Written by Alexander Mercouris; Originally appeared at The Duran
The US Nuclear Posture Review is a seminal document, not just because of the nuclear weapons build up it speaks of – worrying though that is – but because it represents a formal admission by the US that the so-called ‘unipolar moment’ – the period after the end of the Cold War when the US enjoyed unchallenged global dominance – is over.
So far from being the world’s unchallenged and unchallengeable ‘hyperpower’ and world hegemon, the US admits that it is now once again just one of three Great Powers – the US, Russia and China – albeit that it still considers itself to be the strongest of the three.
The Review admits this unambiguously. One of its chapters is straightforwardly entitled “The Return of Great Power competition”.
This chapter, the single most important in the whole document, has this to say
Since 2010 we have seen the return of Great Power competition.
To varying degrees, Russia and China have made clear they seek to substantially revise the post-Cold War international order and norms of behavior.
Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit nuclear first-use threats. Russia is in violation of its international legal and political commitments that directly affect the security of others, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, and the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Its occupation of Crimea and direct support for Russia-led forces in Eastern Ukraine violate its commitment to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine that they made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
China meanwhile has rejected the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal that found China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to be without merit and some of its related activities illegal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.
Subsequently, China has continued to undertake assertive military initiatives to create “facts on the ground” in support of its territorial claims over features in the East and South China Seas.
Russia and China are pursuing asymmetric ways and means to counter U.S. conventional capabilities, thereby increasing the risk of miscalculation and the potential for military confrontation with the United States, its allies, and partners.
Both countries are developing counter-space military capabilities to deny the United States the ability to conduct spacebased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3); and positioning, navigation, and timing. Both seek to develop offensive cyberspace capabilities to deter, disrupt, or defeat U.S. forces dependent on computer networks.
Both are fielding an array of anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and underground facilities to counter U.S. precision conventional strike capabilities and to raise the cost for the United States to reinforce its European and Asian allies and partners.
While nuclear weapons play a deterrent role in both Russian and Chinese strategy, Russia may also rely on threats of limited nuclear first use, or actual first use, to coerce us, our allies, and partners into terminating a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. Moscow apparently believes that the United States is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons.
Russian and Chinese officials strongly object to this characterisation of their countries’ foreign and defence policies, which they say is misleading and wrong.
However that is to miss the point. The point is that for the first time since the end of the Cold War the US sees itself as challenged by other Great Powers – specifically Russia and China – which are militarily and technologically and – in China’s case – economically comparable to itself.
It is in order to respond to this challenge that the US is embarking on the massive upgrade in its nuclear forces which the Review discusses.
This proposed upgrade is indeed massive, though the Review goes out of its way to deny (unconvincingly) its likely huge financial cost.
Briefly, in order to match the upgrades in Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear forces which are currently underway, the US proposes to develop a new generation of nuclear missile submarines to replace the Ohio class submarine, a new ground launched intercontinental ballistic missile to replace the ageing Minuteman III missile, and a new strategic bomber to strengthen its ageing and increasingly ineffective strategic bomber force.
My fundamental objection to this approach is not that the US does not face mounting challenges from Russia and China – it clearly does – but that the US is either blind to the fact that it has provoked those challenges by its own actions, or that it refuses to admit to itself the fact.
This becomes very clear from even a cursory reading of the Review.
Nowhere in the Review is there the slightest acknowledgement that the US has done things which might make the Russians and the Chinese feel threatened by the US, and that this might cause the Russians and the Chinese to upgrade their defences in response to the threats they might perceive from the US.
Thus the Review has nothing to say about how the Russians might feel about the eastward expansion of NATO – undertaken in breach of promises made to the them by the US and NATO at the end of the Cold War – the US’s bombing of Yugoslavia, the US engineered ‘colour revolutions’ in the former Soviet space, US support for the Maidan coup in Ukraine, and the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and deployment of anti-ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe.
