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Nuclear war with China, Russia ‘very real possibility’ says US nuke commander

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. (2nd Lt. William Collette/U.S. Air Force)
February 03, 2021

The head of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which oversees U.S. nuclear operations, warned in an article this week that there’s a “real possibility” of nuclear conflict with China or Russia.

Writing for Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) monthly magazine, STRATCOM Commander Adm. Charles Richard wrote, “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Department of Defense (DoD) has not had to consider the possibility of great power competition, crisis, or direct armed conflict with a nuclear-capable peer. Unfortunately, the current environment no longer affords us that luxury.”

Richard wrote, “Faced with Russia and China’s growing threats and gray zone actions, the United States must take action today to position itself for the future. We must start by acknowledging that our most fundamental assumption—that strategic deterrence will hold, even through crisis and conflict—is going to be tested in ways not seen before.”

“Unfortunately, our opponents invested in nuclear and strategic capabilities designed to constrain U.S. actions, test our alliances, and, if necessary, escalate past us—to include nuclear use,” Richard’s article continued. “There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state. Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility.'”

Richard characterized accepting the possibility of nuclear conflict as the first step in maintaining the U.S. strategic advantage. Richard wrote the second step is to see competition as an ongoing issue, rather than one that results in an “end game.”

“Great power competition does not span four quarters or nine innings, and our competitors are no less committed than we are,” Richard wrote. “Instead, we should view competition as the mainte-nance of relative advantage over competitors. It is an infinite game, one in which the goal is to remain a dominant player.”

Along with overseeing the U.S. nuclear operations, STRATCOM’s role entails managing the U.S. measures to deter attacks, overseeing missile defenses, space operations and the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid (GIG), which encompasses all DoD communications.

“While this is a sobering picture, it is not intended to discourage,” Richard wrote. “Rather, it is meant to highlight reality and reinvigorate a conversation across the enterprise.”

Both Russia and China have pursued advancements in their nuclear arsenals in recent years. A recent Pentagon report assessed China is on track to double its nuclear arsenal within the next decade, and Russia recently announced its nearing completion on a hypersonic missile that can carry enough warheads to destroy an area the size of Texas.

As the third order of business in maintaining the U.S. strategic advantage, Richard wrote the U.S. must rethink its strategic risks and, through an ongoing assessment, gather “insights to refine tailored deterrence strategies to better account for competition, crisis, and conflict.”

Lastly, Richard wrote the DoD “must reframe how it prioritizes the procurement of future capabilities” adding, “Our record in this regard is not stellar.”

Richard wrote, “We must remain agile in our development, looking for ways to integrate and deploy our capabilities faster, to maintain the initiative. In short, we must pursue capabilities that preserve our competitive edge and, if called on, are decisive early, before an adversary’s stake is too great or the opportunity has passed.”

The STRATCOM commander’s recommendation on a procurement strategy comes weeks after he called for the replacement of the U.S. arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as opposed to extending the lifespan of its existing arsenal of aging Minuteman III missiles.

Richard said at the time, “It is getting past the point where it is cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. We’re getting to the point where you can’t do it at all.”