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Pentagon sees increased chances of nuclear conflict, newly disclosed report says

Vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a Chinese military parade. (Voice of America/Released)
July 08, 2021

A Pentagon report secretly published in 2020 and first disclosed this week, raises the potential for some form of armed conflict between nuclear-armed powers.

The Pentagon’s “Joint Nuclear Options” report, dated April 17, 2020, was released through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by the Federation of American Scientists.

The report states, “Despite concerted US efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs and to negotiate reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, since 2010 no potential adversary has reduced either the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy or the number of nuclear weapons it fields.”

“Rather, they have moved decidedly in the opposite direction,” the report continues. “As a result, there is an increased potential for regional conflicts
involving nuclear-armed adversaries in several parts of the world and the potential for adversary nuclear escalation in crisis or conflict.”

The report goes on to list the threats posed by four different countries that either possess or are actively pursuing nuclear weapons; Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

The report notes Russia is modernizing Soviet-era nuclear systems and developing and employing new nuclear warheads and launchers, three new intercontinental-range nuclear weapon systems; a hypersonic glide vehicle; a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered ground-launched cruise missile; and a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.

“Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization has increased, and will continue to increase, its warhead delivery capability, which provides Russia with the ability to rapidly expand its deployed warhead numbers,” the report states.

On China, the report states, “China continues to increase the number, capabilities, and protection of its nuclear forces. China has developed a new road-mobile, strategic, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); a new multi-warhead version of its DF-5 silo-based ICBM; and its most advanced ballistic missile submarine armed with new submarine-launched ballistic
missiles (SLBMs). It has also announced development of a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber, giving China a nuclear triad.”

The Pentagon report states, “North Korea ‘s continued pursuit of nuclear
weapons capabilities poses the most immediate and dire proliferation threat to international security and stability.”

The report notes North Korea has made explicit threats to use its nuclear weapons against the U.S. and North Korean officials insist they will
not give up the country’s nuclear weapons. “North Korea has dramatically increased its missile flight testing, most recently including the testing of intercontinental-range missiles capable of reaching the US homeland.”

Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapon yet, “Retains the technological
capability and much of the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year of a decision to do so,” according to the report.

“Iran’s development of increasingly long-range ballistic missile capabilities, and its aggressive strategy and activities to destabilize neighboring governments, raises questions about its long-term commitment to forgoing nuclear weapons capability,” the Pentagon report adds.

The report states, “The ability to communicate US intent, resolve, and associated military capabilities in ways that are understood by adversary decision makers is vital. Direct military means include: forward presence, force projection, active and passive defense, strategic communications/messaging, and nuclear forces.”

The report also states, “Flexible and limited US nuclear response options can play an important role in restoring deterrence following limited
adversary nuclear escalation.”

Steven Aftergood, head of FAS’s Project on Government Secrecy, told The Drive, “It’s clear that many regional conflicts are intensifying while foreign nuclear arsenals are growing, not shrinking. And in recent years arms control efforts have been in retreat. So from a military perspective, it follows that the potential for nuclear conflict may also be on the rise.”

After their first face-to-face meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement stating they are committed to efforts to extend the New START nuclear treaty. “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. attempted to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Russia and China, but China has been historically resistant to arms-control agreements. China has continued to tout its nuclear weapons systems during the Biden administration. Last week, China announced it was also building more than 100 new nuclear-capable missile silos.

Since taking office, Biden has also sought to negotiate a U.S. return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which is meant to bar Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran has already exceeded the nuclear development thresholds set out in the 2015 deal.

Efforts between the Trump administration and North Korea to negotiate a denuclearized Korean peninsula stalled out in 2019. In March, North Korea also threatened the Biden administration to end joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, “If [the Biden administration] wants to sleep in peace for coming four years.”