The Review is equally oblivious to the way the Chinese might feel about US meddling in the South China Sea, US deployment of anti-ballistic missile interceptors in the Korean Peninsula, US support for Japanese rearmament, and US threats of war against North Korea.
On the subject of the US ‘regime change’ wars against Iraq, Libya and Syria, and the US’s increasingly flagrant disregard of the authority of the UN Security Council of which both Russia and China are permanent members, the Review has nothing to say at all.
Not surprisingly, since the US cannot admit – apparently even to itself – how its actions might be perceived in Russia and China, its response to the increasing challenges which it admits it is facing is to double down.
Thus the programme to embark upon a vast upgrade of US nuclear forces which the Review outlines.
This is staggeringly short-sighted. The international position of the US has markedly deteriorated in recent years- as the Review says – precisely because of the responses from Russia and China to the US’s own actions.
Yet whilst the Review shows that the US is aware of the marked deterioration of its international position, instead of drawing back and reconsidering its actions, it is choosing to take steps which will provoke Russia and China into stronger responses, which over time will not only weaken the US’s international position even further, but which will over time greatly increase the threat of war.
I say this because the other great omission from the Review is any recognition of the single most important fact about the international situation which has become increasingly obvious over the last ten years: this is that the two Great Powers from whom the US perceives it is facing challenges – Russia and China – are increasingly cooperating and working together as they come under ever greater pressure from the US.
A key reason why the US was able to see off the Soviet challenge during the Cold War was because the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s markedly weakened the USSR’s international position, and markedly strengthened that of the US.
As the Review shows, the US not only seems oblivious of this fact: it is doing everything in its power by threatening Russia and China simultaneously to reverse the position of advantage it achieved through the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s by bringing Russia and China closer together against the US.
This is beyond foolish given that today – as was never the case during the Cold War – the aggregate economic, technological and especially industrial and raw material resources of Russia and China are greater than those of the US, calling into question the US’s long term ability to sustain an arms race which it insists on conducting simultaneously against both of them.
Already there is a marked build up of Russian conventional forces in eastern Europe, probably outmatching the size and power of the conventional forces the US currently has in Europe, whilst the Chinese aircraft carrier programme threatens US military dominance of the Pacific for the first time since the end of the Second World War.
At present the US still has the military forces to take on both the Russian army in Europe and the Chinese navy in the Pacific simultaneously.
However before long that will become impossible, at which point the US will find itself not only disastrously over-extended but facing a military commitments’ crisis.
In a rational world that ought to drive the US towards seeking some sort of rapprochement with either Russia or China or preferably with both of them.
Both countries are still overwhelmingly focused on their internal economic development, and for that reason they would probably be willing to come to some sort of ‘geostrategic ceasefire’ arrangement with the US if it were offered to them.
The brief detente era between the US and the USSR of the early 1970s offers a possible precedent, though given subsequent US behaviour the US now faces a massive trust deficit which it will struggle to overcome.
However that remains the rational approach for the US to be taking, and in my opinion if it took it, and committed itself to it seriously, it would probably despite all the trust issues achieve success given the overriding interest of both Russia and China in a peaceful and stable world situation at this time. Certainly the view expressed in the Review that Russia and China are ‘revisionist’ powers is for the time being at least wrong.
The Review however shows that the US intends instead to take the opposite course.
Its plan appears to be step up the nuclear arms race with Russia in the hope that this will force Moscow to come to terms with the US on US terms, thereby leaving the US free to turn its full weight onto China, which the Nuclear Posture Review shows the US realises is its true longterm rival.
Thus comments in the Review like this
The United States and Russia have in the past maintained strategic dialogues to manage nuclear competition and nuclear risks. Given Russian actions, including its occupation of Crimea, this constructive engagement has declined substantially. The United States looks forward to a new day when Russia engages with the United States, its allies, and partners transparently and constructively, without aggressive actions and coercive nuclear threat
Russia is not the Soviet Union and the Cold War is long over. However, despite our best efforts to sustain a positive relationship, Russia now perceives the United States and NATO as its principal opponent and impediment to realizing its destabilizing geopolitical goals in Eurasia
In other words the US wants a return to the situation of the 1990s, when Russia was essentially a US satellite, and its military build up against Russia is intended to force Russia to agree to a return to this situation, which of course benefited the US.
