Admiral Charles Richard, head of the U.S. Joint Strategic Command, justified the need to use nuclear weapons in local conflicts. Photo from www.stratcom.mil
American military leaders made yet another resounding statement in open information space calling for tougher confrontation with strategic rivals, regardless of their nuclear status and even assuming use of nuclear weapons in clash of superpowers. This time, Admiral Charles Richard, head of the United States Joint Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), distinguished himself. His article, titled “Strengthening Deterrence Strategy in the 21st Century,” was published in the February issue of Proceedings, the monthly journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.
It was chosen to “stir up discussion among professionals,” for which the author not only contrasted the current situation on the global stage but also drew far-reaching conclusions about the need for a serious rethinking of the Pentagon’s approach to the coexistence of superpowers.
His central thesis: “The U.S. military must change its principled approach to the subject of war and peace, abandoning the ‘atomic weapons cannot be used’ attitude in favor ofnuclear weapons are a distinct possibility,’ and then act in accordance with that reality. The following statement: “We should see competition as a way of maintaining a relative advantage over our rivals. It is a never-ending game whose goal is to remain in the role of the major player.” And here is the “cherry on the cake”: “Making the assumption that a crisis or conflict with a nuclear adversary could lead to the use of atomic weapons, USSTRATCOM has developed and implemented an improved Risk of Failure Strategic Deterrence assessment algorithm that aims to better understand our own thinking.”
Written boldly, as befits a brave officer – a former commander of the submarine component of the U.S. Navy, with a wealth of experience in long voyages on nuclear-powered vessels. The Parche and NR-1 are among these, special purpose submarines active in covert reconnaissance and sabotage operations at great depths and in foreign waters. In short, the admiral knows about the confrontation of superpowers firsthand and has been directly involved in it himself.
He now heads one of the ten commands in the Pentagon, whose main task is to conduct strategic operations. More than 2,700 service members from all branches of the Armed Forces, plus civilian employees and contractors, are assembled under his command. USSTRATCOM was formed in 1992 to increase centralized management of strategic offensive weapons planning and combat use, increase flexibility in managing them in different military-strategic environments around the world, and improve cooperation among the components of the strategic triad.
Not bad for a start
The publication begins by asserting that the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a situation in which the Pentagon could no longer worry about a confrontation with a foreign superpower, a global crisis, or an armed conflict with a strong nuclear-armed adversary. “Unfortunately, this state of affairs no longer exists,” the author laments. – There is now a growing confrontation in the world, and the associated risk of superpower conflict and armed confrontation is becoming significant.”
Accordingly, the top military-political leadership of the United States has to take this into account almost every time they make a decision on the use of armed forces. However, the admiral notes the discrepancy between the current practice and the Pentagon’s guidelines and instructions. “Until we as a government structure come to understand – or better yet, accept – the fact of the threat we face and what to do about it all, we run a great risk of planning incorrectly, proposing plans that will prove unfeasible, and acquiring equipment and weapons that do not meet the needs of the armed forces. Without rethinking the situation, we will-not for the first time-be preparing again for a war that we imagine in our minds instead of one that may break out in reality. It is time for us to take off the “rose-colored glasses,” to face reality and to think about how to compete with our adversaries and how to contain them, how to reassure our allies, and together with them to properly shape the unified armed forces of the future.
The USSTRATCOM chief gets angry when he hears accusations against the Pentagon that it is supposedly “stuck in the Cold War. In his opinion, the Pentagon has long forgotten that period of history. However, he himself is unhappy, but on a different point, namely: “For the most part, the new challenges are based on a perception of reality through the prism of a conflict situation with an enemy with his hand on the nuclear button.” Meanwhile, the United States has been conducting uninterrupted counter-terrorism operations for a couple of decades now, and it has become customary for the country to ignore the subject of nuclear weapons. The admiral goes on to write, “The experience of recent wars with non-nuclear adversaries has shaped the American mindset that they do not consider the use of nuclear weapons possible, and often prefer not to even think about them.” The USSTRATCOM leadership also assesses the likelihood of nuclear conflict as low, but not as “impossible. Especially in the case of worsening contradictions with the enemy – the nuclear weapons possessor, which actively involves the army in the promotion of its own interests around the world.
The Enemy does not sleep.
While the Pentagon was concentrating on counterterrorism, Russia and China were violating generally accepted norms of behavior and threatening peaceful coexistence through the use of force and threats of force. Moreover, according to Charles Richard, they are still doing it today in a manner not seen since the Cold War, and in some cases – even in its most difficult moments. We are talking about computer attacks and threats to use force in outer space.
“Our adversaries use every opportunity, including those opened by the pandemic, to advance national interests,” he argues. Washington qualifies such behavior as destabilizing. “Unless we fight back, the risk of a global crisis will grow. We must actively confront our adversaries by deterring aggression. Indulging such efforts threatens to reinforce the notion that America is unwilling or unable to fight back, which only emboldens our enemies. Our inaction may appear to our allies as a reluctance to lead, as a refusal to lead. By remaining passive, we seem to be refusing to seize opportunities, thereby depriving ourselves of our greatest advantage: the ability to strategically project power.
