The US must strengthen its defenses against increasing threats from both China and Russia, focusing on Beijing as its main global competitor, the Biden administration’s national defense strategy released Thursday says.
While Russia remains an “acute threat” to the US according to the strategy, it has been “absolutely deterred from attacking NATO,” a senior defense official said.
China is the US’s “pacing challenge” because it is “the only competitor with both the intent and increasingly the capability to systematically challenge the United States across the board, militarily, economically, technologically, diplomatically,” a second senior defense official said about the strategy.
The release of the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review, all policy documents that guide the US government’s defense and military strategies, come as the Biden administration faces an increasingly modernized Russian nuclear arsenal and a rapid growth in China’s forces. It also comes amidst heightened global tensions, with the ongoing conflict from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its eighth month, increased rhetoric from China about Taiwan and North Korea’s recent series of ballistic missile tests.
The nuclear challenge posed by both China and Russia is longstanding but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s latest aggressive rhetoric about being ready to take back Taiwan has underlined the complexity of the challenge to the US.
“For the first time, we’ll have to deter two major nuclear arm competitors, both China and Russia,” the first senior defense official said. “This presents new dilemmas for both strategic deterrence and for regional warfighting.”
Senior defense officials acknowledged the heightened global tensions since the last national defense strategy was released in 2018, noting “the international security environment has deteriorated,” since then, the first official said.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder of nuclear risk in contemporary conflict and China’s nuclear modernization and its rapid expansion presents us with new risks and uncertainties,” the official added.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US is “certainly concerned” about escalation in Ukraine, as it has been “from the very beginning.”
“As long as we have the channels of communication open and we’re able to communicate, you know, what’s important to us, then I think we have an opportunity to manage escalation,” said Austin at a press conference on the launch of the strategy at the Pentagon.”
Austin also said Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would result in “a very significant response from the international community.”
“We’re going to continue to communicate that any type of use of a weapon of that sort or even the talk of the use of a weapon of that sort is dangerous and irresponsible,” said Austin, who added that if Russia used one, it “has a potential of changing things in the international community.”
China as the ‘pacing challenge’
China is the “most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security” because of its “coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences,” the national defense strategy states.
A major concern to the US is China’s rapid modernization of their military and nuclear weapons, the first official said. China “likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade,” the Nuclear Posture Review says.
The US has “seen that the PRC has both grown more capable and more irresponsible in its behavior in the Indo-Pacific in particular over these last years, I would just point out, to take one example, the profound modernization and diversification of the PRC’s nuclear capabilities in these last years,” the second official added.
Former Commander of US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, warned about China’s nuclear modernization in 2021.
“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China. The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking, and, frankly, that word breathtaking may not be enough,” Richard said in 2021.
Russia remains ‘acute threat’
While China is the US’s pacing challenge, Russia remains an “acute threat” to the US, the documents state. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine “underscores that nuclear dangers persist and could grow in an increasingly competitive and volatile geopolitical landscape,” the nuclear posture review states.
Russia “continues to emphasize nuclear weapons in its strategy, modernize and expand its nuclear forces and brandish its nuclear weapons in support of its revisionist security policy,” the review states.
Russia plans to continue growing its nuclear arsenal, which, right now, includes up to “1,550 accountable, deployable warheads on strategic delivery vehicles that are limited by the new START Treaty as well as nuclear forces that are not numerically constrained by any arms control treaty,” the review states.
While Congress was briefed on the classified versions of the documents in March – and the documents were finalized before that – they take into account Russia’s war in Ukraine, the second defense official said.
“Really by kind of late last fall or so, we all had a pretty rough idea that Russia was interested in launching this unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, and we were actually able to bake that into our thinking as we were going through the reviews throughout those months,” the official said. “I would note that some of the core ideas within the reviews have proven to be even more salient as this war has continued.”
Meanwhile, as the world has watched the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine unfolding, the Pentagon has noted Russia’s use of thousands of offensive missiles, including many which lack precision guidance and have struck civilian targets. Pentagon officials increasingly see this as an inevitable part of a future conflict, the first defense official said.
“Russia has been indiscriminately using thousands of offensive missiles in Ukraine,” the official said. “Their use of missiles in Ukraine shows we should expect these weapons to become a common feature of 21st century conflict.”
So far, Russia has been “absolutely deterred from attacking NATO,” the official said with a level of confidence rarely heard from the US, especially amid escalating rhetoric from Russia and its state-run media outlets.
“President Biden has stated unequivocally that we will defend every inch of NATO territory, and it’s very clear to us here in the Pentagon that Russia has received that message,” the official said.
Cancelling nuclear sea-launched cruise missile
The latest posture review, as expected, formalizes the cancellation of a new nuclear tipped sea-launched cruise missile that Richard, as well as General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had advocated as a necessary option. Earlier this year, Richard told a Senate subcommittee that the strategic breakout by Russia and China “demonstrates that we have a deterrence and assurance gap against the threat of limited nuclear employment.” To help close that nuclear gap, Richard repeatedly advocated for the new cruise missile. Other top commanders had advised keeping the effort to develop such a missile.
But the Pentagon is rejecting that advice in the Nuclear Posture Review, calling into question the deterrence value of the missile and its expected costs, especially in light of other nuclear modernization programs.
“The marginal capability that this provides is far outweighed by the cost,” told Congress in April.
The nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, introduced in the 2018 nuclear posture review, is “no longer necessary” given the other nuclear weapons the US has and is developing, the review states.