Learning to Think Nuclearly Again

A new nuclear era demands strategy, not just arms control.

By , a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Mushroom cloud from operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE Nevada in 1953
Mushroom cloud from operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE Nevada in 1953
Mushroom cloud from "Grable," the first nuclear artillery shell, part of Operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE in Nevada, United States, on May 25, 1953. Getty Images

A few years ago, while visiting Air Force Global Strike Command in Louisiana, I crashed a B-52 bomber. I was attempting a low-level bombing run and fought the controls as the big plane went down. Covered with sweat from the effort, I climbed out of the pilot’s seat and exited the hyperrealistic training module to the instructors’ knowing smiles. My brief attempt to experience what it is like to be a part of the United States’ nuclear guardians bolstered my respect for their difficult effort—even as most of the country long ago forgot the mission that once defined the Cold War.

Mushroom cloud from operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE Nevada in 1953
Mushroom cloud from operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE Nevada in 1953

A mushroom cloud from “Grable,” the first nuclear artillery shell, which was part of Operation Upshot-Knotholt, is seen in Nevada, United States, on May 25, 1953.Getty Images

A few years ago, while visiting Air Force Global Strike Command in Louisiana, I crashed a B-52 bomber. I was attempting a low-level bombing run and fought the controls as the big plane went down. Covered with sweat from the effort, I climbed out of the pilot’s seat and exited the hyperrealistic training module to the instructors’ knowing smiles. My brief attempt to experience what it is like to be a part of the United States’ nuclear guardians bolstered my respect for their difficult effort—even as most of the country long ago forgot the mission that once defined the Cold War.

After a half-generation hiatus in the public mind, nuclear terror is back. In testimony redolent of the frightful 1950s, CIA Director William Burns warned Congress in April not to “take lightly” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implicit threat to use nuclear weapons against the West should it continue to support Ukraine. Just days after Burns’s testimony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the risk of nuclear war was “considerable. … The danger is serious, real.” Longtime geopolitical analysts echo the warning that Putin might employ tactical nuclear arms in Ukraine if Ukrainian forces continue to bog down his invaders. If these assessments are accurate, is not inconceivable that the world is edging toward the most serious nuclear confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Putin’s nuclear saber rattling over Ukraine should be enough to shock U.S. policymakers into recognizing that the United States’ nuclear holiday has ended. Yet even as they grapple with the latest Russian threats, Washington is faced with another looming nuclear challenge that may be even more dangerous in the long run. China is undertaking a “breathtaking expansion” of its nuclear capabilities and overturning more than a half-century of a relatively modest nuclear posture, according to congressional testimony in April by U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Along with Putin’s reinsertion of nuclear threats into superpower relations, the specter of a major Chinese nuclear capacity may be the security earthquake that shakes awake the long-dormant Dr. Strangelove. That will be just in time, because current U.S. policies and strategic thinking—including the recently completed Nuclear Posture Review—are unlikely to adequately address the challenges of the new nuclear era.

Richard’s China assessment to Congress followed on the Defense Department’s 2021 Chinese military power report, which detailed Beijing’s nuclear modernization, most notably the Pentagon’s assessment that the People’s Liberation Army may quadruple its nuclear arsenal to as many as 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030. The report caused heartburn in Washington, providing yet more evidence that China is moving to challenge the U.S. military, which has 3,600 such weapons, and its position of global supremacy. Soon after the Pentagon released its report, a senior Chinese official confirmed that Beijing will continue its nuclear modernization, lending greater credence to the assessment despite other claims by Beijing, and further reports have documented China’s development of land-based missile complexes. Combined with news about China’s successful hypersonic vehicle tests in 2021, the consensus on Beijing’s nuclear ambition presents the Biden administration with a new long-term strategic challenge, even as it grapples with Russia’s nuclear threats.

American school children nuclear attack drill circa 1951
American school children nuclear attack drill circa 1951

U.S. school children practice a “duck and cover” drill to prepare for a nuclear attack in the United States in 1951.Getty Images

Though U.S. policymakers and strategic thinkers have warily watched the dramatic modernization of China’s conventional armed forces over the past decade—and despite years of Russian nuclear modernization under Putin—they have largely ignored the nuclear dimension since the end of the Cold War. As the Soviet bloc disintegrated, the George H.W. Bush administration mothballed U.S. Strategic Air Command, and the shadow of mushroom clouds and schoolhouse “duck and cover” exercises retreated from the American imagination. Rusting fallout-shelter signs in abandoned buildings and rural areas are forlorn reminders of the decades when the nuclear balance of terror dominated international politics.

