Obama lets America's nuclear guard down

Article Highlights

  • We simply don't know how large Beijing's arsenal is or how committed it is to its declared "no first use" policy

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  • Chinese strategists are already thinking and writing about how to fight and win a nuclear war

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  • The U.S. needs an effective deterrent strategy, one that will maintain its dominance and provide for defense from nuclear attack.

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President Obama used the occasion of the just-concluded Nuclear Security Summit, which tackled nuclear terrorism, to reiterate his "vision of a world without nuclear weapons," as he put it to an audience of South Korean university students. It is a noble goal, but one which remains unrealistic given the need for great power nuclear deterrence.

The problem is Russia and China do not share President Obama's "global zero" goal. Russia is actually increasing its reliance on nuclear weapons for defense as its ability to maintain a first-class conventional force wanes. More worrying at the moment, China's nuclear program is so cloaked in secrecy that it is difficult to discern just how Beijing understands nuclear deterrence—we simply don't know how large Beijing's arsenal is or how committed it is to its declared "no first use" policy.

Mr. Obama's idea seems to be 20 years too late to catch the post-Cold War optimism that nukes would soon be obsolete. On the contrary, the world didn't wave goodbye to nuclear armaments: India, Pakistan and North Korea all tested weapons, and Iran has a nuclear program well underway.

This is the greatest bout of nuclear proliferation since in the wake of World War II. But while nonproliferation efforts rightly absorb much American energy, the administration cannot afford to ignore the bigger issue: deterring potential adversaries with sizeable arsenals and the means to strike the United States.

America's debate about nuclear strategy hasn't kept pace with the new challenges—a contrast from the way the country faced nuclear threats 50 years ago. There are no longer, as in the early years of the Cold War, lively arguments about massive retaliation, limited nuclear war and the value of counter-force attacks.

This is due, in part, to a well-entrenched norm against the use of nuclear weapons. What's more, countries can use advanced precision-guided munitions, which allow for effective counter-force strikes with conventional weapons. Such developments have thankfully made nuclear-weapon use less likely. But they have not ruled it out.

Consider a hypothetical U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan's fate. The potential for nuclear escalation is often discounted in such a scenario, perhaps because it is assumed that mutual nuclear deterrence will be effective. But any war that begins in the Taiwan Strait is likely to involve American strikes on airbases, missile launchers and command and control nodes on the Chinese mainland. And that could cascade into a bigger conflict.

If the People's Liberation Army cannot quickly halt those strikes by targeting U.S. assets in-theater, then direct, retaliatory attacks on the U.S. will look increasingly attractive. Beyond nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, China has few if any options with which to carry out such strikes. China's declared policy suggests a high threshold for being forced to use nukes, but in such a scenario that threshold is presumably lowered.

In fact, Chinese strategists are already thinking and writing about how to fight and win a nuclear war, especially in scenarios involving Taiwan. A former dean of China's Antichemical Warfare Academy wrote in the Winter 1995 issue of China Military Science that "the immense effect of nuclear weaponry is that it can serve as a deterrent force and, at the same time, as a means of actual combat." Another general asked an American counterpart in 1995 if he was willing to sacrifice Los Angeles for Taiwan. More recently, in a 2002 Pugwash Conference paper, a retired Chinese general and former Institute of Strategic Studies director expressed concern that China's no-first-use policy had "greatly bound its hands." The military has grown only more hawkish with each passing year.

It's unclear if the U.S. is prepared to deal with such an opponent. Has Washington made it similarly apparent to China that it will pay a price for its use of nukes? Of course, Washington itself may not know what that price is—i.e. what it is willing to inflict upon Beijing.

The U.S. needs an effective deterrent strategy, one that will maintain its dominance and provide for defense from nuclear attack. America's nuclear arsenal and triad—the ability to deliver nuclear weapons via submarine, bomber and land-based missile—are already superior to Chinese forces in quality and quantity. But those advantages are diminishing as China's military modernization continues apace, U.S. defense spending contracts and Washington pursues continuing bilateral nuclear force reductions with Russia. This trend has to be reversed.

Nuclear deterrence should also rely more heavily on missile defenses that can protect the U.S. homeland. American vulnerability here leaves the extended deterrence for Asian allies looking less credible. This only makes Chinese aggression and regional nuclear proliferation more likely, and tempts Chinese escalation during a conflict.

These challenges are big, but the real worry is that President Obama seems uninterested in them. He is so set on his "global zero" vision that the administration is now talking openly about possible unilateral reductions to the American arsenal. But as long as nuclear weapons do exist, and as long as potential adversaries rely on those weapons for their self defense, no U.S. president can shy away from this challenge.

Mr. Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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