A little-noticed bipartisan report released last month calls for the United States to take part in a new nuclear arms race. The unceremonious debut of the Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States flew largely under the radar of a foreign policy commentariat presently encaptivated by Hamas’ attacks on Israel and the conflict that has erupted in Gaza.
The report was, however, noticed by a slew of nuclear experts who were dismayed by its hawkish contents. Naturally, they took to X (formally Twitter) to scorch it. Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists argued the report “reads more like a nuclear industry pitch than a Congressional study.” Carnegie’s Ankit Panda said it was “all too predictable.” Nuclear analyst Pavel Podvig simply called it “garbage.”
Yet, the report’s relevance goes well beyond niche online policy discourses — and its recommendations for the future of America’s nuclear forces are as disturbing as its title is antiseptic. Simply put, it says the United States needs to develop more nuclear forces, and faster.
The Poor Case for More
The bipartisan commission’s 12 members were selected by Congress last year to assess the present threat environment and provide appropriate recommendations for the future of US nuclear force posture, with 2027 to at least 2035 being the timeframe under scrutiny.
Regardless of whether one is cynical enough to read the report as a sales pitch for the military-industrial complex, it is certainly a vocal proposition for something arguably worse — a new Cold War waged simultaneously on two fronts. The impetus for this thinking stems from the increasingly challenging nature of today’s security environment.
The commissioners tell us:
“Today the United States is on the cusp of having not one, but two nuclear peer adversaries, each with ambitions to change the international status quo, by force, if necessary: a situation which the United States did not anticipate and for which it is not prepared. While the risk of a major nuclear conflict remains low, the risk of military conflict with either or both Russia and China, while not inevitable, has grown, and with it the risk of nuclear use, possibly against the US homeland.”
The commissioners argue a greater conventional force frees the United States from a heavy reliance on its nuclear deterrent (something the report effectively proposes anyway!), ignoring a tendency of Russia and China to lean on their deterrent forces when facing a conventional imbalance. Far from mollifying the nuclear threat, the proposed buildup may exacerbate it.
A host of recommendations flowed from this gloomy assessment, chiefly an exhortation to build a larger nuclear force across the board. The Pentagon’s half-a-trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program, the report argues, is insufficient, and the tireless refrain is more. The United States must invest in more LGM-35 Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), more Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, and more B-21 Raider bombers. Every leg of the nuclear triad must undergo a growth spurt and fast. The report also urges the development of America’s first operational road-mobile ICBM. A final particularly alarming proposal would have the US Air Force put some of its strategic bombers back on alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
The efficacy of the report’s recommendations is hard to assess since it does not posit specific numbers for its proposed force. Still, these are evidently proposals from panic. Throughout the report, “urgent,” “urgently,” “essential,” and “necessary” appear frequently and this frantic tenor was consciously emphasized during a recent panel at the Hudson Institute by Marshall Billingslea, a Hudson Senior Fellow and report commissioner.
However, as the Biden administration’s own 2022 Nuclear Posture Review made clear, the current force and the trajectory of its modernization are sufficient to retain a credible deterrent. The United States currently fields 1,670 deployed strategic weapons (including bomber weapons) and holds nearly 2,000 in reserve with a collective yield in the hundreds of megatons, more than enough to inflict cataclysmic countervalue or counterforce damage against China, Russia, or both. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan flatly stated earlier this year that “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.”
Of even greater concern is the lack of agency the commissioners assign China or Russia, which may, in fact, be more likely to expand their inventories in response to a perceived US buildup, propelling the world into an unchecked arms race.
Another perplexing recommendation from the report concerns the call to build up US conventional forces to somehow deter a nuclear threat. The commissioners argue a greater conventional force frees the United States from a heavy reliance on its nuclear deterrent (something the report effectively proposes anyway!), ignoring a tendency of Russia and China to lean on their deterrent forces when facing a conventional imbalance. Far from mollifying the nuclear threat, the proposed buildup may exacerbate it.
Perhaps most worrying of all, though, is the apparent groupthink that has taken hold among the report’s commissioners. Washington is often prone to making catastrophic mistakes when a consensus rooted in fear takes hold. A feverish bipartisan anxiety over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the resultant invasion still stands as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in US history.
Somewhat surprisingly, even the commission’s more dovish members, like former Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, who led the US negotiating team during the New START talks, underscored the importance of consensus in the process of developing the report during the aforementioned Hudson panel. She also tethered the report’s findings to US leadership on the global stage, decrying “neo-isolationist” strains in American politics. Equating a larger nuclear force to US prestige is a perilous road to tread and will distract from the important work of soberly crafting a nuclear posture that keeps the United States (and the world) safe.
In this new nuclear age, prudence and caution are needed at the highest echelons of power. This report undermines that clarion call and may serve to set a terrible baseline for ongoing debates about the future of America’s nuclear deterrent.