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Nuclear Weapons in an Age of Competition

Dominic de Bruyn

Ever since the world witnessed the raw destructiveness of nuclear weapons in August 1945, a debate has raged over their role in upholding international security.

Notwithstanding the nuclear arms race that ensued post-1945 between the United States of America (US) and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons have not been used for more than seven decades. In fact, the mere threat of nuclear annihilation has contributed to the absence of direct conflict between major powers in the post-war era.

In October 2022, the Biden administration released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a legislatively-mandated review that establishes US nuclear strategy and capabilities for the next five to ten years. President Biden’s NPR largely mirrors the themes of previous administrations, reiterating that “nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrence effects that no other element of US military power can replace.” The NPR outlines three roles for nuclear weapons: deterring strategic attacks against the US homeland; assuring allies and partners that the US is willing and able to deter strategic threats; and providing a tool to achieve US objectives if deterrence fails.

There are several arguments in favour of the US continuing to maintain and modernise its nuclear arsenal. First, nuclear weapons have played a critical role in deterring great power conflict since World War II. Washington has maintained a policy of "calculated ambiguity" which holds that the US will only consider using nuclear weapons under extreme circumstances when vital interests are threatened. This intentionally vague policy creates uncertainty in the minds of potential adversaries, leading to greater caution and a reduced likelihood of direct conflict.

The US nuclear deterrent also provides umbrella protection for more than 30 allies and partners, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, and NATO countries that rely on the US to deter nuclear and large-scale conventional attacks. Absent a credible US nuclear deterrent, these nations may conclude that they need to develop their own nuclear weapons programs, delivering a permanent setback to the non-proliferation movement.

Indeed, the global security environment has significantly deteriorated over the past decade, with several nuclear powers now posing an increased threat to the US. For the first time in history, the US faces credible nuclear threats from two major powers: China and Russia.

China has established a nascent nuclear triad (nuclear-capable bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles) and is on track to possess around 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. In March 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed the military to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” capabilities. As China seeks to flex its geopolitical muscle in the Asia-Pacific region, a credible nuclear deterrent will be essential to its security strategy.

Meanwhile, Russia is modernising its nuclear capabilities, adding several new technologies to its arsenal, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and nuclear-capable unmanned underwater vehicle. In addition to its sizable cache of strategic nuclear weapons, Russia also maintains at least 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons (those with limited yield and range), which are unconstrained by any arms control agreement.

The likelihood of Russia using nuclear weapons has also grown. At the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be placed on high alert and threatened adversaries with “consequences you have never seen in history.” As Russian forces face significant setbacks on the battlefield, Putin could consider using a non-strategic nuclear weapon to demonstrate resolve and intimidate Russia’s enemies. The resurgence of great power competition may require the US to maintain a modern, nimble and credible nuclear deterrent.

Critics of the approach set out in the NPR point to the absence of a "no first-use" pledge. This policy would entail an explicit guarantee that the US would not use nuclear weapons except in retaliation to a nuclear strike by another state. Proponents of a no first-use policy contend that calculated ambiguity raises escalation risks as adversaries are concerned that the US will launch a first nuclear strike. However, a simple change in declaratory policy is unlikely to convince its enemies, especially as it could be reversed by the president at any time.

Another criticism is that the NPR fails to take concrete steps to achieve President Biden’s stated goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in America’s security policy. While the NPR concludes that “mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role of nuclear weapons”, this is juxtaposed with a strong funding commitment for a range of nuclear weapons programs.

Although arms control agreements can create an atmosphere of confidence and dialogue, the current geopolitical environment does not lend itself to constructive negotiations. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia is set to expire in 2026, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may imperil negotiations on a new agreement. China has shown little interest in negotiating arms control agreements and continues to rapidly expand its nuclear capabilities. Given this context, the US may have no choice but to maintain a modern nuclear arsenal.

The primary role of nuclear weapons in the US’ security strategy will continue to be deterrence. While the US may pursue arms control agreements where possible, a unilateral decision to draw down nuclear capabilities and soften declaratory policy may be unwise given contemporary security threats. Paradoxically, the pursuit of peace and stability may continue to require a credible nuclear deterrent.

Dominic de Bruyn is an emerging writer and analyst of American politics and culture.


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