The new factor is China, which aspires to roughly match the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia over the next decade or so. If the first arms race led to two-way bargaining — often with the strategic maneuvering of chess — the new one will be three-way and excruciatingly difficult. The concept of cocked-pistols deterrence — maintaining a credible nuclear threat to keep others from attacking — will be even more unpredictable and scary than during the Cold War.
Why does it matter? Nuclear weapons can destroy societies; as we’ve noted before, nuclear fire is more powerful by a factor of 10 million to 100 million than chemical fire in conventional explosives. While a nuclear weapon has not been used in combat since World War II, there have been significant risks: At least Eight nuclear-armed nations have carried out 2,056 nuclear weapons tests underground and in the air, as well as dozens of false alarms and close calls. The danger of misunderstanding or miscalculation grows when nuclear weapons are kept on launch-ready alert, as they are by the United States and Russia today. Moreover, Russia has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons during its war against Ukraine, showing how, even when nuclear weapons are not used, they can play an outsize role in coercion and conflict.
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The new arms race is already underway. The congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States recently concluded, “China is pursuing a nuclear force build-up on a scale and pace unseen since the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race that ended in the late 1980s.” China, which a few years ago had about 200 nuclear warheads, now is believed to have more than 500 and to be aiming for more than 1,000 by 2030, compared to the 1,550 deployed warheads of the United States and Russia.
China has also created a nascent land-sea-air triad of strategic weapons-delivery vehicles, like the United States and Russia have done; is expected to keep land-based missiles on a higher state of readiness; and is investing in antisatellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles and orbital bombing. China’s efforts “dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity,” the Pentagon said in its latest annual survey of China’s military power.
Russia, while straining under the weight of its war in Ukraine, is experimenting with a nuclear-powered cruise missile that could fly thousands of miles. The United States, too, is now well into a strategic-weapons modernization cycle, with new bombers, missiles and submarines on the horizon. The posture commission noted that the United States now extends its nuclear deterrence umbrella over more than 30 formal allies, which represent one-third of the world’s economy — and maintaining these alliances, and credible deterrence, will be key in an era of confrontation with authoritarian Russia and China.
There’s not much to slow down a new arms race. Previous arms control treaties have lapsed or been weakened, except for New START, and it is questionable whether a successor can be negotiated when it expires in 2026. As the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board recently pointed out, the deep uncertainty about China’s intentions and timeline scrambles any attempt to reach numerical agreement with Russia. This is just a glimpse of the three-way headaches.
After long refusing to even discuss nuclear arms limits, China sent an arms control official to Washington for talks on Nov. 6. This is a crack in the door, and the United States ought to make a concerted effort to enlarge it. The path to progress may be baby steps, at first, emphasizing risk reduction and transparency. Rose Gottemoeller, who was chief U.S. negotiator with Russia for New START, has suggested the United States could begin by seeking talks with both China and Russia on limiting intermediate-range missiles, since the Chinese have equality of capability with both the United States and Russia and thus might be interested in mutual restraint.
Diplomacy halted a nuclear arms race in the 1980s, largely because two political leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, had the vision to do so. Right now, such will power is in short supply. But it would be wise to look for modest opportunities to prepare for treaties later on. An unbridled arms race will be costly, risky and even more mind-bending than three-way negotiations to stop it.
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