Why the US fixation on increased nuclear capability won’t deter China but could lead to instability and nuclear war

By Andrew Facini | October 27, 2023

The guided-missile destroyer USS Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk cruise missile, the weapon's newest variant, during a three day missile exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign Sean Ianno)The guided-missile destroyer USS Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk cruise missile, the weapon's newest variant, during a three day missile exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign Sean Ianno)

While much of the international security community is still riveted by the Israel-Hamas war in the Near East, an important debate on nuclear strategy in the Indo-Pacific has continued to brew in Washington, one that could shape US nuclear policy for many years to come.

In the span of two weeks, several major policy documents—including a bipartisan Congressional report on strategic posture and a Defense Department update on China’s estimated nuclear stockpile—have put the US nuclear posture vis-à-vis China front and center. The reports, which focus heavily on hardware and capability, contribute to a years-long deliberation with policymakers and analysts attempting to counter a perceived risk of tipping military balance in the Indo-Pacific. China’s nuclear weapons buildup is driving concerns among US allies and partners in the region over the aggression Beijing could possibly engage in, once its nuclear arsenal can “shield” the country from retaliation. The perceived threat is so intense that it has become a top national security concern in Washington.

Concerningly, however, the domestic debate about countering China’s growing arsenal has thus far dwelled almost exclusively on US capability—narrowly defining the problem and asking what combination of new nuclear missiles, increased forward-deployments, or friendly technology-sharing can maintain US dominance in a crisis and therefore deter China from taking aggressive steps. Unsurprisingly, the recommendations that followed ranged from adding more warheads to US missiles and building more nuclear submarines to—considered as important—adopting a posture of force-meets-force superiority at all levels against Chinese nuclear weapons in the Pacific.

But in aggressively pursuing capability surges alone, the United States may end up on the wrong side of the stability-instability paradox, risking escalation to nuclear war—intentional or not—through an overreliance on introducing untested or provocative technologies. Instead, a stronger US strategy for responding to the challenge posed by China’s growing arsenal should be for the United States to supplement military capability by building multiple levels of mutual understanding and routes toward risk reduction across the Pacific. These measures must be implemented urgently and certainly before a crisis forces China and the United States to seriously test their nuclear deterrence relationship.

Capability fixation drives instability. One counter-productive distraction from a multi-level, risk-reduction approach to China is found in the sustained call for the fielding of new systems like the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM-N) and other tactical nuclear weapons ostensibly meant for battlefield use. Promoting these systems as a purported solution to future crises places incentives in all the wrong places and dangerously complicates the possible outcomes in a conflict.

For its part, the SLCM-N (which the White House has already rejected via its most recent Nuclear Posture Review but a hawks-dominated Congress funded anyway) is a seemingly straightforward proposal to replace some of the cruise missiles on submarines with nuclear-armed ones. But just by its presence, the SLCM-N would pave the way for all US cruise missiles deployed to the Pacific to be potentially armed with nuclear warheads. If this happens, Chinese political and military leaders would have to conservatively assume that any incoming US cruise missile is nuclear-armed, prompting a presumption of escalation and adding extreme pressures for a rapid nuclear counter-attack, even as the US missile is still en route. If a regional crisis erupts for which a conventionally armed Tomahawk sea-launched strike would be an appropriate response, US leaders would suddenly have very good reason to hesitate.

By all accounts, the expanded destructive capability of the SLCM-N would create a self-imposed constraint that risks cutting out a major swath of conventional escalation options by muddling intermediate systems like cruise missiles with a nuclear option. Making an entire rapid-response weapons platform (one already with broad new investments in the region) less usable in favor of implied nuclear escalation is precisely the scenario SLCM-N advocates are trying to head off.

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Tactical nuclear weapons also complicate the deterrence equation in a broader sense. In a contested and alarming information environment, even cautious beliefs about escalation control would be rendered academic while mushroom clouds rise over a battlefield. Far better would be to drive up the threshold for nuclear use at any level and communicate that intention clearly through both policy and force posture decisions.

Even during the early years of the Cold War when emerging technologies were filling out more of the “middle rungs” of the escalation ladder with tactical nuclear capabilities, it was seen as critical to maintain and keep clear the distinction between the first battle in West Germany and the ultimate destruction of Washington and Moscow. In blurring the picture of how the first hours of a nuclear conflict with China would be managed by both sides, setting clear decision-making timeframes and thresholds ahead of time would prove to be a safer and stronger strategic posture, helping to reduce uncertainty and panic in a crisis.

Expectations that incentivize escalation. A related strategic mistake is to conflate deterrence stability with escalation dominance. In some US military and policy circles, it has become a common refrain to equate the ability for the United States to iteratively and controllably escalate in a conflict as a driver of stability. The theory is that, by denying an adversary any chance to win a lower-level (conventional) conflict, its willingness to take risks is diminished so greatly that it won’t take any aggressive steps in the first place. In brief, it’s deterrence-by-denial. But when facing an adversary that holds the threat of nuclear escalation—not just against battlefield targets but to ultimately continue until US cities are attacked—there is always an option above the current rung which an enemy might take as a last resort. That’s the “use-it-or-lose-it” pressure.

This explicit ability to escalate to the top of the ladder has been Beijing’s stated nuclear strategy for over 60 years to counter the perceived “nuclear blackmail” of stronger countries. In such a dynamic, escalation dominance efforts are received not as a stakes-raising move to be resolved by diplomacy but as a sensitive trigger to be quickly responded to in-kind. For US military planners, therefore, it becomes critical to complement hardware-driven capability with an effort to preemptively find and accept crisis “offramps,” even as those may be wrongly coded at home as vulnerabilities or weaknesses before a conflict. At a minimum, those same planners should seek to better understand and work with (and, not necessarily against) Beijing’s rationales, motivations, and beliefs. This less confrontational approach would greatly help identify risk-reduction opportunities or at least create clearer communication channels besides weapon deployments and posture signaling.