In those intervening decades, the national security community produced few new nuclear thinkers on par with legendary names such as Thomas Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter, and Herman Kahn. Even the capo di tutti capi of strategists, Henry Kissinger, launched his career with his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Some Cold War-era scholars of nuclear policy, including British strategist Lawrence Freedman, Stanford University professor Scott Sagan, and the Federation of American Scientists’s Hans Kristensen, remain active. Others, such as former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sig Hecker, have narrowed their focus to North Korea’s nuclear program.

But since day-to-day nuclear command-and-control operations were moved from NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex to Peterson Air Force Base (now Peterson Space Force Base) in Colorado Springs at the beginning of the 21st century, the once-ubiquitous “wizards of Armageddon” largely have sat on the sidelines during a generation of war on terrorism. U.S. Strategic Command, the successor to U.S. Strategic Air Command, may continue its never-ending nuclear operations (what the strategic community calls the “nuclear enterprise”) and ensure that the United States’ aging nuclear triad remains the ultimate guarantor of U.S. security, but the role of great-power strategic conflict in U.S. defense policy is only quietly acknowledged and quickly pushed to the margins of the discussion over U.S.-China relations.

China's first nuclear reactor creation 1958
China's first nuclear reactor creation 1958

One of the reactors used to make the first Chinese atomic bomb, completed in 1964, is seen in China in 1958.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

All that will change, thanks to the dramatic growth of China’s nuclear force and the shift of Sino-U.S. relations into a period of adversarial competition. Its nuclear capabilities long overlooked by those focusing on China’s conventional arms modernization program, China remained a small nuclear power, with only a few dozen weapons after its first nuclear detonation in 1964. Though Chinese nuclear doctrine was little studied in the West, enough emphasis was placed on its “no first use” policy to assure American thinkers that Beijing remained an essentially defensive nuclear state. Such an assessment was easy to make in the generally benign environment for U.S.-Chinese relations that held until the 2010s.

Even before the Trump administration began to push back against China’s increasingly aggressive policies, however, there were signs that the nuclear road between Beijing and Washington might not be as smooth as U.S. thinkers assumed. For the few strategists who took China’s nuclear force seriously, the trick lay in determining what the Chinese understood as “defensive” in their nuclear doctrine. Did that refer to retaliation against a foreign nuclear attack on their homeland—akin to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction that kept nuclear war off the table throughout the Cold War—or something else? The answer became clearer starting in the mid-1990s, when senior Chinese generals threatened to destroy Los Angeles in response to a Taiwan crisis during private talks with U.S. officials. In July 2005, one of the deans of China’s National Defence University made similar threats. Whereas Americans considered a conflict over Taiwan to be similar to other wars where the United States might protect a sovereign state, Beijing was signaling not only that it might be rethinking its no-first-use policy, but that it would do so over territory it considers integral to China. In other words, starting a nuclear war over Taiwan would be defensive from Beijing’s point of view.

Yet as long as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) kept its nuclear arsenal at a limited level, China managed to stay below the threshold for attracting serious U.S. attention. After all, with approximately 3,750 U.S. and 4,500 Russian warheads currently in reserve or deployed, 250 Chinese weapons did not seem particularly threatening.

The recent Pentagon report on China’s military power was thus a shock to many U.S. strategists and set off a flurry of commentary. Yet, it should not have been a surprise. Chinese nuclear capacity has been creeping up in recent decades, and the latest estimate is that the PLA maintains between 270 and 350 deployed warheads. Coming just before the Pentagon assessment was news that Beijing was constructing up to 300 missile silos in three huge fields in the country’s desert interior, each potentially holding a missile with multiple warheads, further underscoring the apparent growth of China’s land-based strike capacity. Meanwhile, the PLA continues to develop its delivery capabilities, including nearly a dozen long-range and intercontinental ballistic missile types, 20 modernized H-6 nuclear-capable strategic bombers, and four JL-2 ballistic missile submarines, each of which can launch 12 missiles. With two more subs of that class coming online, the PLA Navy will have the ability to launch 72 sea-based missiles. As with the United States and Russia, however, China’s true numbers are a jealously guarded secret. That could well mean more warheads and missiles than open-source intelligence can reveal.

