Russian and Chinese Nuclear Threats Pose Problem for U.S. Deterrence, Experts Say

April 8, 2021 11:44 AM
Borei-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine Vladimir Monomakh (SSBN). Russian Navy Photo

Russian and Chinese threats to use nuclear weapons in Europe or across the Taiwan Strait pose “stark real-world problems” in defining deterrence as the United States modernizes its strategic forces, security experts agreed Wednesday.

While the three panelists and keynoter speaker former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said modernizing all legs of the triad and the weapons systems was essential, Keith Payne, the chief executive officer of the National Institute for Public Policy, said “deterrence requirements can change, can change very quickly.” He added, “the outside world has a vote” on what’s needed for deterrence and “the outside world has changed dramatically” since 2010, when the Obama administration reevaluated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START] with Russia.

During a virtual Heritage Foundation and Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute event, Payne and the others noted the administration at the time committed itself to modernizing its land-based ballistic missile systems, strategic bomber force and the nation’s ballistic missile submarine fleet and the weapons themselves.

Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute said “baked in” to American military planning is the belief that “our nuclear deterrence will hold.” The “nuclear umbrella” also is key to holding the nation’s alliances together, panelists said.

In the next decade, “the Russians have lowered the threshold in which they might employ a nuclear weapon” in a dispute with another nation, Heinrichs said.

Adding in China, which is expected to at least double its nuclear weapons stockpile in a decade, as well as North Korea and possibly Iran, Payne said,”the threat context is becoming more and more challenging.” The threat includes mobile intermediate-range cruise missiles to sophisticated air defense systems and dual-use, supposedly simple weapons like mines.

Heinrichs put the Russian advantage over the United States in tactical nuclear weapons at 10 to 1. Kyl said the Russians have achieved more than 85 percent of the nuclear platform and weapons system modernization, and China could be aiming to triple its nuclear stockpile to 600 weapons in the next few years.

Moscow and Beijing are ignoring the Cold War “balance of terror” argument – that any nuclear exchange would be suicidal – when they ratchet up the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons. Russia calls the policy “escalate to de-escalate.”

“The way the conflict is de-escalated is because the West stood down,” Kyl added.

Payne said the question now and into the foreseeable future is “what nuclear risks are they willing to accept” in those regional crises.

Matthew Kroenig, of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, said “China arguably has a [nuclear] threat advantage over the U.S.” in the Indo-Pacific.

Since Beijing is not constrained by the START Treaty or by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] treaty, China “may be in a sprint to nuclear parity” with the U.S. in the region. He added he could envision a scenario in which a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan goes badly and Beijing then threatens to use tactical nuclear weapons against the island.

“Russia has done ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ China could do that,” despite its avowed “no first-used policy” regarding nuclear weapons.

Kroenig said the Trump administration adjusted to some of the new challenges by pulling out of the INF, beginning work on missiles with intermediate range and also proposing the development of nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missiles.

In his opening remarks, Kyl said, “we brought the problem on ourselves” of having to pay for modernized platforms and weapons systems at the same time. By not investing continuously after 2010 in the platforms, Washington now finds “both bills are coming due at the same time.”

With questions being raised about the value of modernizing land-based ballistic missiles, “we do not have the consensus we had back in 2010,” he said.

“China and Russia are both relying on a triad” in their strategic planning. Kyl said the spending commitment of two to three percent above the rate of inflation would need to run for 10 to 15 years. Reports this week predict that the U.S. defense budget will be flat at $704 to 708 billion.

Service officials have forecast flat or declining budgets in the coming years and emphasized a need to prioritize modernization over legacy platforms. Politico and Bloomberg reported that the topline for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget – which has yet to be released – will be between $704 and $708 billion.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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