The capability-driven, escalation dominance US strategy also poses existential risks to the whole humanity should a direct conflict—nuclear or not—occur between Chinese and US forces. In such a terrible situation, decision makers would face huge pressures to halt the fighting. But the presence—let alone the use—of tactical nuclear weapons like the SLCM-N or so-called “low yield” nuclear bombs would risk driving the conflict faster toward escalation. Dominating a particular flashpoint or responding in kind for an early loss could only invite faster and less deliberate, less controlled escalation. More, the looming presence of Chinese and US strategic forces—those thousands of city-killing nuclear weapons on alert at all times—is a stark reminder of the stakes of any direct conflict between China and the United States.

Regardless of any imagined conflict—over the South China Sea, Taiwan, or some other strategic location—for which planners may want a tactical nuclear system to be available, the larger, much more numerous strategic systems sit at the very end of the escalation ladder, promising of mutual annihilation of both homelands and more. For decades, it was recognized as an utmost priority to identify—and even remove—lower-level capabilities that would make such an all-out nuclear war more likely. There is no good reason that could justify ignoring this basic principle of strategic stability today.

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A stabilizing nuclear deterrence strategy needs to counterintuitively accept the potential of not dominating at every level to keep a much worse war from breaking out. This, after all, is at the heart of the longstanding concept of mutual assured destruction—that ultimately, unchecked escalation results in a total loss and no victory. Accepting the uncomfortable reality of a perceived vulnerability was the foundation of almost all stabilizing US-Soviet arms control steps during the Cold War.

The problem is that Washington has long refused to acknowledge or maintain a mutual deterrence relationship with Beijing, even though China’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland came online in the 1970s. Like it or not, the stronger move at this point is to engage with the issue of countering China’s regional ambitions differently from the onset, by optimizing US postures for the preservation of deterrence rather than for out-and-out dominance.

Preparing for peace. In these minutiae lies a frightening vision of seemingly inevitable and potentially unlimited conflict with China. Although Beijing had for decades kept its nuclear arsenal in the background (even when going to war with its neighbors), the concept that it may soon wield its “conventional sword” while protected by an upgraded “nuclear shield” is a regrettably familiar dilemma. As European NATO allies have scrambled to shore up their security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a hard reminder has emerged: Detestable, norm-breaking aggression is indeed possible, if the aggressor has a nuclear top-cover. For a continued peace in the Indo-Pacific, however, the lesson must not just involve hard military preparation, but also of softer, meaningful engagement with a potential adversary.

The frustrating truth is that there is no perfect array of technology, behavior, and communication that keeps nuclear war at bay for good. As long as strategic nuclear weapons exist, deterrence relationships are constant qualitative states of affairs, conducted by officers whose careers are dedicated to preserve these relationships. Elements like routine operations and arms control agreement verifications can help solidify stability and soothe nerves, but those can themselves be eroded by developments both within and outside human control. This is the current stage of the geo-strategic shift in the Indo-Pacific, as a new generation of officials in Washington and Beijing struggle to articulate their visions, ambitions, and fears with the new tools available to them.

Now is the time to forge a better mutual understanding with Beijing, not to escalate tensions. Holding multi-level dialogues about intentions; building reliable, resilient communication channels; and fostering those hard-to-quantify personal connections that can quell dangerous arms-racing instincts—or at least add critical resistance to escalation in a crisis—should be emphasized alongside any examination of force posture. Some military policy changes—including weapons modernization—may be required to meet the moment, but the approach in Washington thus far has been badly constrained to the force-meets-force thinking which, if taken alone, will only multiply risks and add untested variables for the United States and its allies.

The need to understand Beijing and find pre-crisis paths to reduce tensions is ultimately much more important and urgent than any given weapons system or revised strategic posture. Doing that work will be difficult and require sustained investment in both civil society and government processes at the highest levels, but it is a necessary component of maintaining deterrence to avoid nuclear war.

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7 months ago

This sounds like appeasement to me which rarely ends well. What’s to deter China from using conventional weapons and/or tactical nuclear weapons against US military bases in South Pacific if they know we have inferior capabilities at the tactical nuclear level? They might calculate the US would not be willing to escalate to an all out strategic nuclear response increasing the likelihood that China will move forward with its stated aims of reunifying Taiwan and imposing by force its claims over the entire South China Sea. China already possesses more naval ships than the USA and they are arguably also… Read more »

Gary W Euscher
Gary W Euscher
7 months ago

The CCP is a completely incompetent government. They can’t even manage a pandemic. CCP response to COVID was a perfect example of a Chinese firedrill .
Really not seeing a conventional parity at all. CCP copy of Russian weapons is not threatening, but laughable. CCP has mismanaged the Chinese economy into a disaster.
That said I am in favor of the USA having overwhelming advantage in nuclear weapons.

Rob Goldston
Rob Goldston
7 months ago

Isn’t the lesson of the Russo-Ukraine war that we have too many useless nuclear weapons and too few useful conventional weapons? For example, how is it that Iran is supplying Russia with plenty of cheap attack drones and we can’t do the same for Ukraine?

Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella
7 months ago

I agree in principle with your article. Especailly the part about reducing tension. Recall what happened during Able Archer 83 when tension get out of control. Or lets not forget what McNamara said. It was a fortuitous accident WWIII did not happen in October of 1962. So basically we are living on borrowed time as it is. Or Let’s not forget what Sagan which also applies to China said long ago ” MAD mutual assured destruction is like two implacable enemies waist deep in gasoline, one with five matches and the other with seven matches a situation that if it… Read more »