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June 1, 2018
Arms Control Today

NATO Highlights Concerns With China, Russia

July/August 2021
By Hollis Rammer

Leaders of the 30 member countries of NATO expressed concerns about China’s expanding influence and emphasized their support for further arms control measures between the United States and Russia during their June 14 summit in Brussels.

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) talk at a memorial for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States after the June 14 NATO summit in Brussels. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)“All leaders agreed that, in an age of global competition, Europe and North America must stand strong together in NATO to defend our values and our interests, especially at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the conclusion of the meeting.

The 2021 summit communiqué states that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance.” Although NATO leaders stopped short of declaring China a rival, their commitment to “engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance” represents a shift from previous statements that did not mention China at all.

The communiqué also condemns “Russia’s aggressive actions [that] constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and says NATO “remains clear-eyed about the challenges Russia poses.” The document specifically cites concerns about Russia’s arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and deployment of the 9M729, a ground-launched cruise missile that the alliance says is a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

In addition, NATO leaders reiterated that the alliance has “no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.” The communiqué repeated NATO’s stance that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal for a moratorium on missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty is “not credible and not acceptable.” Putin first made the proposal following the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2019 and has since expanded it to include mutual verification measures. (See ACT, January/February and November 2020.)

The NATO document also reaffirmed the alliance’s opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, describing it as “inconsistent with the alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy” and “at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.” In a change from previous statements, however, the communiqué called on partners to “reflect realistically on the ban treaty’s impact on international peace and security,” including on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In addition, the heads of state reinforced NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance, stating that “given the deteriorating security environment in Europe, a credible and united nuclear alliance is essential” and that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

Prior to the summit, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Stoltenberg to reiterate the U.S. commitment to the alliance, namely Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Article 5 declares that an attack on one member state will be seen as an attack on all and that such an attack will be met with a collective response. This represents a major shift from the rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump, who frequently referred to the alliance as “obsolete.”

At a summit in Brussels, NATO leaders expressed concern about China’s expanding influence.


Biden to Speed Development of Hypersonic Weapons

July/August 2021
By Shannon Bugos

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request would accelerate plans that began under the Trump administration to develop and field conventional hypersonic weapons to compete with Russia and China.

A B-52 carried the Air Force's Advanced Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW IMV), a hypersonic system, for its first captive carry flight over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 2019. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)The Pentagon requested $3.8 billion for projects related to research and development of hypersonic weapons in the budget submission published on May 28, including two new hypersonic cruise missile programs for the Air Force and Navy.

The request also includes funding for initial procurement of the Air Force’s Advanced Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) system, the continued development of the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) program, the addition of the CPS to Zumwalt-class destroyers, and the procurement of additional batteries of the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) system.

“This budget supports our efforts to…accelerate investments in cutting-edge capabilities that will define the future fight, such as hypersonics and long-range fires,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10.

Michael White, principal director for hypersonic weapons in the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said on June 2 that “we’ve really been very fortunate in having a new administration continue the momentum and step up and champion what we’re trying to do with delivering this war-fighting capability.” He emphasized the importance of this acceleration given that “our adversaries,” namely Russia and China, “have fielded capability today that we don’t have.”

The Air Force requested $238 million for continued R&D on the ARRW system, an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, a $40 million increase over the Trump administration’s projected request in last year’s budget documents. The request is nearly $150 million less than Congress’ fiscal year 2021 appropriation for R&D, the Air Force stated in its budget documents, “due to near program completion and transition to early operational capability” in 2022.

The service requested an additional $161 million for the system’s production and rapid fielding. The Air Force most recently conducted the first booster flight test of the system in April, but it failed. (See ACT, May 2021.)

The Air Force also asked for $200 million for the new Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile program to design, develop, and test “a prototype that will demonstrate the viability of a multi-mission weapon concept to be fielded as a long-range prompt strike capability.” The request was included as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which Congress created last year to boost deterrence against China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Navy asked for $1.4 billion for the CPS program, an increase of about $600 million from last year’s appropriated amount and $70 million above the Trump administration’s projection. The Navy attributed the increase in part to the need to add the weapons system, which uses the common hypersonic glide body, to Zumwalt-class destroyers starting in fiscal year 2025.

The Navy is also seeking $57 million for its new Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment II weapon, a high-speed, long-range, air-launched weapons system aimed at addressing “advanced threats from engagement distances allowing the Navy to operate in, and control, contested battle space in littoral waters and [anti-access and area denial] environments.”

The Army requested $412 million for the LRHW system, which also uses the common hypersonic glide body, for costs that include funding for additional LRHW batteries. That was a decrease of $114 million from the Trump administration’s projection, which the Biden administration attributed in part to reallocating funding to sdevelop ground-launched missile capabilities.

It is not clear what if any effects the proposed budget cut would have on the LRHW program.

The Army requested $286 million to develop a conventional, ground-launched, midrange missile capability. The service announced in November its selection of the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) and Tomahawk cruise missile to serve as the basis for the new capability. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) This effort “will leverage existing SM-6 and Tomahawk missiles for ground launch, to provide a responsive, highly accurate, deep strike capability designed to destroy high value, high payoff targets,” according to the Army’s budget documents.

Both the SM-6 and Tomahawk missiles would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in August 2019. (See ACT, September 2020.)

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget would accelerate Trump era plans to develop and field conventional hypersonic weapons to compete with Russia and China.

Russia Officially Leaves Open Skies Treaty

July/August 2021
By Hollis Rammer

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially signed off in June on Moscow’s withdrawal from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty after the Biden administration’s announcement that the United States would not seek to rejoin the accord. Some remaining states-parties have expressed an intent to maintain the treaty, but Russia’s impending exit has sparked concern that the accord may lose its rationale.

Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Ryabkov, seen here at a Russian Academy of Science meeting in Moscow in April, has declared that the era of Russian participation in the Open Skies Treaty is "closed forever."  (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the treaty in November 2020 “seriously upset the balance of interests of states-parties to the treaty that was attained during its signing,” the Kremlin said in a June 7 statement announcing that Putin had signed the Russian law denouncing the treaty. “This seriously hampered the treaty’s implementation and undermined its significance for strengthening trust and transparency and also threatened the national security of the Russian Federation.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov emphasized on June 10 that “[t]here is no turning back, the chapter of Russia’s participation in the Open Skies Treaty is closed forever.”

Russia notified treaty depositaries Canada and Hungary of its intent to withdraw on June 18, kicking off a mandatory six-month waiting period until the official withdrawal takes place in December. Belarus will withdraw from the accord alongside Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, as the two countries were paired as a group of states-parties.

In a June 18 statement, NATO urged Russia “to use the remaining six months before its withdrawal takes effect to reconsider its decision and return to full compliance with the Treaty.”

