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Nuclear Math

Nuclear Math

Putin and Xi are both building more nukes. What should this mean for the United States and its allies?

Henry Sokolski

Three years after The Washington Post first released photos of China’s construction of more than 300 nuclear missile silos and the Pentagon forecasted China would have at least 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030, our government is still pondering what it should do. Meanwhile, Russia has been developing entirely new nuclear weapons systems—hypersonic nuclear-armed missiles, nuclear anti-satellite weapons, and long-range nuclear torpedoes. Sure, the Pentagon is modernizing America’s nuclear bombers, submarines, and missiles. But that was decided back in 2010, as part of the approval of New START. It also won’t be enough. 

Matching China and Russia’s nuclear expansion goals missile-for-nuclear missile, warhead-for nuclear warhead, (much less staying ahead of them), would require a tripling or more of America’s current nuclear deployments of 1,770 nuclear weapons. 

That’s a tall order. America’s nuclear weapons pit production, nuclear submarine, and intercontinental ballistic missile modernization programs have repeatedly run over budget. They also continue to slip behind schedule. China, in contrast, has a proven track record of deploying new weapons systems at record pace. As for Russia, it has the world’s largest nuclear weapons materials production base. Besting them in a quantitative nuclear arms race would be no mean trick.

Our closest allies know this. South Korea, Japan, and Poland want either the United States to base nuclear weapons on their soil, or to get nuclear weapons of their own. The problem with Washington sharing its nuclear weapons is two-fold. First, overseas U.S-based nuclear weapons sites are attractive, vulnerable targets. The United States placed thousands of its weapons in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and NATO states in the 1950s and 1960s because the Pentagon lacked sufficient long-range missiles to defend its allies. Today, it has thousands of nuclear warheads it can deliver from the safety of long-range intercontinental bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles. As a consequence, the Pentagon removed nearly all of its forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe and Asia more than thirty years ago. Redeploying them now would be a military step backward.

Second, letting our closest allies go nuclear could increase alliance tensions. Historically, this happened when the British, French, Israelis, and Pakistanis went nuclear. As China and Russia increase their nuclear capabilities, our allies’ desire to go nuclear is rising. If we give in to their demand to go nuclear, the alliance tensions Washington experienced prior could easily be revisited.

What, then, should we do?   

Adjust America’s Nuclear Strategy

America’s military has long required that its strategic nuclear forces be able to deliver a devastating counter punch against Russia or China as soon as either launch a nuclear attack against the United States. The aim of such a counterstrike would be to limit additional damage to U.S. targets that Russia or China might otherwise be able to inflict. This puts a premium on launching U.S. nuclear forces as soon as possible after a nuclear attack—either right after a warning of launch, or immediately after Chinese or Russian nuclear weapons detonate on U.S. soil. 

These demanding requirements determined much of the quality and quantity of America’s current nuclear force. Fifty years ago, the United States had over 31,000 nuclear weapons that were relatively immune from being knocked out. The U.S. military aimed these weapons at a limited number of relatively soft, fixed Russian long-range nuclear systems, which made prioritizing damage limitation sensible. 

Accomplishing this now is far more challenging. Many Chinese nuclear missiles are mobile. Many are based in three thousand miles of deep underground tunnels. China is installing many more in hundreds of silos. It is also developing new, stealthy long-range bombers, advanced nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and hypersonic missiles.  

Then there’s China’s ally—Russia. It has thousands of nuclear weapons mounted on mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, nuclear submarines, and theater nuclear missiles. Because China and Russia’s nuclear forces are large, relatively invulnerable, and growing, continuing to prioritize the mission of limiting damage could easily require doubling or tripling America’s current deployed nuclear force of roughly 1,770 weapons.

That would hardly be easy. The Pentagon and Energy Department has struggled to update the current U.S. force of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, ballistic missile submarines, and bombers. All of these programs are significantly behind schedule or over budget. The prospects of the United States quickly outproducing China, and being confident in their ability to destroy their remaining nuclear systems after a Russian or Chinese first strike, are slim.