China military parade nuclear missiles Beijing 2015
China military parade nuclear missiles Beijing 2015

Chinese nuclear missiles are seen during a commemorative military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. Xinhua/Pan Xu via Getty Images

Regardless of the true numbers, and though still dwarfed by U.S. and Russian strategic forces, China thus maintains a viable nuclear triad and is expanding the numbers and types of missiles it deploys, such as midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which can be used against U.S. forces in the Pacific region and Washington’s Asian allies. Beijing has also reformed its nuclear command-and-control system, putting nuclear weapons under the control of the PLA Rocket Force and maintaining strict control through the Central Military Commission, which is personally headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Perhaps most shocking to U.S. analysts was last year’s evidence of successful tests of low-orbit, globe-girdling hypersonic missiles, moving China closer to a capability against which the United States has no defense. As Richard recently stated, China is in the midst of a “strategic breakout” with “explosive growth” that will shift the global nuclear balance.

The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is paralleled by the first major modernization of U.S. nuclear forces in a generation, begun under the Obama administration and continued during the Trump years. “America’s nuclear capability is atrophying,” Matt Pottinger, a deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration, told me. Each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is long overdue to be updated or replaced, with the U.S. Air Force’s 175 planned B-21 bombers succeeding B-1s and 20 B-2s currently in service (the B-21 will be used for both conventional and nuclear missions), a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the Minuteman III force. In addition, aging nuclear warheads will be refurbished or replaced, and many of the older analog systems will be upgraded with digital parts.

By some calculations, the total price tag for U.S. nuclear modernization will exceed $1.5 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates at least $634 billion will be required just through 2030.

China was not the primary driver of the United States’ nuclear modernization program. But strained relations—over the South China Sea, Taiwan, cyberattacks, and the origins of COVID-19, among other issues—and the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific risk maneuvering the two powers toward a nuclear arms race even as the United States tries to deal with a resurgent Russia, which further complicates U.S. strategic planning. Of particular concern is Beijing’s focus on hypersonic missiles, which could give China a “preemptive and undetectable first-strike capability,” according to Pottinger, whose view has been echoed by the recently retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. John Hyten.

Biden and Xi virtual meeting at White House on Nov. 15, 2021
Biden and Xi virtual meeting at White House on Nov. 15, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden attends in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

If Washington and Beijing are indeed entering into a new and more complicated phase of their relations—and as tensions with Russia peak over Ukraine—then there are plenty of reasons to be worried that the United States is not well prepared for a new nuclear era. Over the past decade, China’s dramatic modernization of its conventional forces has shifted the balance of power in Asia, and increasingly there are questions about the ability of U.S. forces to deter and defeat the PLA should hostilities break out. Now, U.S. strategists must add into their calculations a more robust and expansive Chinese nuclear capability.

It is unwise for U.S. policymakers to assume that China’s dramatic increase in nuclear capability will have no impact on strategic stability. Understanding the risks posed by China’s buildup presupposes a level of U.S. understanding of China’s nuclear thinking that simply may not exist. “I’m not sure we have clearly communicated our red lines or understand those built into China’s doctrine,” warns Rep. Mike Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee. Counting Chinese missiles, warheads, submarines, and the like may measure nuclear capability—but it can’t measure intention or reveal how the Chinese are thinking about the role of their nuclear weapons in foreign and security policy.

While recent years have seen a small resurgence in discussion of nuclear issues, there is far from a sustained focus on the new nuclear era. Perhaps topping the list of questions facing U.S. nuclear strategists and China specialists is understanding how Beijing’s new capabilities and growing capacity will play into its strategic and military planning over Taiwan. Indeed, some argue that Beijing’s nuclear buildup is primarily about Taiwan. Yet just as important may be Beijing’s vast claims in the South China Sea, where it has built new islands and militarily fortified atolls that it now claims as sovereign territory, or the Indo-Chinese border, where territorial disputes spilled over into violence in 2020. In all these cases, what Beijing might consider “defense” has to be factored in seriously by U.S. analysts.

Aside from these and other specific flash points, U.S. war planners and policymakers should examine more fundamental questions of strategic stability. Where are the most likely areas in which a conventional conflict could potentially escalate into a strategic exchange? Will a stronger nuclear deterrent embolden Beijing to rattle the nuclear saber during a crisis—or to call what it considers Washington’s nuclear bluff? Conversely, will its nuclear buildup embolden Chinese leaders to take greater risks at the conventional level? In terms of nuclear doctrine, it is critical to discover whether the Chinese are preparing to drop their no-first-use policy and move to a “launch on warning” posture, where a decision to strike the United States would be made on receiving information—often erroneous, as the Soviet Union discovered—that U.S. missiles were on their way. Knowing the relative weight that Chinese planners given to counter-value targets (such as U.S. population centers) versus counterforce targets (such as military bases) will be vital for top U.S. policymakers.