Moscow began the domestic procedures necessary to withdraw from the accord in January. (See ACT, March 2021.) The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved the formal legislation endorsing the move on May 19, followed on June 2 by the Federation Council, the upper house. Russia last year sought written guarantees from the remaining states-parties that they would not continue to share data collected under the treaty with the United States or prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe. But the states-parties dismissed the request, which Moscow has said contributed to its decision to withdraw. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Putin’s signing of the law came after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Ryabkov on May 27 that the Biden administration determined the United States would not seek to return to the treaty. (See ACT, June 2021.) When he was president-elect, Joe Biden condemned the Trump administration’s announcement in May 2020 of its intent to withdraw the United States from the accord, but he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. His administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” once in office and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year.

A State Department spokesperson attributed the Biden administration’s decision in May to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty. Washington has raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has denied all alleged violations, condemning them as “fallacies.”

As a sign of the dwindling chances that Washington would seek to rejoin the treaty, reports emerged in April that the U.S. Air Force planned to retire the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used to conduct Open Skies overflight missions. (See ACT, May 2021.) The first was officially sent to the scrapyard in Arizona in May, followed by the second in June.

Alexander Graef, a researcher at the Institute for Peace, Research, and Security Policy in Hamburg, suggested on June 7 that “if Ukraine remains committed to the treaty, there is a good chance that the states-parties can save it for now.” In 2014, six states-parties, including the United States, used the treaty to conduct an overflight of eastern Ukraine following a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. At the time, Kyiv said Moscow was increasing its forces near the Ukrainian border. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)

Nevertheless, Graef says, for the remaining states-parties, “it is true that…the treaty loses its rationale” without Russia.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2002, aimed to increase confidence in and transparency of military activities by permitting each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data.

Russia announced its formal withdrawal from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, following the Biden administration’s decision not to rejoin the accord.

India Arrests Alleged Uranium Traders

JulyAugust 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

Twice in the past two months, Indian authorities have arrested individuals on charges of illicit trading in uranium. The incidents have raised concerns about what appears to be a growing nuclear security risk in the region.

An intermediate form of uranium called "yellow cake" displayed at India's highly restricted uranium processing facility at Turamdih Uranium Mill at Jadugoda in Jharkhand in India. Twice in recent months, Indian authorities have arrested individuals for alleged illicit trading in uranium, which has applications in nuclear bombs, medicine and electricity production.  (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)In the first case, Indian police arrested two men in Maharashtra on May 7 for allegedly possessing 7.1 kilograms of natural uranium, estimated to be worth more than $2.8 million, according to news reports.

Natural uranium, which has applications in bombs and medicine, would have to be subjected to a substantial extraction process to be usable in nuclear weapons. Even so, it is supposed to be under state control, not available on the black market.

Authorities said the source of the uranium is currently unknown and being investigated.

In the second incident, police in Jharkhand, reportedly acting on a tip, arrested seven individuals on June 3 for allegedly possessing 6.4 kilograms of a substance said to be uranium.

But on June 10, a spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs disputed that claim. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy “stated that the material seized [on June 3] is not uranium and not radioactive,” the spokesperson said.

No further details on the material were provided.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 4 criticized the Jharkland and Maharashtra arrests as showing “lax controls, poor regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, as well as possible existence of a black market for nuclear materials inside India.” The agency called for a “thorough investigation.”

The Indian spokesperson countered in a written statement, saying, “The gratuitous remarks about India by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry drawing upon a media report indicate their disposition to malign India without caring to check/verify facts.”

Pakistan in recent years has improved its controls on nuclear materials, but it and India still rank near the bottom of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2020 Nuclear Security Index, which annually rates states’ efforts to secure nuclear materials and protect nuclear facilities at home.

India possesses around 156 nuclear warheads and Pakistan has an estimated 165 nuclear warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2021 report. Both countries are expanding their nuclear weapons arsenals and fissile material stockpiles.

Although India has two functional uranium mines in Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, it is attempting to accelerate its domestic uranium mining efforts to offset its dependency of uranium imports from such states as Russia, Australia, and Kazakhstan.

With 22 nuclear reactors in operation and 21 under construction, India can hypothetically use highly enriched uranium to produce even more lethal capabilities by manufacturing thermonuclear or boosted-fission nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are not members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but they are technically bound by international norms such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which calls on states to withhold any support to non-state actors acquiring nuclear weapons, and the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which urges states to enforce stringent measures for nuclear security.

Indian authorities arrest individuals for reportedly trading illicitly in uranium.

NPT Review Delayed Again

July/August 2021

The pivotal 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has been postponed again, until sometime in 2022, according to multiple diplomatic sources.

The meeting, which typically occurs every five years and involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, was originally set to begin in April 2020 at UN headquarters in New York. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 led to an initial decision to reschedule until “no later than April 2021.” (See ACT, April 2020.) In October 2020, conference president-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen announced that states-parties decided to postpone again, until August 2021. (See ACT, November 2020.)

But with the COVID-19 virus still posing a public health threat in many parts of the world, a majority of states-parties have told Zlauvinen they want a further postponement, until 2022. They have not yet settled on a new date for the month-long meeting.

One option would have been to start the conference on Jan. 17, 2022, but sources indicated that China objected because that would conflict with the opening session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. An alternative option under discussion is to start earlier, on Jan. 4, but that would conflict with the first meeting of states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now set for Jan. 12–14 in Vienna. (See ACT, May 2021.)

The NPT review conference caps a five-year cycle of meetings during which states-parties review implementation and compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on action steps to overcome new nonproliferation challenges and to fulfill core goals and objectives.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

NPT Review Delayed Again

OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

July/August 2021

An investigation into 77 allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria has concluded that chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in 17 cases, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported to the UN Security Council on June 3.

A mother and father weep over the body of their child, who was killed in a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, in August 2013. The OPCW says there have been 17 cases of chemical attacks in Syria, including Khan Shaykhun and Ltamenah, both in 2017. (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced that the world’s chemical weapons watchdog will be addressing new issues during future consultations with Syria, including “the presence of a new chemical weapons agent found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020.” He said that the organization had notified Syria of its intention to conduct on-site inspections and requested visas for its expert team, but never received a response.

That is not the first time that Syria has declined to cooperate. In April 2020, the OPCW Executive Council demanded further information regarding three alleged chemical weapons attacks that took place in 2017. Syria declined, and in response, the organization in April suspended Syria’s “rights and privileges,” marking the first time that the OPCW had taken such action since its formation in 1997. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Russia has consistently defended Syria and criticized the OPCW and its investigators. In response to Arias’ report, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the OPCW of exclusively using information “from biased sources opposed to the Syrian government” and of relying on “pseudo witnesses,” according to media reports. He also claimed the OPCW “was established illegitimately” and that therefore it is unfair to expect Syria to comply with its regulations. Russia joined 14 other states, including China, in voting against the measure to restrict Syria’s rights within the multilateral organization.