According to the admiral, there will come a moment when the enemy’s initiative will become a fait accompli, leaving Washington with a choice: either accept the “new normal,” or use military force to restore the “status quo,” or “establish its own new normal.”
The Russian Bear
The strategic capabilities of U.S. foes continue to grow. In the new century, Russia is actively modernizing its nuclear forces. All infrastructure and components are being improved, including long-range aviation, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarine cruisers, data collection and troop control systems, and doctrines for their use. But all this did not seem enough for Moscow, which decided to develop the direction of “medium-range and short-range missiles that do not comply with international agreements.
According to the head of USSTRATCOM, the long-term program of modernization of Russian nuclear forces is 70% complete and is moving forward in accordance with previously adopted plans. In addition, Russia is creating new, innovative systems, such as hypersonic gliders, torpedoes with nuclear propulsion and warheads, etc. “The country’s leaders do not hold back when they want to intimidate neighboring countries. By deciding to annex Crimea, President Vladimir Putin reminded the world by word and deed that Russia possesses nuclear weapons, and thus foiled attempts to put things back on track.”
The development of nuclear capabilities and technologically advanced weapons is not all that our country is guilty of. According to the U.S. admiral, the Russian military often allows “unsafe maneuvers” in close proximity to their U.S. counterparts. The same situation is reflected in the headlines in the Western press: “Russian Su-35 fighter jet performed ‘irresponsible’ interception of US Navy P-8A sea reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea” and “Unsafe Maneuver of Russian destroyer nearly resulted in collision with the US Navy cruiser”. Russia constantly violates the norms of behavior in cyberspace” – Richard claims. He cites last year’s computer attack on the Georgian government and infiltrations into U.S. government systems as examples. In short, Moscow’s actions “run counter to its attempts to hold itself accountable in cyberspace. But that’s not all. Beginning in 2020, Russia has been launching space satellite interceptor missiles, thereby demonstrating a threat to the world’s orbital constellation. “Taken together, these actions show Russia’s determination to go for aggression and ignore international norms,” concludes the USSTRATCOM chief.
Although the PLA’s nuclear arsenal is an order of magnitude smaller than Russia’s, China should not be seen as a “lesser evil,” as it is halfway to its cherished goal of acquiring the status of a strategic player. Its main sin is that “like Russia, this country also demonstrates its rejection of democratic values and wants to restructure the world economic order to its own advantage.
Washington does not like the confidence with which China is making progress in all fields of modern technology. On the conventional side, Beijing continues to allocate large resources to the development of hypersonic and other advanced missile systems, as well as to expand the capabilities of orbital and anti-satellite systems. The development of the space area leads to an improvement in the PLA’s controllability and increases the CCP leadership’s awareness of the current situation in all corners of the world. The Chinese have erected bulk islands in the South China Sea and deployed numerous weapons systems there. “Like the Russians, Chinese sailors and pilots ‘chase away’ the U.S. and allied aircraft when they fly missions over neutral waters,” Richard complains.
The PRC has invested enormous resources in the development of nuclear weapons. The navy is adding nuclear-powered Jin-class submarine cruisers with intercontinental ballistic missiles on board. The next generation of ballistic missiles, capable of launching from both silo launchers and railroad platforms, is being developed. Soon a new long-range bomber will take to the skies. Thus, the land and sea-based missile groups will be joined by the third component of the nuclear triad – strategic aviation. China is in the process of building new early warning and control systems. This increases the flexibility of use and protection of PLA nuclear forces.
“The PLA’s nuclear deterrent force is growing both qualitatively and quantitatively. The Pentagon estimates that the number of Chinese nuclear warheads will double over the next decade. Or maybe triple or quadruple,” Richard writes. So as far as China is concerned, “we must judge by deeds, not by words.”
“Responsible action should be inherent in all superpowers and each individually. In other words, Beijing remains committed to the no-nukes policy adopted in the sixties, as if to tell us: don’t worry. But politicians can make adjustments and renege on earlier promises at an opportune moment. We can see that Beijing is betting on expanding its military capabilities in a manner inconsistent with the declared principle of maintaining a minimal nuclear deterrent. It is moving toward acquiring every possible option, including limited use and preemptive strike.
A new approach
Faced with threats from Russia and China, the U.S. must act today to properly position itself for the future. “And we must begin by recognizing the most basic tenet of all: strategic deterrence will persist (through crisis or conflict) but will be put to the test in ways never before seen.” According to Admiral Richard, the realization of this simple truth lays the foundation for the subsequent construction of strategies and plans, as well as the formation of procurement policies.
