Russia has not only morphed from “frenemy” to full-blown enemy since its 2014 covert invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, but it has also updated its nuclear doctrine to intimidate NATO nations along its periphery, as well as former Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia.
It’s a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate,” the idea that a limited nuclear strike with a tactical or “battlefield” nuke could shock the U.S. into freezing a conflict in place.
“It’s one of the most challenging military questions you have,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of America’s nuclear forces, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.
Hyten said “escalate to de-escalate” is really a strategy of “escalate to win,” which views the use of nuclear weapons as a normal extension of a conventional conflict.
“It’s important that we look at them seriously, understand what those pieces are,” Hyten testified April 4. “When we say ‘escalate to win,’ what does that really mean? And in order for us to win, we have two choices. One, to prevent that escalation. Or two, to respond in such a way after that escalation that would want to stop any aggression.”
While Russia remains America’s only peer in the area of nuclear weapons capabilities, China has been embarked on an ambitious military modernization campaign that includes both “qualitative and quantitative” upgrading of its nuclear arsenal, according to the last nuclear posture review.
And then there’s North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un has a stated goal of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles with the capability of delivering a nuclear warhead to a city on the U.S. mainland.
Hyten said that while the U.S. has de-emphasized the role of nuclear weapons for the past two decades, its adversaries have done the exact opposite.
“Russia, in 2006, started a huge, aggressive program to modernize and build new nuclear capabilities. They continue that to this day. New ballistic missiles, new weapons, new cruise missiles, significant air-launch cruise missile capabilities, now the ground launch cruise missile capabilities,” Hyten warned Congress. “China has done the same thing. Hypersonic glide vehicles on both sides that bring new threats to bear.”
It is, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, a grave new world.
“As service chiefs, you know, what we do is we look at [trying to balance] capability, capacity and readiness,” Goldfein testified before the House Armed Services Committee in April. “We make strategic trades based on our assumptions of the global security environment. What’s different now? The world’s different now.”
It’s against this backdrop that President Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to begin a sweeping review of all aspects of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, everything from how many warheads the U.S. needs, to how many delivery systems, to what threats the U.S. may need to counter in the coming decade.
National Security Presidential Memorandum 1, signed by Trump one week after his inauguration, directs Mattis to conduct the review “to ensure the U.S. nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, effective, reliable and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”
Last month, Mattis assigned the task to the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and set a deadline of the end of 2017.
But even before the formal directive, the work had already begun, Hyten said. And it’s not just one review but multiple studies, including a review of the ballistic missile defenses and the appropriate response to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with its recent deployment of a land-based cruise missile. “I suspect there will be serious consideration of recommending pulling out of INF treaty and not extending New START,” said James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
But Hyten said it appears Moscow is adhering to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreement, which calls for both sides to be limited 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems by February 2018.
“From a strategic weapons perspective, I support the limits that are in the New START,” Hyten testified, adding that withdrawing from the treaty would not be part of the review.
Also off the table is consideration of eliminating any of the three legs of the nuclear triad, the Cold War strategy under which the U.S. maintains the capability to deliver nuclear weapons from submarines, bombers and land-based ICBMs.
The 30-year triad modernization plan calls for a new Columbia class of ballistic missile submarines, new B-21 Raider long-range stealth bombers, and new replacement ICBMs known as the ground-based deterrent, along with new bombs and cruise missiles. It is projected to cost $1 trillion.
But Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the review should not just be about counting warheads and systems but about the role nuclear deterrence can play in maintaining peace and stability.
“I feel the best focus now may be on counterforce and how much of it we really need to do,” O’Hanlon said. “I don’t think we need to aim for the capacity to substantially disarm the Russians in a first strike, yet much of our planning still does so, explicitly or implicitly.”
But with Russia thinking differently about the role of nuclear arms in the 21st century, the U.S. may have to adjust its calculus too, argued Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain at last month’s hearing on the U.S. Strategic Command.
“Whatever well-intentioned hopes we may have had after the end of the Cold War,” McCain said, “the United States can no longer seek to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy or narrow the range of contingencies under which we would have to consider their use.”