Richard Mills, U.S. deputy ambassador to the OPCW, called for accountability and further investigation into all alleged cases of weapons use. He defended the OPCW’s legitimacy.

Despite Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 under heavy international pressure, questions remain about the validity of the country’s chemical weapons declarations. Arias reported that one of the deadliest attacks took place in 2017, three years after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that the destruction of the country’s chemical weapons program was complete.—HOLLIS RAMMER

OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

UN Adopts Nonbinding Arms Embargo On Myanmar

July/August 2021

More than four months after the Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected leaders, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that “calls upon all member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”

A protester holds the flag of the National League for Democracy, the party of jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while making the three-finger salute during a flash mob demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on June 25. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)Although supported by 119 of the assembly’s 193 member states on June 18, the resolution lacks the binding nature that can come with UN Security Council resolutions and is more of a political message than a punitive measure. Among the Security Council’s five permanent members, China and Russia abstained, typically an indication that a binding Security Council embargo resolution would not be adopted.

Arms trade with Myanmar, still called Burma by U.S. officials, has long been controversial, with Western countries at times shunning weapons sales during the country’s most undemocratic periods. Not surprisingly, EU member states were well represented among the original sponsors of the resolution. The European Union has maintained some form of arms embargo on the country since the 1990s.

The United States also voted for the resolution. Within the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the majority of members supported the measure, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar, whose pre-junta ambassador is still recognized by the United Nations.

According to the latest reporting by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on global trends on the transfer of major conventional weapons, Myanmar accounts for less than 1 percent of global arms imports, with China, India, and Russia supplying more than 80 percent of those weapons. India was among the 36 countries that abstained on the resolution. Only Belarus voted against it—JEFF ABRAMSON

UN Adopts Nonbinding Arms Embargo On Myanmar

Engage China on Arms Control? Yes, and Here’s How

June 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential. For instance, in 1958, U.S. officials considered using nuclear weapons to thwart Chinese artillery strikes on islands controlled by Taiwan, according to recently leaked documents. Then, as now, a nuclear conflict between the United States and China would be devastating.

 (Photo by TEH ENG KOON / AFP/Getty Images)“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,” Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned in February.

Worse yet, as tensions between the United States and China continue to grow, many members of Congress, along with the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, are hyping China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization effort as a major new threat.

During testimony before Congress in April, Richard claimed that China’s military is engaged in a “breathtaking expansion” of its arsenal of some 300 nuclear weapons. He argued that this requires fortifying the U.S. nuclear armory, which is already 10 times larger than China’s.

Instead, U.S. policymakers need to avoid steps that stimulate nuclear competition with China and pursue serious talks designed to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict. The United States also needs to develop a realistic strategy for involving China and the other major nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament process.

According to U.S. projections, China could increase the size of its arsenal. It is deploying new solid-fueled missiles that can be launched more quickly than its older liquid-fueled missiles, increasing the number of its long-range missiles that are armed with multiple warheads, putting more of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on mobile trucks, and continuing to improve its sea-based nuclear force.

These moves, while concerning, do not justify alarmism. China is not seeking to match U.S. nuclear capabilities. Rather, it is clearly seeking to diversify its nuclear forces so it can maintain a nuclear deterrent that can withstand potential U.S. nuclear or conventional strikes.

Beijing’s nuclear plans are also likely designed to hedge against advancing U.S. missile defense capabilities, such as the sea-based Standard Missile-3 Block IIA system, which could potentially compromise China’s nuclear retaliatory potential.

Although China’s arsenal may be smaller, it is still dangerous. Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts make it all the more important to pursue meaningful progress on nuclear arms control.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed that the Biden administration will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal,” but has not explained how it will do so.

Leaders in Beijing claim to support nondiscriminatory disarmament and minimum deterrence, yet they have said they will engage on arms control only when U.S. and Russian leaders achieve deeper cuts in their much-larger nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia can and should do more to cut their bloated nuclear stockpiles. But as a nuclear-weapon state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, China is also obligated to help end the arms race and achieve disarmament sooner rather than later.

Yet, simply demanding, as the Trump administration did, that China join the arms control process is a recipe for failure. Instead, the Biden administration should adopt a more pragmatic approach that takes into account China’s concerns, and Chinese leaders need to be prepared to respond with constructive ideas.

To start, U.S. President Joe Biden could propose a new bilateral nuclear security dialogue designed to clarify each other’s nuclear postures and establish better lines of communication that could reduce the risks of miscalculation in a crisis.

The U.S. State Department should invite Chinese diplomats to join in developing a plan for fortifying the existing dialogue on nuclear weapons policy and risk reduction among the five nuclear-weapon states: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For instance, these states could consider joint arms control verification exercises based on the U.S.-Russian experience and negotiate a common system for reporting on their respective nuclear weapons holdings. They could also formulate a joint understanding that cybercapabilities will not be used to interfere with other states’ nuclear command and control.

An even more ambitious approach would be for Washington and Moscow to propose that China, France, and the UK freeze the size of their nuclear stockpiles so long as the United States and Russia continue to achieve deeper verifiable reductions in their arsenals.

At the same time, the Biden team must resist calls for new U.S. weapons deployments, including land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Asia, that would compound nuclear tensions with China and give Beijing a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal.

Engaging China on effective arms control and disarmament will be difficult and will take time, but it is necessary because there are no winners in an unconstrained arms race.

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential.

Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces

June 2021
By Gerald C. Brown

In its recent annual threat assessment, the U.S. intelligence community described how China is pursuing “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history” and is intending to “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade.” Although deeply concerning, this description should be put in context. 

China recently deployed the D-17, a new kind of medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, that may be nuclear-capable. Because they fly at low altitude, hypersonic gliders may cause problems for U.S. missile defense systems. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)The U.S. Department of Defense estimates China’s deployed nuclear forces to number in the low 200s. Even if doubled, this is substantially lower than the approximately 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear forces the United States maintains on alert daily under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Despite the rising numbers, China seems unlikely to quantitatively outpace U.S. nuclear forces in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, China’s capabilities represent a substantial threat that must not be ignored. Quantitative comparisons of nuclear arsenals are a relatively crude manner of understanding nuclear risks and, in the case of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, wholly insufficient. More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy. In the U.S.-Chinese context, policymakers should be more focused on how conventional weapons and related strategies could impact the nuclear calculus between the two countries. 