Worse, the most important prompt strike missiles designed to achieve this damage limitation mission—America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles—are themselves vulnerable: They are based in relatively soft, fixed silos. How many would survive a first strike is unclear unless they were launched on warning or under attack. As the recent Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States noted, however, launching under such circumstances is hardly desirable.

This recommends adjusting America’s nuclear strategy. The Pentagon should still try to limit damage after the United States is attacked and to continue updating its current aging nuclear force. But it should also recognize that prioritizing damage limitation will become more expensive and difficult as the numbers of Russian and Chinese nuclear systems, their location uncertainty, and their known positions, increase.

Rather than aiming to significantly expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal to achieve a high level of damage limitation, the United States should place higher priority on making its nuclear forces more difficult to disable or destroy. This means transitioning all its siloed intercontinental ballistic missiles to mobile platforms, and camouflaging and decoying them along with U.S. strategic submarines and bombers. Alternative basing on commercial planes, trains, and ships also should be explored. For key fixed targets, active defenses and passive defensives (by building and hardening protective structures) may be necessary. 

These efforts aim to increase exponentially the number of possible aim points China and Russia would have to target in order to knockout America’s strategic nuclear forces. Instead of Russia and China needing hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles and thousands of nuclear warheads to accomplish this, the goal is to force them to require tens of thousands of warheads—and still be uncertain  about knocking out all of America’s nuclear force. The daunting nature of this requirement should assure future American presidents that they would never have to threaten to “use or lose” America’s nuclear weapons to deter Moscow or Beijing.

Unfortunately, strategic deterrence is not simply nuclear. As Israel just discovered with Iran’s massive April 2024 missile strike, nuclear weapons may not deter enemy states from launching nonnuclear attacks that could have strategic consequences. Also, no nuclear force, no matter how well designed, is guaranteed to neutralize or deter all nuclear threats. As Putin has demonstrated in his war against Ukraine, nuclear-armed states can use nuclear threats to deter nuclear-armed alliances (such as NATO) from tipping the military scales against them in nonnuclear wars. With any bad luck, China, Russia, or North Korea may repeat Putin’s nuclear dares over Ukraine to stare down the West’s will to arm its allies and defend itself against conventional attacks.

In these cases, the proper remedy is more nonnuclear than not. To deter conventional Russian, Chinese, or North Korean attacks, the United States and its allies will need sufficient conventional forces to destroy invading armor, ships, and planes. Increasingly, these forces will need to consist of unmanned weapons fed with copious amounts of targeting data, fortified with artificial intelligence. This, in turn, will require U.S. and allied air and space-based target acquisition and navigation systems to convey vast amounts of information via super secure space, air, and seabed based broad bandwidth communications networks. The United States will then also need to harden and actively protect these secure networks against attack with air defenses.

In the mid-term, the United States will likely need to expand such protection to the lower 48. The Pentagon believes China is developing intercontinental nonnuclear missiles and may deploy them by 2030. If so, infrastructure nodes (such as electrical generating plants and transformers, key air and sea ports, bridges, communication systems, large computer servers for major companies and financial exchanges, natural gas and oil transmission choke points, etc.) will likely be targeted.

For the near-term, however, the main threats Russia and China pose to America are nuclear.

Leverage U.S.-Allied Nuclear Diplomacy

This brings us to the second adjustment that’s required: Devising new forms of diplomacy to counter Russian and Chinese nuclear efforts.

The conventional wisdom is that arms control and nonproliferation diplomacy is impossible without the full cooperation and engagement of Moscow and Beijing. Since Russia and China currently see America and its allies as their enemies, U.S. and allied diplomats cannot expect to reach any major, new arms control or nonproliferation treaty agreements. This has discouraged American and allied diplomats from proposing any bold arms control or nonproliferation initiatives. 