Understanding the link between nuclear doctrine and fast-developing new capabilities in warfighting is just as critical. How does cyberwar fit into Chinese strategic thinking? Waltz is particularly concerned that China’s anti-satellite capabilities will make space an early battleground, threatening conventional and strategic communications systems alike. And, as nuclear analyst Gerald Brown notes in an article on China’s nuclear forces, the organizational intermingling of the PLA’s conventional and nuclear forces raises serious questions about the Chinese leadership’s ability to control escalation during a crisis.

Intentions matter, and Americans must avoid mirror-imaging or assuming that Xi and other Chinese leaders see the world the way diplomats in Foggy Bottom or think tankers on Massachusetts Avenue do. How well do Americans understand the Chinese leadership’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons? In other words, can the United States be confident in its understanding of China’s nuclear strategy?

Leftover nuclear fallout shelter sign on Aug. 11, 2017
Leftover nuclear fallout shelter sign on Aug. 11, 2017

A leftover nuclear fallout shelter sign from the Cold War era is seen in New York City on Aug. 11, 2017. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s past time that U.S. nuclear thinking be revitalized. Just as counting Chinese nuclear weapons gives an incomplete picture, at best, of Beijing’s strategy and doctrine, modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal will mean little without a much greater revival of sophisticated strategic thinking about nuclear weapons and a well-developed community of nuclear strategists.

The United States therefore faces a cultural problem: Can it recover its ability—lost since the end of the Cold War—to think nuclearly?

In many ways, Americans have lost the muscle memory of thinking in nuclear terms. During the decadeslong confrontation with the Soviet Union, the national security community had an entire vocabulary for sophisticated concepts, ranging from mutual assured destruction to nuclear escalation to the notion of signaling, that helped Washington communicate with the Soviets and think about how, if at all, nuclear exchanges could be deterred, could be controlled, or might impact conventional wars. Scenarios for the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield were as gamed out as full strategic exchanges.

Yet, as the late Janne Nolan pointed out in her 1989 book Guardians of the Arsenal, even those concepts were often divorced from the larger political context in which both policy and ultimate warfighting decisions were to be made. A generation after Nolan’s observation, U.S. planners face the same schism between political and operational thinking, aggravated in recent decades by the loss of political focus on questions of nuclear conflict.

The last serious nuclear crisis was over Cuba in 1962—two entire generations ago. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1983 Able Archer scare, and the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident all created mini-emergencies at most. Throughout the Cold War, nuclear strategists such as Schelling, Wohlstetter, and Nolan attempted to learn from various crises, fitting various scenarios into war-gaming and estimation activities. All foreign policy, especially when it was focused on Europe and Asia, was viewed at least in part through a nuclear lens, so as not to miscalculate or underestimate nuclear adversaries.

Once the Cold War ended, so did this sense of urgency. Much of the focus of the post-Cold War nuclear studies community shifted away from deterrence to disarmament, nonproliferation, rogue regimes, and the enduring challenge of the North Korean nuclear program. All were worthy issues, even as the world’s other nuclear powers didn’t follow the new U.S. agenda.

Yet as tensions continue to grow between Beijing and Washington and meaningful confidence-building measures fail to take root, prudence dictates that the United States’ nuclear experts return to serious thinking about war planning, escalation ladders, off-ramps, signaling, counterforce targeting, command and control, and all the rest of the nuclear enterprise—all in the context of a variety of potential scenarios for nuclear escalation. The fragility of U.S.-Chinese political relations and the limitations of meaningful diplomatic dialogue mean that unsolved problems retain the potential of becoming crises—and in those crises, a more capable and powerful Chinese nuclear element may play a role.

To rejuvenate its capacity for strategic thinking, the United States needs to quickly get better at reading Chinese sources in the original language, so as to immerse as much as possible in the untranslated writings and statements of authoritative Chinese voices. So far, not nearly enough attempts have been made to really grapple with primary sources in Chinese or to translate or sponsor research by Chinese scholars.