Chinese Nuclear Strategy

Unlike Russia and the United States, China has found nuclear weapons to be of rather limited utility in war-fighting. It built what it describes as a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrent, with the intentions of deterring a nuclear attack and preventing nuclear coercion.1 Strategists in Beijing have long thought that the destructive force of nuclear weapons limits their utility, while conventional forces are more flexible and usable in conflict. Conventional forces are thought to be where wars are won or lost.2 In that sense, China’s nuclear forces are intended to check U.S. nuclear dominance while winning conventional conflicts at lower levels of escalation. To make that happen, China is seeking to build a nuclear force capable of surviving a nuclear first strike and retaliating with an unacceptable level of damage. Experts have perhaps best described China’s nuclear strategy as one of “assured retaliation.”3 Instead of seeking parity with other nuclear states and being able to engage in counterforce campaigns, China finds it sufficient to maintain a more modest, secure, and survivable force. If China can sufficiently absorb a first strike and retaliate, even with only a few warheads, Beijing believes an adversary is unlikely to decide that the risk of attacking China is worth the benefit.

Since China’s first nuclear test in 1964, it has consistently maintained a public, declaratory no-first-use policy, adhering to what it describes as a “self-defensive nuclear strategy” that would anticipate using nuclear weapons only as a “counterattack in self-defense.”4 Western analysts have rightfully pointed out that a no-first-use pledge may not be entirely credible on its own. Although the pledge may be sincerely held, during a crisis, escalation could be unpredictable. Additionally, a small number of Chinese analysts have suggested that what China defines as a counterattack may be ambiguous under certain, limited conditions, such as conventional attacks seeking to neutralize China’s nuclear forces.5 

Despite Western doubts, the fact remains that Chinese strategists believe that the pledge holds true. An unambiguous no-first-use stance remains the official stance of the Chinese government, and China’s nuclear strategy is built around this concept. Authoritative texts on Chinese military thinking have described three major missions for Chinese nuclear forces. In peacetime, they seek to deter enemies from launching a nuclear war with China. In wartime, they constrain the scope of war, preventing a conventional conflict from escalating to a nuclear exchange. If war does escalate to nuclear conflict, they serve to conduct nuclear counterattacks.6 The texts consistently describe only one envisioned use of nuclear weapons, the nuclear counterattack operation, in response to a nuclear strike.7 

Operational practices have reinforced this. Beijing maintains a highly centralized nuclear warhead storage and handling system, with warheads typically thought to be stored unmated from their delivery vehicles rather than loaded and ready for launch.8 Further, training for nuclear brigades reflects the practice of counterattacking under nuclear conditions. Yet, there are indications of evolution. Recent U.S. government reports have suggested that some People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) brigades may spend time on higher alert and may seek to shift to a launch-on-warning posture in the future in order to increase survivability under nuclear attack. China has been developing a space-based early-warning system with assistance from Russia that could support this.9 

Nuclear Force Projections

As the U.S. annual threat assessment noted, there are signs of recent substantial changes in Chinese nuclear forces. The most important changes have been primarily qualitative, but notable quantitative changes are also occurring. These are understandably alarming to U.S. policymakers. Although the size of Chinese nuclear forces may still be dwarfed by the U.S. arsenal, its growth represents a substantial complication for the United States. Further, although the United States and Russia are modernizing their arsenals, they have been reducing their stockpiles over the past few decades slowly but significantly. China’s nuclear expansion represents a concerning shift away from its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce its arsenal, and that is likely to impact U.S. and Russian decision-making.

Chinese military officers, shown here at a 2019 parade in Beijing, operate under a doctrine that assumes conventional forces, not nuclear forces, win wars, author Gerald Brown writes. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)Yet, understanding these changes in the context of China’s nuclear strategy is important. Instead of trying to reach parity with or exceed the U.S. nuclear arsenal, China seems intent on ensuring that it has an assured retaliatory capability following U.S. strikes. Given U.S. nuclear and technological superiority, China likely has never had a sufficiently survivable nuclear deterrent against the United States, a goal that was more aspirational than anything else. Revolutions in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, coupled with advances in conventional precision weapons, have long rendered China’s nuclear forces vulnerable. The U.S. ballistic missile defense program threatens to intercept any surviving retaliatory force, further jeopardizing China’s retaliatory capability.

For the first time in history, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems to be moving toward a survivable nuclear force capable of executing a second strike. Research suggests that Chinese nuclear expansions and modernization are oriented toward creation of a more mobile and redundant force that can survive U.S. counterforce capabilities, including conventional systems such as the Conventional Prompt Global Strike system, and its missiles being able to penetrate U.S. missile defense systems.10 Consequently, although China’s nuclear force size will expand, it does not appear likely to expand to the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the near future.

There is understandable doubt about the claim of China doubling its nuclear arsenal, but it does not appear to be out of the question. China is fielding an increasing number of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle weapons, such as the DF-5B deployed in 2015 and the recently deployed DF-5C and DF-41, that improve the ability of China’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal to penetrate the U.S. missile defense system.11 Defense Department estimates do not appear to include the DF-41, which is just starting to be deployed. Installing multiple warheads on these weapons will quickly expand the number of nuclear weapons in China’s arsenal. Further, PLARF brigades have been increasing at an unprecedented rate. The number of PLARF brigades reportedly increased from 29 to 40 between 2017 and 2020, and brigades continue to be added as new missile types are fielded.12

China’s shift to a nuclear triad will further increase the number of its nuclear warheads as these new systems are equipped. China is creating a more survivable nuclear submarine force, expanding the number of Type 094 ballistic missile submarines and developing the quieter Type 096 submarine with the JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile as a complement. The PLA Air Force is also adopting a nuclear mission by developing a new air-launched ballistic missile that may be nuclear capable, as well as the nuclear-capable H-20 strategic bomber.13

Significantly, not all of China’s nuclear weapons are intercontinental forces capable of striking targets located in the continental United States. China has invested in nuclear weapons that specifically threaten the immediate region. Its new air capabilities, along with recently deployed midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-21E and the DF-26, hold regional adversaries and U.S. overseas bases at risk. China also recently deployed a new hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, that may be nuclear capable. Importantly, although China’s nuclear expansion may be oriented toward a strategy of assured retaliation, that does not prevent Beijing from orienting its expanding nuclear capabilities toward a more threatening posture in the future. As China’s capabilities expand, its operational doctrine may well follow suit.

Emboldened Conventional Operations

China’s nuclear forces can be considerably more concerning when not considered in isolation from other tools of war. Analysts and policymakers need to look at how nuclear weapons can affect the broader picture of warfare, including how they impact PLA conventional operations and the type of wars China envisions fighting. 

