Four new geostrategic realities are challenging U.S. deterrent and arms control strategy. These are the rise of China’s nuclear forces; the near-completed Russian nuclear build-up; the modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; and the need to defend against directed energy and hypersonic, maneuverable missiles.
First, China’s nuclear forces are completely unconstrained by treaty and could rise from around 300 to over 4,000 warheads. Over 55 percent of Russia’s nuclear forces are also not constrained by treaty.
Second, the initial operating capability for new U.S. nuclear platforms and much of the United States’ new conventional weaponry begins in 2028-2030, a window of opportunity during which China or Russia might act militarily against the Baltics or Taiwan.
Third, while the United States has built a very modest number (forty-four) of interceptors to defeat long-range ballistic missiles, opponents claim their deployment in 2003-2004 prevented the Russians from agreeing to ban multiple-warhead land-based missiles and encouraged the Chinese to begin to build multiple hundreds of such missiles, making future arms control deals impossible in the near term.
And fourth, all these factors have called into question what future deterrent policy and arms control strategy the United States should adopt. This includes how to deal with two nuclear-armed peer competitors, both of whom are undergoing significant conventional armed buildups. And both appear to be dedicated to an emerging strategy of “escalate to win” where the threatened but limited use of nuclear weapons in regional conflicts might get the United States and its allies to stand down, a marked change from the Cold War.
The Department of Defense has now confirmed China is building to at least 1,000 warheads by 2027-2030, although even this number implies most of the DF-41 missiles being deployed in upwards of 350 silos would hold at most one to two warheads compared to the ten the missile is capable of deploying.