Foreign-policy specialists and historians need to be brought into discussions and research on nuclear issues. U.S. Strategic Command should increase its outreach among academics and researchers—to help educate but also to be exposed to the perspectives of specialists not normally talking with nuclear planners. One hesitates to call for yet more university or think tank programs, but a renewed emphasis on training for the next generation of nuclear strategists is long past due. Above all, the United States must return to a discipline of strategic thinking, sponsoring serious cross-disciplinary discussions on nuclear issues, preparing the intellectual and policy landscape in advance of a crisis, and refraining from spasmodic and uncoordinated grasping at straws amid a crush of events.

A crucial role will be played by the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), whose current iteration was just completed as part of the National Defense Strategy. Though not yet released publicly, the NPR is already making waves for walking back then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s comments during the 2020 campaign that the “sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack.” The Biden administration initially indicated that its focus would be on arms control and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, according to the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Now, according to the Arms Control Association, the NPR “leaves open the option to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats” in extreme emergencies.

According to a Pentagon fact sheet, the Biden administration remains committed to “reducing the role of nuclear weapons and reestablishing our leadership in arms control,” as well as avoiding costly arms races. Yet the nuclear policies of both Russia and China may make those goals obsolete—or overtaken by events, as they say in government. The NPR will play a critical role if it can respond to geostrategic reality and help reinsert the nuclear issue into a broader, whole-of-defense framework integrating the highest-level political questions with operational plans.

Given Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, the NPR may understandably fail to set the stage for a pivot to Asia on nuclear issues. But the Kremlin’s threats only underline why it is not enough for the NPR to consider issues such as U.S. nuclear modernization—it is questions of strategy, intent, psychology, doctrine, and escalation that must come to the fore. Nuclear blackmail, attempts to curtail U.S. conventional operations, threatening allies, and even the use of tactical nukes must all be considered as options Beijing might pursue. Deterring such threats will require a more flexible and robust U.S. nuclear strategy tied to geopolitical scenarios and possible contingencies. But even more importantly, all these scenarios must be thoroughly thought through beforehand.

And if Biden truly intends to focus on arms reduction, then he must figure out how to do so with China, given that Beijing has, since the 1960s, steadfastly refused to enter any arms control talks or even set up a reliable nuclear hotline. The announcement that Biden and Xi agreed to explore talks on arms control during their mid-November 2021 virtual summit is welcome, but there is a long road ahead to reach substantive discussions. The White House must guard that the Chinese don’t use the tactic of talking about talks to endlessly delay meaningful engagement on nuclear issues.

Unlike with the multiple agreements and constant negotiations between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, the Chinese consistently fall back on their “no first use” pledge, defensive orientation, and low number of warheads relative to the United States and Russia as excuses for not joining any arms reduction talks. If the PLA is to have 1,000 warheads across multiple delivery systems in just a decade’s time—and with tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea at their highest level in decades—“there will be much talk about slowing that arms race down with arms control agreements, but that is unlikely to happen, as we learned during the first cold war,” University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer told me.

Wishing for dialogues about strategic stability will not make any substantive talks come about, nor should anyone believe that, after years of contentious Sino-U.S. ties, Beijing will suddenly have a change of heart and limit its nuclear arsenal. China refused the Trump administration’s attempts to bring it into strategic security talks and join U.S.-Russia negotiations over the New START treaty. Washington will have to figure out a different type of signaling. The new NPR could do its part by making clear that U.S. Strategic Command now takes China seriously as a nuclear threat and will be adjusting doctrine and operational activities accordingly.

A half-century after the U.S. reopened relations with Beijing, the specter of the world’s most populous nation becoming a full-on adversary with nuclear arms is the last outcome Washington wanted, especially in an environment where Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship has returned to geopolitics. U.S. policymakers have consistently underestimated China’s intentions, given a pass to its aggressive international behavior, and seemed hesitant to respond to the massive growth of its military. They must not make the same mistake with China’s ambitious nuclear armament plans. China has repeatedly surprised the United States, and while the thought of any nuclear conflict between the two may seem unthinkable, the risks from complacency are simply too high.

Many will see any resumption of serious nuclear planning as provocative and will want to continue reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. They can take solace from the fraught, dangerous, and sometimes terrifying Cold War era. It was the unpleasant task of taking nuclear war seriously that likely prevented it from ever breaking out. In an imperfect world, that is the best that can be hoped for, and a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Michael Auslin is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific.

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