China’s military strategy is focused on “winning informationized local wars,” effectively local, high tech wars in which the information domain will play a dominant role. Although the PLA’s reach is increasingly global, it has oriented itself toward local conflicts, with a particular emphasis on maritime conflicts, as the main war-fighting domain. This primarily concerns Taiwan but also the East and South China seas among others.14 In 2015, the PLA made a drastic change to its command structure, orienting itself into joint war-fighting theater commands, directly geared to fighting in these regions. The PLA seeks to deter the United States from intervening in these local wars or to defeat the United States locally if it does. 

In these local wars, nuclear overmatch against the United States is hardly necessary. Instead, China is more concerned with preventing U.S. nuclear coercion and intervention and constraining the scope of any war that may erupt. PLA strategists appear to believe that the United States would not intervene in a conflict that did not directly threaten the United States if there was a risk that the conflict could escalate to the nuclear level.15 As Zhao Xijun, former deputy commander of the Second Artillery Force, has said, states “become very cautious” when contemplating military intervention against other nuclear-armed states.16

Evidence suggests that a secure second-strike force may even embolden the PLA in local conventional conflicts, allowing them to accept greater risks at lower levels of escalation. That especially holds true when considering that all sides in China’s multiple territorial claims perceive themselves as defending the status quo.17 Research has revealed the PLA’s overconfidence in its ability to control conventional escalation. Unlike in the case of nuclear weapons, Chinese documents emphasize “seizing the initiative” early in conventional conflicts. They envision using tools such as cyberwarfare and conventional missiles early, hard, and fast, even preemptively.18 Although the focus of these writings is not nuclear weapons use, conventional operations could be emboldened by perceptions of nuclear stability. 

Entanglement Risks

Another complication is that firebreaks between conventional and nuclear forces are increasingly blurred in modern warfare, and substantial risks exist when conventional strategies affect nuclear forces. One notable example involves discussions on space weapons. PLA assessments have highlighted the increasing importance of this domain, and the asymmetric weakness represented by U.S. overreliance on space in conflict. Critiques of Chinese military writings point toward the offense-dominant nature of such operations and the need to control the space domain early in conflict. They further assert that attacks against U.S. satellites would carry relatively low escalation risks and could even deescalate a conflict.19 

U.S. satellite systems, however, are dual use, enabling a wide range of conventional and nuclear operations. Attacks against U.S. satellites would not only affect the country’s conventional capabilities, they would jeopardize the heart of the U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications and early-warning capabilities.20 Further, although Chinese military analysts highlight the advantages of engaging in satellite attacks during conventional conflicts, the same actions would likely be taken prior to a nuclear conflict in order to degrade the effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses and ensure the effectiveness of a nuclear strike. As a result, Washington would view any Chinese attack on its satellites as profoundly destabilizing, potentially inciting a U.S. nuclear response.

Similar entanglement risks exist with Chinese forces. PLARF bases all appear to host conventional and nuclear missile brigades. These are geographically separated from each other, but most of the weapons are on mobile platforms, creating overlapping risks when deployed. Conventional and nuclear forces seem to rely on the same supply and logistics infrastructure. Although command and control infrastructure are ostensibly separate, the extent of this separation is not fully understood, and overlap seems likely to exist.21 Additionally, China’s nuclear submarine force appears to share the same onshore communications systems with Chinese conventional submarines.22

DF-26 missiles are featured in the military parade in Beijing, China, Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)Furthermore, an increasing number of midrange to intermediate-range weapons systems are dual use. Although the DF-21 maintains distinct conventional and nuclear variants that are typically not co-located, they are likely indistinguishable when deployed. In the case of the DF-26, conventional and nuclear warheads are likely co-located. Reports have highlighted DF-26 brigades, equipped with conventional and nuclear weapons, that hold drills in which units launch a conventional attack and then reload with a nuclear warhead to prepare for nuclear counterattacks.23

In conflict, attacks against China’s shore-based communications systems that are directed at China’s conventional submarine force would cut off its nuclear-armed submarine force as well. Campaigns against China’s vast conventional missile force would almost certainly degrade China’s nuclear force too. The fixed bases supporting PLARF brigades would be likely targets as the dual nature of these bases means conventional and nuclear forces share the same base headquarters, resulting in severed communications and logistics networks for PLA nuclear forces. Even if China’s nuclear and conventional command and control networks were sufficiently separate, it would be challenging to distinguish between them. Conventional and nuclear midrange to intermediate-range weapons would likely be indistinguishable in conflict. 

How would China respond to attacks against these dual-use systems and the degradation of its nuclear force? It is somewhat comforting that China’s ICBM force is relatively distinguishable from its dual-use weapons, and the majority of the force is located deeper within the Chinese mainland. What is not obvious is how strikes against regional-range nuclear forces would be perceived by Beijing in the middle of armed conflict. If China’s nuclear forces were degraded in any way, authorities could conclude that they no longer have a survivable deterrent. In the heat of a conflict, it is difficult to assess how Chinese decision-makers would react to this. 

Further, a degraded Chinese nuclear force, in the middle of a crisis, could provide a tempting counterforce target for the United States. In such a case, there would be a challenge of perceptions, with neither the United States nor China truly knowing the other’s intentions. In conflict, with the ability to destroy China’s nuclear force or at least limit damage to itself should China opt for nuclear use, would the United States decide that a counterforce strike is worth the risk? The United States would understand that if it failed to strike, China could opt to use its remaining nuclear forces and inflict substantial damage. Similarly, knowing the United States faced such a dilemma and that it could face a disabling counterforce strike, China would be faced with strong use-it-or-lose-it pressures. All of these circumstances would be exacerbated by the fog of war, a degraded information environment, and the speed required to make decisions. 

Some Western analysts have speculated that China’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities have been intentionally entangled to heighten the risks facing adversaries and to deter conflict. There is little evidence that this was a motivator. Instead, the PLA likely sought to take advantage of economies of scale. It is far cheaper and more logical for China to use the same designs for conventional and nuclear variants to its weapons, allowing for savings on manpower, production, maintenance, and research costs. Even so, this is hardly comforting and may leave the PLA less aware of risks resulting from a comingled system. States that entangle forces intentionally are likely better prepared for the risks involved. When such entanglement arises from nonstrategic reasons, as seems likely in China’s case, states are less aware of the escalatory risks, which may exacerbate escalatory pressures in a conflict.24

War Control and Inadvertent Escalation

There is little evidence that technological entanglement is a direct, strategic choice, but there are some limited indications that China could use nuclear signaling to constrain the extent of conventional conflicts and contribute to escalation control.25 Nuclear signaling includes such actions as test launches, release of the locations of targets, an increase in readiness levels, missile deployments, or other actions to demonstrate resolve. The goal would not be necessarily to use nuclear weapons. Instead, the signaling would aim to raise fears that a conflict could credibly escalate to the nuclear level, thus “causing the enemy to dread that the possible consequences of its actions will be that its losses will exceed its gains, thereby causing the enemy to change its plans for risky activities and achieving the goal of restricting the war to a certain scope.”26 In this way, China could capitalize on the uncertainty of a potential nuclear conflict to deter intervention and constrain escalation in conventional conflicts in the Pacific region. Such risks are compounded by China’s use of purposeful ambiguity as an integral component of its approach to nuclear deterrence.27

One major problem is that such signaling by the Chinese may be indistinguishable from preparations for a nuclear attack. Yet, writings by experts on deterrence and signaling operations fail to acknowledge that these provocative actions could be misinterpreted by an adversary. In general, Chinese experts seem to believe that nuclear escalation is unlikely to be effectively controlled, but are overconfident that conventional conflict can be controlled without escalating to the nuclear level.28 Lack of awareness about escalation risks could very well make the PLA more aggressive in local conflicts. 