Meanwhile, Russia and China have been busy. Russia has proposed “demilitarizing” space, threatening to use its theater nuclear weapons if NATO helps Ukraine directly, and demanding that NATO remove all American nuclear weapons from Europe. Not to be outdone, China has promoted agreements on no first use of nuclear weapons, and has warned Washington against supplying nuclear submarines to Australia or redeploying nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. China also has refused to engage in “good faith” negotiations to limit or control nuclear arms as required by Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), until China reaches nuclear parity with the United States. Similarly, Russia has frozen arms control talks with the United States until NATO stops supporting Ukraine.

Xi and Putin’s aim is to drive a wedge between America and its allies . American nuclear diplomacy, in contrast, is mostly focused on proposing new confidence building measures, arms control understandings, and binding treaties with Beijing and Moscow. As desirable as securing such understandings may be, leveraging the West’s comparative military and technical advantages against China and Russia is more important. 

Recently, the Biden administration proved this point. It asked Japan to demand that Russia back a United Nations Security Council resolution affirming Russia’s Outer Space Treaty obligation not to put nuclear weapons into orbit. The resolution had the support of sixty-two nations, most of whom rely upon U.S. and Western satellites to meet their communications and imagery needs. Russia and China tried to turn this resolution to their advantage by demanding that all weapons in space be banned, including ones permitted by the treaty. It didn’t work: Russia, having been caught testing a satellite designed to carry a nuclear weapon, was isolated. Russia alone voted against the Japanese resolution. China, not wanting to be on the losing side, abstained. 

The United States and its allies ought to double down on such diplomacy. An ideal issue to focus on is nuclear sharing. Late in 2023, the Pentagon spotlighted China’s probable use of its “peaceful” fast reactor and plutonium recycling programs to match or exceed America’s nuclear force by 2035. At the same time, China has repeatedly warned Washington not to share U.S. nuclear weapons with South Korea or Japan. 

China’s hypocrisy in these matters presents an opportunity.     

From a military scientific perspective, Washington has little to gain from redeploying its nuclear arms. It originally based U.S. nuclear weapons overseas when it lacked intercontinental nuclear missiles, long-range air and sea-launched cruise missiles, and a reliable intercontinental-range bomber force. By the late 1980s, it had all these assets and no longer had to risk placing its nuclear arms in vulnerable bases overseas. As a result, Washington dramaticallyreduced the number of weapons it based in NATO countries (from 7,000 to roughly 100) and in East Asia (from more than 300 to zero).

South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, and former Japanese president Shinzo Abe, have spoken of the possible need for the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Washington has so far demurred, and instead offered increased nuclear planning consultations and exercises. For the moment, this has satisfied South Korea and Japan.

It’s unclear how long this will suffice. As Chinese and North Korean nuclear arsenals grow, it is likely that Japanese and South Korean interest in acquiring nuclear arms will as well. To satisfy this prospective demand, the RAND Corporation has suggested an intermediate fix: Have Seoul pay to construct nuclear storage sites in South Korea, and also, modernize 100 American tactical nuclear weapons that Washington otherwise plans to dismantle. Washington could then keep these refurbished weapons in the United States for quick deployment, should South Korea should ever need them.

Validating this proposal’s potential, China has already objected to it. This opens a door: Washington could point out that it has no desire to redeploy nuclear weapons either to South Korea or Japan, but that China and North Korea’s continued nuclear build up produces a clear demand signal in Seoul and in Japan for United States redeployment of its nuclear arms. If Beijing is serious about preventing future U.S. nuclear deployments to the region, China need only reduce the demand signal produced by its own and by North Korea’s continued nuclear build up. 

A simple way to do this would be for China to freeze further construction and operations at plutonium recycling and fast breeder reactor plants, which can produce hundreds of bombs worth of super-weapon grade plutonium a year. The international community could verify compliance remotely from space. In exchange, the United State might offer to place a moratorium on the possible forward deployment of its nuclear weapons to East Asia. This moratorium would last as long as China kept the operation and construction of its “peaceful” plutonium recycling and fast reactor activities frozen. Washington could go further—if it wished—and offer Beijing a regional freeze on South Korea or Japanese fast reactor and plutonium recycling activities. It could also promise to freeze commercial deployment of American fast reactors. 

