespread, public attention that they urgently require. This inattention needs to be quickly remedied, lest we fail to garner the essential public support necessary to ensure the United States creates a strategic posture capable of preventing great power military conflict.

Credibility of the nuclear deterrent

One of the many strengths of the SPC report is to remind us of a salient reality that we too often lost sight of during the long period of great power geopolitical quiescence following the end of the Cold war: the rules-based internal order is, at its core, predicated on the strength of the U.S. strategic posture – and especially the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent. Thus, a failure to ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains credible is likely to cause the unraveling of our alliances, a nuclear “proliferation cascade,” and the demise of the international order that has kept the peace for over three quarters of a century.

The SPC emphatically states that allowing this to happen “is not an option.” Instead, the commissioners argue that “[m]odifications to both strategic nuclear forces and theater nuclear forces are urgently necessary,” particularly considering the “increased role of nuclear weapons in the strategies and tactics of our adversaries.”

Accordingly, the SPC recommends increasing the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the land, air, and sea legs of the U.S. strategic triad by the placing more nuclear warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs and producing more nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles. Also recommended is rendering U.S. strategic forces more survivable by deploying mobile ICBMs, placing a portion of the bomber fleet on alert, and increasing the number of ballistic missile submarines.

Capability in theater

The SPC commissioners place particular emphasis on the need to enhance U.S. theater nuclear capabilities, an imperative rendered even more urgent because “China is adopting an expanded theater nuclear war-fighting role” and in light of “Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons…” In response, the SPC recommends that “U.S. theater nuclear forces should be urgently modified in order to: Provide the President a range of military effective nuclear response options to deter or counter Chinese of Russian limited use in theater.” These changes in the U.S. theater nuclear posture are deemed essential if the U.S. is to maintain the flexible response options required to credibly extend nuclear deterrence to our allies.

Given the significance that the SPC attaches to maintaining the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent, it is important to emphasize the degree to which the problem of ensuring the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent was a vexing conundrum for U.S. strategists throughout the Cold War, particularly as the Soviet Union became a true peer nuclear power with an assured second-strike capability that negated U.S. nuclear superiority.

Aggression in two theaters

In the very near future, the U.S. will confront the even more difficult problem of having to extend nuclear deterrence to our allies in the face of not one, but two, peer nuclear powers. In this future, enhanced theater nuclear forces, along with more robust strategic nuclear forces, will be critical to the U.S.’s ability to deter opportunistic – or planned simultaneous – aggression in two theaters and “to compensate for any conventional shortfall in U.S. and allied non-nuclear capabilities.” Enhanced U.S. nuclear capabilities are critical to reassuring our allies, who “perceive that the risk of Russian and Chinese aggression and potential nuclear employment has increased; and thus, U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities are increasingly important for credible extended deterrence.”

The SPC’s emphasis on the importance of both nuclear and conventional forces points to yet another strength of the SPC, which is to embed the imperative of strengthening the U.S. nuclear posture within the broader imperative of strengthening all aspects of the U.S. strategic posture from cyber to space to missile defense – and integrating these elements of deterrence into a whole of government approach. At the same time, the SPC emphasizes that the “U.S. nuclear posture composes the foundation of U.S. military strength, and therefore the foundation of the U.S. strategic posture.”

We must credibly say – don’t do it

No matter how capable U.S. conventional forces may be, if the U.S. does not deploy nuclear forces capable of credibly deterring adversary use of nuclear weapons, we run the risk of adversaries believing that they can gain advantage by using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict that they are losing.

The overriding challenge before the United States is how to implement the SPC’s recommendations. This will require bringing to the attention of the broader body politic that, in the words of the SPC, the “new global environment is fundamentally different than anything experienced in the past, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.” It is an environment in which 35 years of U.S. nuclear restraint has gone unreciprocated; in which “China is pursuing a nuclear force build-up on a scale and pace unseen since the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race” (but this time without the U.S. racing); in which Russia continues to build on its advantage in theater nuclear forces while issuing explicit nuclear threats; and in which our allies fear that U.S. extended nuclear guarantees to their security are eroding.

Better to deter war than to fight it

Given this “dramatic change in the overall strategic setting,” we must recall that deterrence does not supply its own efficacy; it must be tailored “to decisively influence the unique decision calculus of each nuclear-armed adversary.” Building a strategic posture capable of deterring war will not be cheap; but it would be “far more expensive to fight such a war.” Or as former Secretary of Defense Mattis pithily remarked: “America can afford survival.”

If there is a dominant theme that pervades the SPC, it is a palpable sense of alarm: “The challenges are unmistakable; the problems are urgent; the steps are needed now.” We ignore the SPC’s cri de coeur at our peril.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

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