Finally, the concept of an “existential threat” may be different in China than many perceive it to be. The PLA is not China’s professional military so much as it is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, a point drilled into PLA members and emphasized in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the party.29 In that sense, destruction of the party may be synonymous with destruction of the state. Such conflation of ideas could come into play in the face of a humiliating conventional defeat by China over Taiwan or another dispute that China considers central to its sovereignty. If there were a perceived risk, irrational or not, that such losses could fracture the legitimacy of the Communist Party, drastic actions could become more likely. If Beijing perceived that nuclear weapons use would ensure victory in a conflict, it might escalate to using nuclear weapons in a last-ditch effort.


For all the concern from U.S. policymakers about China’s nuclear expansion, relatively little attention has gone into adequately examining the country’s military and nuclear strategies. There is a tendency among many U.S. policymakers to blindly equate the challenge of China with the strategies faced by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or to mirror image their own strategic thinking onto Chinese strategists. That is insufficient and dangerous. 

China’s thinking on escalation and war-fighting often differs substantially from that of the Americans and Soviets. The authoritative literature on these subjects within the Chinese system does not represent errant thoughts of lone strategists. It represents doctrinally informed guidance that culminates the work of dozens of China’s top strategists, originating from China’s most authoritative institutions with ties directly to China’s decision-making bodies, and is used to educate and inform PLA officers. Although written for an internal audience, several of the most important of these texts, such as “Science of Military Strategy” and “Science of Campaigns,” have been translated into English by U.S. scholars and need to be mined thoroughly by U.S. planners for insights.30 

There is also a need for greater engagement and crisis management measures between U.S. and Chinese officials. Varying levels of formal and informal dialogues between Chinese and U.S. officials directly or between delegations of recently retired officials help alleviate misperceptions and enhance understanding of escalation triggers and redlines. Although there have been some talks at the unofficial level in recent years, Beijing remains reluctant to pursue official talks on nuclear weapons. Given the substantial misperceptions in the relationship, regular engagements are critical. Similarly, crisis management mechanisms would be to the advantage of both sides in communicating intentions and alleviating misperceptions during a crisis. Thus far, the pursuit of new initiatives has met limited success, and Beijing tends to eschew the methods that are in place. Although arms control agreements appear to be unfeasible between the United States and China for the time being, official talks and better crisis management measures would be a strong first step. 

Finally, the United States needs to look at deterrence and escalation more holistically. The primary risks of nuclear escalation stemming from the U.S.-Chinese relationship do not come from nuclear weapons alone. Warfare is increasingly complicated; a greater appreciation of how conventional and nuclear strategies intersect is needed. In the Indo-Pacific theater, conventional forces may play a greater role in deterrence than many in the nuclear community acknowledge. U.S. Admiral Phil Davison, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently observed that “the greatest danger the United States and our allies face in the region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.” Increasingly, this erosion affects conventional and nuclear strategies. Organizational separation within the U.S. military establishment may leave conventional and nuclear planners ill-informed of escalation risks stemming from areas outside their purview. Better integration of conventional and nuclear communities, a more holistic understanding of the risks and challenges, and a bolstering of regional conventional forces could play a significant role in managing and deterring conflict that could otherwise escalate to the nuclear level.



1. M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 243–247.

2. Michael Chase, “PLA Rocket Force: Executors of China’s Nuclear Strategy and Policy,” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy, ed. Joe McReynolds (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017), p. 144; Liu Chong, “The Relationship Between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, ed. Li Bin and Tong Zhao (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), 2016), pp. 153–159. 

3. M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2010): 48-87; Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (October 2015): 7–50. 

4. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 2006, http://www.andrewerickson.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/China-Defense-White-Paper_2006_English-Chinese_Annotated.pdf

5. Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 51–55.

6. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 142; Fravel, Active Defense, p. 242.

7. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 12–15; Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” pp. 148–149.

8. Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System, ” Project 2049 Institute, March 12, 2010, https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/chinas_nuclear_warhead_storage_and_handling_system.pdf

9. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2020, pp. 88-89, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.

10. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 15–23.

11. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 6 (November 1, 2020): 445.

12. P.W. Singer and Ma Xiu, “China’s Missile Force Is Growing at an Unprecedented Rate,” Popular Science, February 25, 2020. 

13. Hans M. Kristensen, “China’s Strategic Systems and Programs,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 108–112.

14. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: ‘Winning Informationized Local Wars,’” China Brief, Vol. 15, No. 13 (July 2, 2015): 3–7.

15. M. Taylor Fravel and Fiona Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence: Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Fall 2019): 79–81.

16. Eric Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States,” RAND Corp., 2017, pp. 17–18, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1628.html.

17. Thomas J. Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and U.S.-China Security Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (August 29, 2012): 463–466.

18. Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control; Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett, “Managing Conflict: Examining Recent PLA Writings on Escalation Control,” CNA, February 2016, pp. 81–82, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2015-U-009963-Final3.pdf.

19. Kevin Pollpeter, “Space, the New Domain: Space Operations and Chinese Military Reforms,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 39, Nos. 5-6 (September 18, 2016): 709–727; Zhao Tong and Bin Li, “The Underappreciated Risks of Entanglement: A Chinese Perspective,” in Entanglement: Russian and Chinese Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, ed. James M. Acton (Washington: CEIP, 2017), pp. 63–66; Laird, “War Control,” pp. 17–19. For a Track 1.5 talk between U.S. and Chinese officials in which anti-satellite strikes were proposed to deescalate conflict, see David Santoro and Robert Gromoll, “On the Value of Nuclear Dialogue With China: A Review and Assessment of the Track 1.5 ‘China-U.S. Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue,’” Issues and Insights, Vol. 20, No. 1 (November 2020): 19.

20. James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 1 (August 2018): 63–66.

21. Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War With the United States,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 4 (April 2017): 73–79.

22. Zhao Tong, “Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability,” CEIP, 2018, pp. 42–43, 83-84, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Zhao_SSBN_final.pdf.