Unfortunately, he writes, Washington’s opponents have managed to get “well invested” in expanding their nuclear and strategic forces, designed specifically to limit U.S. strategic capabilities and undermine the Western alliance. “There is a real possibility that a local conflict with Russia or China will quickly escalate into a superpower clash using nuclear weapons. For example, when they feel they are losing the battle with
Hence the conclusion: “The U.S. military must change its principled approach to the subject of war and peace, abandoning the ‘no use of atomic weapons’ attitude in favor of ‘the use of nuclear weapons seems quite realistic’ and then acting in accordance with that reality. According to the head of USSTRATCOM, America should not view nuclear deterrence “the old way,” but should change its views in accordance with new realities and the dynamics of the changing global landscape.
Charles Richard then turns to the topic of risk assessment. “It’s more than just calculating probability; you also have to think about the consequences of certain actions. We cannot simply ignore or disregard future events that may seem improbable today but, if they do occur, will have catastrophic consequences.
Second, we should bear in mind that the coexistence of superpowers takes place in a world that rests on all kinds of ties, checks and balances, and promises and guarantees. The process of superpower competition will not end at all at an “endpoint,” Richard argues. In his view, the analogy of sports, where the winner takes all, is inapplicable. “Our rivals are just as motivated as ours. Rather than a game of chicken out, we should look at competition as a long-term way of maintaining a relative advantage over our rivals. It’s a never-ending game whose goal is to maintain ourselves as the leading, dominant player.”
To justify such an approach, Richard draws historical parallels. “History gives us several examples of how rivalries ended only to flare up again in other, more important areas. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not bring about the kind of unified world order that many had expected.”
The notion of competition as bringing a relative advantage also calls into question the oft-repeated view that effective competition reinforces deterrence. If the gap between the leader of the race and his opponent becomes too large, the laggard may find it possible and necessary to escalate, by war to achieve rebalancing.
“As we introduce additional factors for consideration, we must calculate our rivalry and deterrence actions so as not to alienate our allies. Today we have several strategies and concepts that consider competition, deterrence, and assurance. But few provide insight into what the balance we seek should be and how do we maintain that balance to our advantage? As a government agency, the Pentagon should be on top of its game and, as part of a unified approach to responding to Russian and Chinese aggression, consider the fact that each of our adversaries requires different approaches on the line of deterrence. Such thinking should be incorporated into professional military education at the earliest possible stage.”
Third, the Pentagon should reconsider its approach to strategic risk assessment and how calculations flesh out specific plans and their execution. “Making the assumption that a crisis or conflict with a nuclear adversary could lead to the use of atomic weapons, USSTRATCOM has developed and implemented an improved assessment process called the Risk of Failure of Strategic Deterrence. Its purpose is to gain a better understanding of our own thinking.”
Such calculations allow us to build a decision-making system with a kind of algorithm and “muscle memory” that adjusts to external conditions. If changes in the global landscape lead to a disruption of deterrence, the U.S. military puts itself on high alert for the opening of full-scale combat operations. In addition, the Pentagon uses these developments to refine its deterrence strategy, seeking to better reflect the conditions of superpower rivalry, crisis or conflict.
The final point is that the Pentagon must reformat its approach to prioritizing weapons development and procurement. In doing so, it should make sure that all planned receipts are in line with the overall top-level strategy. “We should adopt an approach in which the primary function of the national nuclear deterrent force becomes one that gives us the margin of maneuver to project conventional (non-nuclear) force in a strategic direction,” Richard explains.
A florid move.
In short, the U.S. military is preparing to act in such a way as to concentrate its forces and capabilities by the chosen time and apply them in the role of “deciders. Among the latter, the areas of space, troop control, and cybernetics (and these could be decisive in their own right) stand out. “We need to keep the momentum going by finding better ways to integrate and move our forces and capabilities around the world in order to act faster than the enemy and thereby hold the initiative,” says Richard.
As if aware that the author’s train of thought is becoming difficult for professional military readers to understand, he provides the following simplified formulation. “In short, we must look for opportunities that will maintain our advantage against the enemy and, if necessary, become decisive as early as possible, before the enemy has fully concentrated or the window of opportunity has closed.”
Although the picture painted is “sobering,” it should not lead to despair, the author continues. “The challenges before us do not seem insurmountable to me at all. Once again, the Pentagon shows its resolve and determination to adjust to a changing environment. We should adapt to today’s world by recognizing what kind of threat our adversaries pose and how they calculate the situation.
America has no choice but to accept the challenge of the other nuclear-armed superpowers. “It is through a full-scale, comprehensive risk assessment process that we can better match the resources of nations and the readiness of armed forces to guarantee strategic security. In the end, it all comes down to the threat. Until we come to a broader understanding of what that threat is and what to do about it, we run the risk of embarrassing ourselves – or even, to the delight of our adversaries, getting into a much worse position.”
To summarize. The article by the head of USSTRATCOM is the latest in a series of publications by high-ranking military officials. Its purpose: to gradually lead his subordinates and the whole world to realize the scale of threats and risks generated by the growing confrontation between the two worlds – the Western world, led by the US, and the Eastern world, led by Russia and China. These are not individual articles, but rather a well-planned plan for publication. It is not yet clear how long the American generals intend to educate their readers. It is better that this process should last as long as possible and that there should be no war.