The fact that this approach is more likely to provoke Russia into upgrading its own nuclear deterrence capabilities still further – something which Russia has repeatedly shown that it is both willing and able to do – and into forging even closer relations with China in its own defence, is something that the authors of the Review are clearly aware of, but have no response to.
Instead they choose to double down on an offensive nuclear weapons build up policy which targets Russia even though one senses that they know that it has scant prospect of success.
The US Nuclear Posture Review is in fact a profoundly pessimistic document, more so than any other foreign policy or defence document the US government has published which I have read since the end of the Cold War.
Not only does it effectively admit what is now undeniable – that with the return of Great Power competition the ‘unipolar moment’ has passed – but it barely conceals its dismay that the US is once again locked into something which following the end of the Cold War it assumed it would never have to face again: a nuclear arms race.
Much of the Review in fact consists of a long lament about the extent to which the US’s nuclear forces have fallen behind those of its main rivals – Russia and China – since the end of the Cold War.
Obviously there is much special pleading here, and no doubt the Review is in part both a response to the perennial urging from the US’s military defence industries (its famous ‘military-industrial complex’) for more military spending and to the careerist ambitions of its authors.
However even a cynic should admit that there is also a grain of truth to it.
It is for example true that the basic systems the US uses for its offensive nuclear forces – the Ohio nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the Trident II sea launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Minuteman III land based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the B-2 bomber, are all products of the late Cold War.
By contrast Russia since the end of the Cold War has deployed two types of road mobile ICBMs (the Topol and the Yars), is about to deploy a new large heavy ICBM (the Sarmat), is currently building modern Borei class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and has deployed two modern SLBMs, the Bulava and the Sineva.
Russia has also relaunched construction of the large supersonic T-160 strategic bomber, has an ongoing programme to develop its own subsonic strategic stealth bomber, the PAK-DA, and has apparently an ongoing programme to develop a high speed underwater drone capable of carrying out nuclear strikes on the US coastline.
Though Chinese strategic weapons programmes are much smaller than Russia’s, China has brought into service since 2008, albeit apparently in small numbers, the D-31 road mobile ICBM, is currently developing the D-41 road mobile ICBM, has begun to deploy multiple re-entry warheads on its D-5 land based ICBM, and has recently begun deploying its new Type 094 nuclear ballistic missile submarines with its JL-2 SLBMs, which have multiple re-entry warheads.
The one area where since the end of the Cold War the US has deployed a modern strategic weapon system ahead of Russia and China is in the field of anti-ballistic missile systems, where it has deployed such systems on the Korean Peninsula and in eastern Europe.
These US developments in anti-ballistic missile technology however now look to be matched by ongoing Russian development of the A-235 and S-500 missiles.
In the meantime the Russians and the Chinese (the Russians especially) have now at least matched and possibly even surpassed the US in cruise missile technology, an area where before 2010 the US enjoyed unchallenged dominance.
There has been some discussion recently of the supposed advantages the US has achieved through the development of ‘super-fuzes’ for its nuclear warheads, which supposedly means that it has either achieved or is close to achieving a ‘first strike capability’.
The Saker has to my already conclusively refuted these claims. To his well-informed comments I would merely add that if the US is deploying ‘super-fuzes’ for its nuclear warheads then it is a virtual certainty that the Russians are doing so also. Whatever advantage the US may have achieved through this technology will therefore prove to be ephemeral.
Much of the discussion about ‘super-fuzes’ is in any event based in my opinion on mistaken comparisons of the US and Russian early warning systems.
It is true that the Russian early warning system is currently based on land based radars, whereas the US system is based on satellites, and that this means that the Russian system provides shorter warning times against enemy missile attacks (supposedly 15 minutes) than does the US system (supposedly 30 minutes).