23. Joshua Pollack and Scott LaFoy, “China’s DF-26: A Hot-Swappable Missile?” Arms Control Wonk, May 17, 2020, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1209405/chinas-df-26-a-hot-swappable-missile/

24. David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, November 12, 2020, pp. 30–38.

25. Christopher T. Yeaw, Andrew S. Erickson, and Michael S. Chase, “The Future of Chinese Nuclear Policy and Strategy,” in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012), pp. 53–64; Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent,” pp. 26–31.

26. Yu Jixun, ed., Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp. 273–274 (in Chinese).

27. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 156.

28. Fravel and Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence,” pp. 101–104.

29. David Finkelstein, “Breaking the Paradigm: Drivers Behind the PLA’s Current Period of Reform,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, ed. Phillip C. Saunders et al. (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2019), pp. 48–51.

30. See China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), “Science of Military Strategy (2013),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2021-02-08%20Chinese%20Military%20Thoughts-%20In%20their%20own%20words%20Science%20of%20Military%20Strategy%202013.pdf; CASI, “Science of Campaigns (2006),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2020-12-02%20In%20Their%20Own%20Words-%20Science%20of%20Campaigns%20(2006).pdf. Additionally, for an excellent assessment by U.S. scholars of “Science of Military Strategy (2013)” and related texts, see Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017).

Gerald C. Brown is an analyst with Valiant Integrated Services focusing on nuclear deterrence and East Asian security.


More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy.

Nuclear Launch Authority: Too Big a Decision for Just the President

June 2021
By David S. Jonas and Bryn McWhorter

As it has been since the dawn of the atomic age, the president possesses the sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Not since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II has the United States or any other power launched a nuclear attack. In recent years, however, interest in ending this exclusive control over the most lethal weapons on earth has increased demonstrably. 

A military aide to then-President Donald Trump carries a briefcase known as the "nuclear football" that contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear war through the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, in 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)Calls for sharing this authority escalated during the last administration, when President Donald Trump made a habit of unilaterally changing national policy at the speed of a tweet. The calls have continued into the Biden presidency,1 even among anti-Trump Democrats who have come to understand that no one leader should have unilateral control of nuclear launch authority. Various politicians,2 along with legal and national security experts,3 have called for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized, rather than continuing to allow the decision to be controlled by a single individual. 

In general, these proposals differentiate between the first use and second use of nuclear weapons. Most experts would leave untouched the president’s sole authority in instances of second use, that is, when the United States is already under nuclear attack and must respond rapidly in self-defense. The primary concern is when a president intends to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons. In that instance, when there is time to involve others in the decision, it is necessary and justifiable for the president’s power to be appropriately and reasonably curtailed. 

Options for Constraining the President

There are several proposals to constrain the president. One would require consensus among the president, vice president, and speaker of the House of Representatives4—the two individuals next in line in the constitutionally mandated presidential chain of succession. Another proposal would have the president involve the attorney general and secretary of defense in his decision-making.5 Advancing one of the more ludicrous ideas, others have even advocated a role for the Supreme Court.6 Some experts have called for a consultation,7 rather than consensus, requirement in which the president would discuss the momentous decision with an array of high-level national security advisers prior to authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons but not be bound by what they advise. Finally, some politicians have advocated for laws prohibiting the president from authorizing a nuclear attack in the first instance absent a declaration of war by Congress.8 None of those options are realistic or acceptable. 

The first proposal should fail because it would require the approval of the speaker of the House, an individual outside the executive branch. Often, this person will be of a different political party than the president. On one level, that could be viewed as a benefit. Because of the magnitude of the decision, requiring consensus among individuals on opposing sides of the political aisle seems reasonable on the face of it. As the specifics become clear, however, the matter could result in political horse trading. Additionally, the importance of operating from a basis of national unity cannot be overstated given the profound consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons. 

Although salient, such considerations are not compelling in this context. The launch of a nuclear weapon must remain a national security decision. It must not be subject to political games in what could well be a life-or-death situation for the United States. Could anyone imagine Trump seeking approval for a nuclear first strike from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)? The current poisonous political atmosphere in U.S. politics will hopefully subside, but decisions of such existential consequence must always reflect the primacy of national security over politics.

Moreover, the addition of congressional participation in such a vital national security decision would violate the separation of powers principle. The president alone is vested with the powers of commander in chief. That is not to demean the congressional role in military matters. Congress holds the power to declare war, even though it has not formally done so since World War II; authorizes military use of force short of war through statute; and is charged with authorizing and appropriating funds for the armed forces and setting rules for the administration of military justice. Nevertheless, the power to select the methods of waging war should remain solely with the executive branch. 

The second proposal deviates too far from the presidential chain of succession by excluding the vice president and incorporating the attorney general. Currently, in the event that the vice president must assume the presidency, that individual will also presumably rapidly gain control over the nuclear launch codes. Any attempt to reform this decision-making process should not exclude the first person to whom that responsibility falls. The attorney general, although certainly within the executive branch and frequently involved in legal aspects of national security matters, has no day-to-day involvement in military affairs. It seems nonsensical to make the person holding this position party to one of the most consequential military decisions ever made. That is not to discount the virtue of involving legal counsel in the process; such participation is crucial to ensuring that all applicable laws are observed. Yet, it is more prudent to incorporate lawyers who are well versed in assessing the legality of the use of force. 

A Supreme Court Role?

The third proposal, involving Supreme Court participation, suffers from the same separation of powers issues and expertise deficiencies that would arise in the proposals just discussed. Indeed, even the Supreme Court itself is unlikely to find its own involvement permissible. In Smith v. Obama,9 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia relied on Supreme Court jurisprudence when declining to resolve the question of whether Congress authorized the use of force against the Islamic State group through the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force on the grounds that it constituted a political question. The court found matters of foreign policy and national security to be textually committed to the political branches of government, meaning allocated to the executive or legislative branches by the Constitution itself. It found inappropriate this kind of judicial second-guessing of the executive branch’s application of the authorizations to facts on the ground during ongoing combat operations. Following that line of case law and reasoning, the Supreme Court would also likely find the question of the use of nuclear weapons to be one that it lacks the expertise to handle and that is surely a political question meant for resolution by the two political branches of government. 

Even if the justices were integrated into the decision-making more in their personal capacities as lawyers and scholars, thereby averting the legal issues of precedent and political question, it would be imprudent to extricate the justices from their roles on the court. Although litigation may not be a particularly pressing concern following a massive nuclear attack, smaller-scale uses of nuclear weapons could certainly generate lawsuits as nuclear testing has done in the past. If such suits did arise, those justices who participated in the authorization decision would have a conflict of interest necessitating their recusal. 

