The head of U.S. Strategic Command warned in piece published at the U.S. Naval Institute this month that there was a “real possibility” that the United States could end up in a nuclear conflict with China or Russia and that the strategic playbook needed to be updated to assume that that specific type of conflict was a “very real possibility.”
STRATCOM Commander Adm. Charles Richard warned that the U.S. Military needed to change its approach or else we are likely to “prepare for the conflict we prefer, instead of one we are likely to face.”
At the U.S. Strategic Command, we assess the probability of nuclear use is low, but not “impossible,” particularly in a crisis and as our nuclear-armed adversaries continue to build capability and exert themselves globally. Further, assessing risk is more than just assessing likelihood; it also involves accounting for outcomes. We cannot dismiss or ignore events that currently appear unlikely but, should they occur, would have catastrophic consequences.
While DoD’s focus has been on counterterrorism, Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have begun to aggressively challenge international norms and global peace using instruments of power and threats of force in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War—and in some cases, in ways not seen during the Cold War, such as cyberattacks and threats in space. Not surprisingly, they are even taking advantage of the global pandemic to advance their national agendas. These behaviors are destabilizing, and if left unchecked, increase the risk of great power crisis or conflict.
Richard warned that the strategic capabilities of Russia and China continue to accelerate and that seeing the progress that they are making is “sobering.”
“China continues to make technological leaps in capabilities in every domain,” Richard wrote. “Across its conventional weapons systems, it continues to invest significant resources in hypersonic and advanced missile systems, as well as to expand its space and counter-space capabilities.”
Richard specifically noted that in regard to China, the U.S. “must pay attention to PRC’s actions more than its stated policies.”
“While the PRC has maintained a ‘No First Use’ policy since the 1960s—contending it will never use a nuclear weapon first—its buildup of advanced capabilities should give us pause,” he wrote. “This policy could change in the blink of an eye. Beijing is pursuing capabilities and operating in a manner inconsistent with a minimum deterrent strategy, giving it a full range of options, including limited use and a first-strike capability.”
“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 continued. “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. We cannot approach nuclear deterrence the same way. It must be tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment we face.”
“We must adapt to today’s strategic environment by understanding our opponents’ threats and their decision calculus. We must also accept the gauntlet of great power competition with our nuclear-capable peers. It is through a holistic risk assessment process that we can better align national resources and military readiness to ensure strategic security,” he concluded. “In the end, it comes back to the threat. Until we come to a broad understanding of what the threat is and what to do about it, we risk suffering embarrassment—or perhaps worse—at the hands of our adversaries.”