However this fails to recognise that this is only so because the Russians chose to build an early warning system based on land based radars rather than satellites.
They did that not only because a land based system is much cheaper but because it also has much greater system redundancy and is less vulnerable to attack.
By contrast the Review speaks with great alarm of the development by Russia and China of anti-satellite weapons, which potentially could threaten the viability of its early warning system, ignoring of course the fact that it was the US which foolishly initiated the development of such weapons in the first place.
The Russians are anyway now preparing to supplement their land based early warning system with a secondary satellite based system, which will reduce their system’s warning times to roughly the same level as that of the US.
As to the actual production of nuclear weapons – as opposed to the systems to deliver them – the Review laments at fantastic length the fact that the US has lost much of its capability to produce such weapons, and that one quarter of its nuclear weapons infrastructure dates from the Manhattan Project era of the 1940s.
If there is therefore a grain of truth to the Review’s complaint that whilst the US has been neglecting its strategic nuclear forces the Russians and the Chinese have been pressing ahead with upgrading theirs, it however omits what is undoubtedly the reason for this.
Not only are Russian and Chinese nuclear forces developments responses to the overweening US geostrategic ambitions of the ‘unipolar’ era; the US neglected development of its strategic nuclear forces during that era precisely because it assumed that following its ‘victory’ over the USSR in the Cold War it enjoyed such a huge margin of superiority over all conceivable rivals that it would not need to upgrade its offensive nuclear forces further.
Moreover the US seems to have assumed that its development of ‘super-fuzes’ and of new anti-ballistic missile system deployments would ‘lock in’ its superiority forever.
No less a person than Vladimir Putin himself said in my presence that the reason the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty and launched its anti-ballistic missile programmes at the start of the 2000s was because it was convinced that Russia in its then prostate state would never be able to respond to them.
The events of the last decade have shattered these illusions.
Not only have the Russians and the Chinese responded to US actions by upgrading their strategic nuclear forces to an extent that the US never imagined possible, but they have both shown that they are both able and willing to counter whatever technological challenges – such as anti-ballistic missile systems or ‘super-fuzes’ – that the US throws at them.
In the meantime multiple media reports speak of the Russians and the Chinese staying fully abreast of US hypersonic warhead programmes, and cooperating with each other in anti-satellite weapons development.
Not only have US geopolitical ambitions provoked Russia and China into building up their strategic nuclear forces to an extent and speed which the US never imagined.
They have also provoked a nuclear challenge to the US from a third party, the US has never confronted before.
To the obvious dismay of the authors of the Review, the US now finds itself faced with a North Korea armed with both ICBMs and nuclear weapons.
I have discussed the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme many times, so I will repeat here only briefly the point which even the authors of the Review concede, which is that the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is a response to the threat the North Korean regime perceives from the US
What the Review fails to acknowledge is that once again it was US actions – specifically the US’s repeated reneging of agreements it had reached with North Korea extending back to the early 1990s – which provoked North Korea into pursuing this programme.
Once more the US finds itself reaping the consequences of its ‘unipolar’ illusions.
It assumed that following the end of the Cold War the North Korean regime was ripe for collapse, and that it lacked the resources to follow through with the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme it admitted to possessing.
As a result in the 1990s and early 2000s the US felt itself under no real pressure to follow through with the agreements it had reached with North Korea, and because these were unpopular with certain influential people in the US, the agreements were allowed to fall by the wayside.
The result is that the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons capability is now in place, with the Review all but admitting that the US has no good options to respond to it.
The Review in fact devotes a disproportionate amount of space to North Korea even though its capability to strike at the US is for the moment very limited, and cannot be compared to those of Russia and China.
However that limited capability which North Korea does possess has nonetheless massively complicated US nuclear strategic nuclear forces planning, introducing a third nuclear rival to the US about whom the US knows very little, and whose actions are therefore unpredictable.
