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Is this a new nuclear arms race?

The Strategic Posture Commission and how to improve nuclear security without massive buildups

A U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. The new Strategic Posture Commission calls for a broad buildup of U.S. nuclear capabilities.

▲ A U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. The new Strategic Posture Commission calls for a broad buildup of U.S. nuclear capabilities. Source: U.S. Department of Defense

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On Thursday, October 12th, the U.S. Strategic Posture Commission released its final report, along with a set of recommendations that, essentially, call for a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China.

In the words of the Federation of American Scientists:

“… the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission report is a full-throated embrace of a U.S. nuclear build-up. It includes recommendations for the United States to prepare to increase its number of deployed warheads, as well as increasing its production of bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, ballistic missile submarines, non-strategic nuclear forces, and warhead production capacity. It also calls for the United States to deploy multiple warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and consider adding road-mobile ICBMs to its arsenal."

Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put the problem bluntly: “If taken seriously, these are a set of prescriptions for an open-ended arms race with no happy end” (emphasis mine).

Earlier this year, our Founders Pledge report on Global Catastrophic Nuclear Risks: A Guide for Philanthropists warned of the dangers of a new nuclear arms race and the deterioration in nuclear stability and philanthropy. This post summarizes the issue and explains how donors to philanthropic co-funding vehicles like the Global Catastrophic Risks Fund can help to reduce these risks.

The Nuclear Three Body Problem

The Strategic Posture Commission does point to a real problem: the Chinese Communist Party appears to be building up its nuclear arsenal dramatically and is expected to nearly quadruple its nuclear warhead numbers over the coming years. The Commission’s report states:

“Beijing will continue the largest nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification in its history. Current estimates are that the PRC’s operational nuclear warhead stockpile surpassed 400 warheads in 2021, and that the PLA will field over 700 nuclear warheads by 2027, over 1,000 warheads by 2030, and, if it continues its current pace, at least 1,500 deployed warheads by 2035.”

This creates two related dangers. The first is that there has never been a world with three nuclear superpowers. The U.S. and Russia have dominated the rest of the world’s much smaller nuclear powers for years:

Now there are likely going to be three nuclear superpowers. Nuclear strategy was not designed with this three-party world in mind. Negotiations may become more complex when three rather than two parties must agree, targeting policies become more difficult, and new and unexpected dynamics may emerge. This is why, as explained in our nuclear report, there is a potentially unstable “three body problem”:

“Leaders of U.S. Strategic Command have expressed concern about what Admiral Charles Richards has compared to the ‘three-body problem’ in physics, stating that ‘I’m not sure what strategic stability looks like in a three-party world’ (emphasis mine), that STRATCOM has been ‘furiously’ working on renewed deterrence theory, and that he remains deeply pessimistic despite this work: ‘There are exactly zero stable [...] three-body orbital regimes' (emphasis mine)."

The second problem is that this buildup may spark reactions from other nuclear states — like the United States — that ultimately fuel a new arms race. Arms reductions since the late Cold War (as shown in the graph above) have been a big win for arms control, but “what went down can come back up,” as one section of the nuclear report explains. There is no reason to believe that these arms reductions were sticky, and every reason to believe that new arms races are possible.

We can imagine a tripolar arms race between the U.S., Russia, and China:

image3.png

Source: Visualization based on Our World in Data dataset, assuming that China arms post-2035 as Russia did between 1960 and 1982, and that the U.S. and Russia match this build-up weapon-for-weapon. (See nuclear report for full explanation)

And even a multipolar global arms race where Pakistan and India join the fray:

image1.png

Source: Visualization based on Our World in Data dataset and the scenario described in Global Catastrophic Nuclear Risk.

What to Do

The answer, as several nuclear experts recently explained in Foreign Affairs, is not to match China’s buildup with more bombs and missiles. The Biden administration has taken a similar stance for now, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “I want to be clear here—the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.”

But this issue is becoming increasingly politicized. As recent coverage in TIME explained, “For Republicans, the report [by the Strategic Posture Commission] is likely to be used as political ammunition against President Joe Biden” (emphasis mine).

These rumblings of a political fight over a new arms race are especially dispiriting when we consider the state of nuclear security philanthropy. As explained in a recent article for Vox:

“This year, the MacArthur Foundation, the single biggest philanthropic funder of nuclear risk reduction, is making its final grant distributions before fully withdrawing from the field. Academics, activists, and think tank analysts already relied on a meager $47 million a year. One analysis estimated that MacArthur accounted for about $15 million of that on average between 2014 and 2020, suggesting that total funding may shrink to around $32 million now (the exact numbers are highly uncertain, given reporting lags and database issues). For comparison, the budget of Christopher Nolan’s new Oppenheimer movie is over $100 million. In other words, filmmakers spent three times more money on a single movie about nuclear war than philanthropists are spending on preventing nuclear war.”

Philanthropy has a long history of beneficially nudging policymakers in the direction of risk reduction, however, and we think that now is an opportune time to invest effectively in new projects to address catastrophic nuclear risks. As explained in the final sections of Global Catastrophic Nuclear Risks, this includes funding interventions that other funders have shied away from, and funding large-scale research and policy advocacy projects to address the Three Body Problem responsibly — without calling for a new arms race.

If you want to help support philanthropy on global catastrophic risks, consider donating to our Global Catastrophic Risks Fund.

Notes

  1. “I'm not sure what strategic stability looks like in a three-party world, and a lot of terms have been kicked around. Oh, that's stabilizing, that's not stabilizing. That's destabilizing;” “I do know that there are many passively stable two body orbital regimes that you can stick stuff in, but there are exactly zero passively stable three body orbital regimes. They all require active stabilization. And I don’t even know what that means when the forces can’t be described by physics but are political, so we have gotten to think through this much harder than we have in the past;” “The free world is getting tested in ways right now, ways we haven't seen in decades. And that three-party nuclear-fueled world's just unprecedented.” (STRATCOM, “2022 Space and Missile Defense Symposium,” U.S. Strategic Command, August 11, 2022, and Theresa Hitchens, “The Nuclear 3 Body Problem: STRATCOM ‘furiously’ Rewriting Deterrence Theory in Tripolar World,” Breaking Defense (blog), August 11, 2022).


About the author

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Christian Ruhl

Senior Researcher & Global Catastrophic Risks Fund Manager

Christian Ruhl is an Applied Researcher based in Philadelphia. Before joining Founders Pledge in November 2021, Christian was the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania's global affairs think tank, where he managed the research theme on “The Future of the Global Order: Power, Technology, and Governance.” Before that, Christian studied on a Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship at the University of Cambridge for two master’s degrees, one in History and Philosophy of Science and one in International Relations and Politics, with dissertations on early modern submarines and Cold War nuclear strategy. Christian received his BA from Williams College in 2017.