Ukraine marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion last Friday. This sad occasion came three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended participation in the New START nuclear arms control treaty and two days before Putin proclaimed that he would “strengthen” the Russian nuclear triad arsenal. These decisions come on the heels of President Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for its support of Ukraine.
With the ongoing death and mayhem in Ukraine receiving most of the attention, it is worth remembering that China is in the midst of a massive expansion of its nuclear arsenal. If estimates are correct, China will field a peer or superior arsenal to the United States. It is also worth remembering that North Korea is in the midst of its own nuclear expansion.
In short, America’s nuclear-armed adversaries are in the process of modernizing and expanding their arsenals at a time when the United States is struggling to modernize an arsenal that will soon be vastly smaller than its adversaries. And, since the United States does not field an effective tactical nuclear arsenal (no, American “political weapons” in Europe do not count), Russia, China, and North Korea already dominate the United States when it comes to low-yield theater nuclear weapons.
This willful weakening of the American nuclear deterrent by past and present presidential administrations now has America’s allies worried to the point that South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, made it known that his country may pursue its own theater nuclear arsenal. Australia and Japan may follow suit if the United States does not adjust its current approach accordingly. With the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review cancelling the nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile, eliminating the nuclear hedge, and signaling that it still wants a “sole purpose” policy despite Chinese, Russian, and North Korean actions, is it any wonder that our allies no longer see American extended deterrence as credible?
For the first time since the Cold War began, the United States may soon find itself bullied by nuclear-armed rivals and responsible for nuclear proliferation among its allies. The world may soon become a much more dangerous place because American presidents from George H. W. Bush to Joseph Biden were carried away by the siren song of nuclear arms control and unilateral disarmament. Even now, as Russia, China, and North Korea smell American blood in the water, from self-inflicted wounds, the very administration officials responsible for the latest wounds are now calling for negotiations with the sharks seeking to devour them.
Even after the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review signaled America’s adversaries that the United States would not field the low-yield full-spectrum nuclear arsenal needed to match their threats, members of the disarmament community were still not satisfied and penned op-eds criticizing the President for not doing enough toward disarmament. What these critics do not realize is that the United States’ sputtering nuclear modernization program is chum in the water for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jung Un.
Given the current administration’s weak response to Putin’s latest provocations and the State Department’s continued public statements that only given the impression of American weakness, Russia may very well break out from the arms control limits established in New START. They have the industrial capacity to double or triple the Russian arsenal. The United States cannot say the same of the American arsenal.
It is time Congress address the reality facing the nation and step into the breach of bad administration policies. It is time to end America’s disarmament experiment. Whether Democrat or Republican it is no longer possible to let partisan politics stop Congress from righting the ship and returning the United States to preeminence. Sadly, the advocates of nuclear arms control and disarmament in the administration are guided by a worldview that is based on an idealistic opinion of human nature not supported by facts.
Americans can no longer afford the good intentions and failed promises of the arms control and disarmament communities. They must be judged for the consequences of their policies rather than their alleged good intentions. American arms reductions did not lead to a more peaceful world. It only emboldened adversaries to seek parity with the United States.
It is important to understand that the United States fields nuclear weapons for a different purpose than Russia and China. American nuclear deterrence seeks to deter an adversary from attacking the US or its allies through the threat of nuclear retaliation. Russia and China use their nuclear forces to coerce opponents into acceding to their revanchist goals.
The administration’s nuclear policy and response to Russian, Chinese, and North Korean aggression is driven by ideological blindness that fails to understand the danger presented by these adversaries. Where there is only malice and deceit, the administration sees reasonable people with similar values. The disarmament community has never correctly understood the nation’s adversaries because they cannot help but impose American values on those who detest the very morality they hold dear.
Fortunately, Congress is in better shape than the administration to address the challenges facing the nation. This is because there are members from both political parties who understand the threat this country faces. While it is true that there are advocates of nuclear disarmament in Congress, they are a minority. Now, more than ever, Congress must assert its constitutional authority and fund a full-spectrum nuclear arsenal that effectively deters America’s adversaries and assures America’s allies.
As Winston Churchill remarked in his March 6, 1946, “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton Missouri, “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.”
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Dr. Adam Lowther is Vice President for Research at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies and the host of ANWA DC’s Nuclecast. Col. Curtis McGiffin (U.S. Air Force, Ret.) is Vice President for Education at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies and visiting professor at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. Together, they have more than five decades of experience in uniform and DoD civil service. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.