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The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, LIFE Photo Archive, Wikipedia

The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

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The Biden administration recently signaled its potential plans for expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a speech made by Pranay Vaddi, senior advisor to the national security council. This rhetoric highlights changing security realities in the nuclear weapons world and displays a shift in attitude away from disarmament within U.S. policy. The administration’s foremost goal should be to avoid entering or starting another nuclear arms race. Any action that results in this outcome does not promote the long-term security interests of the United States. Instead of first choosing to expand its nuclear arsenal, the United States should seek alternative methods of countering growing nuclear security risks that do not enable an arms race.

Any increase in the U.S. arsenal is in response to China’s nuclear buildup. After maintaining a minimum deterrent for decades, China is now quickly expanding its nuclear capabilities with estimates to reach ‘nuclear parity’ with the U.S. by 2030. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) labels China as the ‘pacing challenge’ for the United States. Russia remains a point of concern for the United States but is not the reason behind this potential change. What the United States shares with Russia in a long history of arms control and nuclear policy dialogue, it lacks with China. This has proven to be a challenge to beginning any substantial work on the issue. Although mutual onsite inspections have paused, Russia and the United States both committed to continue abiding to the limits established by the New START Treaty, and despite future uncertainties, have a foundation of arms control policy to fall back on. China, on the other hand, has rebuffed invitations to join arms control talks and has given no sign as to when that may change.

Understanding what China hopes to achieve in expanding its nuclear program will help the United States to respond appropriately.  Some view China’s rapid expansion as an attempt to force the United States to treat it on more fair and favorable terms. In a Foreign Affairs article, Carnegie Endowment Senior Fellow Tong Zhao asserts that China seeks nuclear power not for military advantage or technical purposes but for geopolitical leverage to counter Western containment. China seeks greater acknowledgement as a major world power and to be allowed to expand its influence and is increasing its nuclear arsenal, a symbol of power, for this reason. With this line of thinking, simply increasing the amount of U.S. nuclear weapons will not resolve China’s core worries and could further exacerbate the situation by enticing China to act more defensively.

A nuclear expansion response would fail in other scenarios as well. If China simply desires to make ‘nuclear parity’ with the United States, American growth will spur Chinese growth and could result in an arms race. Chinese officials have also called out U.S. anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems as destabilizing to their nuclear deterrent and a reason for their nuclear development. Their concern will not be alleviated by more U.S. nuclear weapons. Additionally, it can be expected that any surge in U.S. weapons will be met with similar responses by other countries, including Russia.

Now of course the United States cannot be expected to sit around and let potential adversaries coalesce more nuclear power. There may be a time, perhaps even soon, when it will need to reassess the size of its nuclear arsenal for national security concerns. But this can only be allowed to occur with extreme caution and clear, communicated objectives. Allies and other nuclear armed countries should be informed of any additions and the reasonings for them made clear. At the same time, the administration must continue to find other ways to strengthen diplomatic and other ties with China. The United States and China have both voiced opposition to any Russian use of nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine. The two countries also both support, though in different ways, the denuclearization of North Korea and a nuclear-free Iran. Finding a way to collaborate on these issues can provide avenues for nuclear policy dialogue without directly discussing their own weapons programs. Efforts should also be continued to solidify a ballistic missile launch notification agreement with China and to involve allies in policy talks, specifically India, a nuclear armed ally and potential point of leverage against China. As sizable power concerned with China’s military expansion, India’s participation in nuclear policy talks can potentially add weight to U.S. positions and ideas.

Ultimately, arms control is the only long-term and proven solution for this issue. Getting to arms control with China will require greater collaboration and transparency on both sides. The United States needs to prioritize policies that achieve these goals.