Although justices recuse themselves from cases periodically, there has never been an entire category of case for which the underlying subject matter would necessarily preclude the Supreme Court from sitting in full. If the justices participated in the proposed manner, it would preclude the court from considering in its entirety a full subject matter, namely the authorization of a nuclear attack and its consequences. Given the importance of this issue, any cases arising from it should receive the consideration of the entire court. 

Those proposals calling for consultation with various national security advisers do not provide a sufficient constraint on this critical decision-making process. The underlying premise of the need for reform is to prevent the arbitrary or unwarranted authorization of the use of nuclear weapons. Consultation alone simply does not go far enough in checking the president’s power in cases of nuclear first use, and such discussions would probably occur anyway. Moreover, there is ambiguity in the concept of consultation that further denigrates its utility in this vital national security context. Requiring consensus provides a clear check on the president’s power, one that mere consultation cannot. 

Lastly, although Congress’s role in the waging of war is crucial, its involvement in the decision to use nuclear weapons is untenable. Apart from the reasons previously mentioned as to why congressional participation is inappropriate in this circumstance, one of the most compelling reasons for its exclusion is practicality. Any discussion regarding the potential authorization of nuclear attack is of the utmost sensitivity and requires complete secrecy. The size of Congress alone makes it a poor keeper of secrets. If information concerning decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons leaked, the United States would likely face attack first, making this option simply unworkable.

The war room of the iconic 1964 black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," which embodied Cold War fears about a first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Six decades later, those fears remain and calls are growing for Congress to rein in the unilateral authority possessed by U.S. presidents to launch such existential attacks.  (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Untenability of Unilateral Action

Yet, there is surely merit in taking this potentially apocalyptic decision out of the hands of one individual. History shows that, at times, prior presidents acted while impaired, be it John Kennedy under of the influence of pain killers or Richard Nixon intoxicated from alcohol. In the case of Trump, many questioned his decision-making processes, viewing him as emotional and acting on impulse, often ignoring his advisers. Because of Joe Biden’s age—at 78 years old, he is the oldest man to be elected president—some people wonder how long he will be able to bring clarity and stamina to the job. That is enough to merit bringing in others for concurrence on a momentous nuclear weapons decision, but the issue extends far beyond even these examples. No single individual, no matter how wise and temperate, should hold the sole power to potentially initiate the destruction of the world. 

In situations where the United States or its allies have been attacked with nuclear weapons, when a decision about retaliating must be made within minutes, the president should retain the sole power to authorize their use. In instances of first use, when the United States has time to decide whether to initiate an attack, the authorization to launch nuclear weapons should require the unanimous consent of the president, vice president, and the defense secretary. 

Requiring the approval of the vice president makes sense because that individual is first in the presidential line of succession. Should the president die, resign, become incapacitated, or be removed from office, the vice president assumes the responsibility for the nuclear launch codes and is presumably already familiar with the process. That would also ensure political accountability from the only other U.S. official elected by the entire nation.

Requiring the concurrence of the defense secretary is prudent for several reasons. First, the person in that position is presumed to have the necessary military knowledge to understand the utility and consequences of deploying a nuclear weapon. That individual is also presumed to understand the practicalities of armed conflict and should be involved in assessing this kind of escalation. 

Second, the use of force requires compliance with the law of armed conflict. Certainly, in the event that the United States has already suffered or faces an imminent nuclear attack, there would likely be little political resistance to the country’s use of nuclear weapons in self-defense. The trickier analysis would be the legality of the first use of nuclear weapons against an adversary attacking or thought to be preparing an imminent attack against U.S. territory, U.S. forces abroad, U.S. allies, or U.S. interests through conventional means.

Department of Defense lawyers, whether civilian or uniformed judge advocates, regularly make legal compliance assessments regarding the use of force and targeting with conventional weapons. Should the United States find itself contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, it should leverage the expertise of these lawyers. To ensure that the involvement of these lawyers is not subject to the potentially arbitrary inclinations of the defense secretary, the reform process should include a stipulation that the secretary must solicit legal counsel and share those assessments with the president and vice president. 

To the extent possible, the secretary of state, who is the most senior cabinet member, should be involved in consultations; but actual approval of the decision should rest with the president, vice president, and defense secretary. Although the secretary of state negotiates nuclear weapons treaties and monitors compliance with these agreements, the Department of State works to prevent conflict rather than to wage war. 

In the event that time is of the essence and the vice president and defense secretary are dead, injured, or cannot be contacted, the deputy secretary of defense and the next person in the presidential line of succession in the executive branch—the secretary of state—should have to make a joint decision. The goal should be to give a priority role to the official with the most direct responsibility for nuclear weapons, the defense secretary or deputy secretary. 

The gravity surrounding any potential use or even the threat of the use of nuclear weapons necessitates greater constraints on the president’s ability to authorize such action in a first-use scenario. Given that magnitude, these changes should be accomplished through bipartisan legislation. Congress should make it a priority this year.



1. Steve Herman, “Democrats Want Biden to Relinquish Sole Authority for Nuclear Launches,” Voice of America, February 26, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-politics/democrats-want-biden-relinquish-sole-authority-nuclear-launches

2. Geoff Brumfiel, “Pelosi Asks Military to Limit Trump’s Nuclear Authority. Here’s How That System Works,” National Public Radio, January 8, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/insurrection-at-the-capitol/2021/01/08/955043654/pelosi-asks-military-to-limit-trumps-nuclear-authority-heres-how-that-system-wor

3. Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn, “The President and Nuclear Weapons: Implications of Sole Authority in Today’s World,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, December 2019, https://media.nti.org/documents/The_President_and_Nuclear_Weapons_Implications_of_Sole_Authority_in_Todays_World.pdf

4. Lisbeth Gronlund et al., “An Expert Proposal: How to Limit Presidential Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 8, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/01/an-expert-proposal-how-to-limit-presidential-authority-to-order-the-use-of-nuclear-weapons

5. Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal

6. Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Going It Alone? The President and the Risks of a Hair-Trigger Nuclear Button,” Brookings Institution, March 1, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/03/01/going-it-alone-the-president-and-the-risks-of-a-hair-trigger-nuclear-button/

7. Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2018, pp. 6–13. 

8. Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2019, H.R. 669, 116th Cong. (2019). 

9. Smith v. Obama, 217 F. Supp. 3d 283, 298–300 (D.D.C. 2016).

David S. Jonas is a partner at FH+H Law Firm in Tysons, Virginia. After retiring as a Marine Corps officer, where he served as nuclear nonproliferation planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he served as general counsel of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He teaches a course he created on nuclear nonproliferation law and policy as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School. Bryn McWhorter graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 2021. She has studied and written on nuclear nonproliferation.

Calls have escalated for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized.


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