By Geoff Wilson and John Isaacs
Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, painted a dire picture of the nuclear threats the United States faces from abroad, and claimed that they could only be met by renewing the U.S. commitment to nuclear dominance over the coming century.
In his two days of testimony before both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on April 20 and 21, he warned that for the first time, the United States needs to cope with two nuclear superpowers at the same time, by elevating the military threat from China to a level equal to Russia.
But in his effort to paint a dire picture, and thereby lobby for the continued commitment to a massive nuclear modernization spending spree, his presentation made some curious claims and used misleading data.
First and foremost, in an effort to add a sense of urgency to the idea that the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a force of some 3,800 nuclear weapons, will soon be overtaken by its peer competitors, Richard opened with a peculiar claim. According to him, while the United States has been sitting on its hands, the Russians have modernized some “80%” of their nuclear forces. The United States, he claims, has modernized zero.
That accounting might surprise Congress and defense contractors that are in the midst of a $1.5 trillion nuclear modernization program launched after the Obama administration negotiated the New START agreement with Russia. The contractors are having a field day with ongoing programs to build new Columbia class strategic nuclear submarines, long-range B-21 bombers, a new ICBM force, new air-launched cruise missiles, upgraded nuclear gravity bombs into guided munitions, and a new generation of short-range tactical nuclear weapons. Modernization plans also include the infrastructure to develop a whole new generation of nuclear warheads, the first new U.S. warheads built since the 1980s.
To back these plans, Admiral Richard specifically mentioned the threat posed by new Russian “exotic weapons,” while downplaying the massive amounts of money already earmarked for U.S. nuclear capitalization. He said, “while we are at zero… [the Russians are modernizing] pretty much everything including several never-before-seen capabilities and several thousand non-New START treaty-accountable systems, nuclear-armed ICBM, hypersonic glide vehicle, nuclear power, nuclear armed underwater vehicle and Skyfall, [the] nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile.”
The inclusion of Skyfall seemed particularly laughable as a dangerous near-term threat, as Richard also seemingly forgot that that system very publicly exploded during development in 2019, making waves across social media with its mushroom cloud-like fireball.
Turning to China, Richard conceded that while its nuclear stockpile is currently smaller than that of the United States, Beijing is undertaking an “unprecedented” expansion of its arsenal. That may be true, but he neglected to mention that the Chinese nuclear force of about 320 nuclear weapons is small compared to the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile of some 3,800 weapons. If, as he warns, China were to double its nuclear arsenal by the end of the decade, its force will still be paltry compared to that of the United States.
Like many others pushing for massive increases to the already bloated U.S. military budget, he also failed to mention that China’s military budget in 2020 only totaled $193 billion, less than a third of the U.S. budget of $740.5 billion – which incidentally is equal to the spending of the next 15 countries combined. If the Chinese really stand to gain global military dominance over the next decade on that kind of budget, then maybe Congress should interview their contractors for some pointers.
Richard also argued that China is moving a portion of its nuclear force to a launch-on-warning posture, meaning missiles can be fired within minutes of a warning of an incoming nuclear attack. If China were to adopt this policy, it would only be emulating the current U.S. practice of maintaining all ICBMs and a significant portion of submarine-launched ballistic missiles on alert and in range of their targets at all times. Likewise, he must have forgotten the Pentagon’s 2020 China report noted that “China almost certainly keeps the majority of its nuclear force on a peacetime status – with separated launchers, missiles, and warheads.”
Reflecting back on supposed problems at home, he also erroneously stated that “we have no capability right now to actually make a new weapon.” Again, this seems odd, given the nearly $2 trillion that the United States is investing in new weapons. The United States has just deployed a new version of one of its nuclear submarine-launched warheads to fulfill an entirely new mission as a tactical nuclear weapon for fighting “low-intensity nuclear wars,” a major policy and doctrine shift for the U.S. Navy. At the same time, the United States is currently developing the first entirely new nuclear warhead since the 1980s, the W93.
Then, there was Richard’s bizarre claim that because U.S. strategic bombers are not on alert – which he called “a post-Cold War peace dividend” – “day to day, what you have is basically a dyad,” discounting the bombers despite the fact that it would take only hours or days to put them on alert.
Taken together, one can see the grim picture that Richard is trying to paint: arms control and diplomacy have limited the United States’ nuclear offensive options while the Russians modernize and develop novel systems; China is expanding its arsenal, despite being far behind the U.S. stockpile; and he cannot do his job unless Congress greenlights more weapons and more nuclear missions.
So, in his view, although the United States already has the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, any reduction in force could spell disaster.
Indeed, Richard’s narrative set a perfect frame for staunch supporters of the U.S. nuclear arsenal who have equated making smart and sensible reductions to the triad as, “unilateral disarmament,” or nuclear capitulation in previous hearings. He said that if any program reductions were to happen, the “decision to divest or delay could take ten to fifteen years to recover and render the nation unable to respond to advancing threats.”
This flies in the face of reality.
The fundamental flaw in U.S. nuclear strategy, as House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith has pointed out, is seeking U.S. global dominance – an outdated, impractical military strategy. “Deterrence, not dominance, is what I’m really kind of looking at us being able to do here,” Smith recently remarked. With 3,800 nuclear weapons in the stockpile, the United States is more than adequately prepared to deter China, Russia, North Korea, or any combination of adversaries.
As former President Ronald Reagan warned in 1984, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Admiral Richard and supporters of his notion for needed nuclear dominance would do well to remember that prevailing in a nuclear war will only mean ruling over the remaining ashes.