Beyond the growing and multiplying nuclear challenges the US is facing, the US planners must now also face a rapidly deteriorating conventional military environment.
Not only does the US for the first time in its post Second World War history face the prospect of simultaneous conventional military challenges in Europe and the Pacific from the Russian army and the Chinese navy.
It now also finds itself for the first time since the end of the Second World War facing a potentially significant conventional military challenge in the Middle East from Iran.
This presumably is why the Review also devotes a disproportionate amount of space to Iran despite Iran having no nuclear weapons.
Indeed it is easy to see how the US’s overall military position is rapidly becoming worse than it was during the Cold War.
The Cold War was essentially a dual between two nuclear superpowers – the US and the USSR – which was fought out in a limited geographical area – north west Europe and the north Atlantic.
By contrast the challenges the US is now facing are becoming truly global: against Russia in Europe, against China in the Pacific, and potentially against North Korea and Iran in the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East.
Moreover, despite their differences there is a growing trend for three of these Powers – Russia, China and Iran – to work together with each other, with Russia and China de facto allies against the US, and Iran gradually becoming so.
It is only a question of time before the US finds that it does not have the conventional military forces to confront all these challenges simultaneously.
This almost certainly is the true why the US its Cold War arsenal of low yield nuclear warheads.
During the Cold War this arsenal of low yield nuclear warheads was intended by the US to offset perceived Soviet conventional military superiority in north west Europe. It is precisely in order to counter possible conventional military challenges – especially from Russia in Europe – that this arsenal is now being revived.
That this is what really lies behind the US decision to bring back low yield nuclear warheads, and not the (entirely fictitious) Russian doctrine of limited nuclear war which is conjured up in the Review, is all confirmed by these words in the Review, which openly speak of the US being prepared to use its nuclear forces to respond to conventional military challenges
The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.
Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.
The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
Given the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.
(bold italics added)
Needless to say, this approach magnifies many times over the risk that nuclear weapons might one day be used by US battlefield commanders in order to stave off a possible conventional military defeat.
It is a disastrous lowering of the nuclear threshold, which given the present period of tension can only cause deep concern.
The US Nuclear Forces Review is in fact a deeply ominous document.
It shows that the US realises that its period of unquestioned global dominance has ended, but instead of responding to this by moderating its policies and reaching out to its potential adversaries, it is escalating its policies against them further.
That can only increase the ‘threat environment’ the return of which the Review spends so much time lamenting.
Moreover the authors of the Review, who come across as intelligent and well-informed people, obviously know it. However considerations of ideology, pride and self-interest prevent them from drawing the obvious conclusions from it.
I experienced the same disturbing denial in a television debate I had with a US defence specialist on Press TV during which I discussed the Nuclear Posture Review and this very same issue.
Whilst my US interlocutor was clearly an intelligent person who was fully aware of the validity of all the points both I and the moderator were making – he never disputed any of them at any point in the programme – his response was simply to go on repeating like a broken record the same claims about the US needing to be “strong” and needing to show “leadership” with which he started the programme.
Given this mindset, which it is clear is not merely shared by all politicians in Washington but by the whole of the US’s military leadership, it is very easy to see how as the US’s international position continues to deteriorate things could go catastrophically wrong.
There is a famous – possibly apocryphal – story of the advice Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt supposedly gave to Hitler’s headquarters on 1st July 1944, as it became clear that the German counter-attack against the Allied beachhead in Normandy had failed. It runs like this
Keitel: What shall we do? What shall we do?
Rundstedt: Make peace, you fools! What else can you do?
It is not entirely wrong to say that in geostrategic terms the US now finds itself in roughly the same position as the one Germany was in when Rundstedt supposedly gave his advice.
However on the evidence of the Review, it is as resistant to the implications of this – and to the actions which must follow from it – as were the German leaders when what were essentially the same facts were pointed out to them.
Obviously the US unlike Germany does not find itself in an actual war. However given the appallingly high stakes, its resistance to reality can only fill one with a sense of deep foreboding and dismay.