In Europe, nuclear sharing presents different challenges. In 2023, Putin redeployed Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus. Since then, he has protested American plans to refurbish nuclear storage sites in the United Kingdom and possibly redeploy nuclear weapons there. Russian officials have protested Sweden’s willingness to station U.S. nuclear weapons in wartime, and Polish pleas for Washington to deploy nuclear weapons in Poland. Finally, Russia has demanded that the United States remove all its nuclear weapons from Europe. Putin  has suggested that Russia might consider removing its weapons from Belarus but only if the United States and NATO "refrained from undermining the security and sovereignty of Russia and Belarus."

The inconsistency of Russia objecting to additional U.S. nuclear weapons deployments to Europe while redeploying Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus is something even China has spotlighted. Washington should do the same. One way to do so, is to explain that while the United States would prefer to take its nuclear weapons out of Europe, it cannot so long as Russia continues to deploy nuclear weapons there. To cut this knot, Washington should offer to remove what it has deployed in Europe if Russia pulls all theater nuclear arms east of the Urals and allows effective, mutual inspections.

Meanwhile, the United States and NATO should do everything but forward deploy additional U.S. nuclear weapons. This would include building new and refurbishing old nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe, selling new nuclear-capable planes (F-35s) to any NATO member that wants them, and creating nuclear escrow accounts for Poland and any other NATO member willing pay to have the United States refurbish and store on American soil the tactical nuclear weapons the Pentagon otherwise is planning to dismantle. 

Exploit the NPT

Where might the United States best launch these ideas? The very place where Russian and China put the most nuclear diplomatic pressure on the United States and its closest allies—the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) preparatory review conferences leading up to the next NPT Review Conference in 2026. 

These conferences afford two diplomatic handles. The first is Article IV of the NPT. It requires NPT members to negotiate in good faith measures to end the “nuclear arms race”—something China has refused to do. Rather, China has insisted that it will only negotiate once it has achieved nuclear parity with the United States. This flies in the face of the clear letter and intent of Article IV. The United States and like-minded nations should drive home this point, while offering Beijing ways to make good on their treaty obligation.

The second handle is Articles I and II of the NPT, which prohibit the transfer of “control” over nuclear weapons to any state that lacks them. The question here is what “control” means. China and many developing nations have long questioned the validity and authority of the agreement reached by the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. As they point out, Moscow and Washington did not share their understanding with most of the original signatories to the NPT, and that, at the very least, nuclear sharing violates the treaty’s spirit. 

Allowing their objections without prejudicing our allies’ security, Washington first should hold Putin’s feet to the fire by stigmatizing his Belarusian nuclear weapons deployment. To gain the moral high ground on nuclear sharing, Washington should then offer to withdraw U.S. weapons from NATO states if Russia verifiably withdraws its theater weapons from Europe. Washington could further burnish its nonproliferation credentials by promising not to redeploy its weapons to East Asia, as long as China suspends its super weapons-grade plutonium production activities.

Be Patient 

Would China and Russia immediately agree to these nuclear control proposals? Probably not. Eventually, however, they might. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union struck agreements to demilitarize Antarctica, ban nuclear weapons testing above ground, prohibit weapons of mass destruction in space, and limit the spread of nuclear weapons.  

How was this possible? It helped that Stalin died and that Khrushchev came into power. It helped even more that several nuclear crises spooked both sides back to the negotiating table and that, by the mid 1960s, both knew their strategic forces were immune to being knocked out in a first strike. 

These past prerequisites could come into play once more. Putin’s or Xi’s grip on power will eventually give way. America is committed to making itself less vulnerable to strategic attacks. As for the prospects of a major war—these are increasing. Yet, with any luck, this will produce the  tensions  all effective nuclear diplomacy requires.

Henry Sokolski, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2d ed., 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.

Image: Flight-line explosion at 2010 Miramar Airshow, author: Luke Jernejcic (Unsplash

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