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Op/ed: America Doesn’t Need More Missiles

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Visitors view military vehicles carrying ballistic missiles at an exhibition in China in 2022. In an opinion piece, School of Public Policy Professor Steve Fetter argues for a shift in U.S. nuclear strategy.

AP Photo by Andy Wong

China’s Nuclear Buildup Underscores Urgency of New U.S. Strategy, UMD Nuclear Expert, Colleagues Argue

By Charles L. Glaser, James M. Acton and Steve Fetter

Now that the United States faces two powerful nuclear-armed rivals in Russia as well as China, do we need to boost our arsenal to maintain adequate deterrence? In a new essay written with expert peers in Foreign Affairs, School of Public Policy Professor Steve Fetter argues that a shift in U.S. nuclear strategy—from one aimed at striking an adversary’s military infrastructure and nuclear forces to one that targets economic, industrial and other societal infrastructure—would require far fewer missiles while providing a more convincing deterrent and minimizing the chance of nuclear war.

In a speech this June, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan drew attention to China’s nuclear buildup, Russia’s development of new nuclear capabilities, and the United States’ planned response. His remarks signaled the Biden administration’s assessment that nuclear risks are growing, particularly in the wake of Russia’s suspension of New START, the last U.S.-Russian treaty governing the two states’ nuclear arms, in February. What was most notable about his speech, however, was what he promised President Joe Biden would not do: launch a countervailing U.S. nuclear buildup. On this point, Sullivan was emphatic: “I want to be clear here—the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.”

Sullivan’s statement was a direct response to various calls for such a buildup. Advocates of nuclear expansion are motivated by a new national security problem: For the first time, the United States faces two nuclear peers, China and Russia. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal rapidly and improving its forces, including by adding multiple warheads to its intercontinental range ballistic missiles and deploying a new longer-range missile on submarines. The result is a nuclear force that promises to provide China with a massive nuclear retaliatory capability, known as an “assured destruction capability” in the lingo of nuclear strategy. Russia, too, maintains a large and diverse nuclear force that it is currently modernizing, including through the development of novel delivery systems, such as a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed underwater drone. 

Read the rest of the essay in Foreign Policy.

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