Challenges to American primacy from a newly aggressive Russia and a militarily growing China suggest that the United States needs a robust nuclear deterrent now more than ever. Today’s threats also call for high-end conventional capabilities that promise to protect U.S. military dominance and enable rapid victory in any major conflict. If the United States is to remain the world’s number one superpower, it cannot afford to fall behind.
At the same time, it is unlikely that the United States will fight a major war with a serious military power such as Russia or China, least of all use nuclear weapons. The conflicts that the the United States is most likely to become embroiled in will remain at the lower bounds of the warfare spectrum, where wars can be fought without large-scale destruction. Any major power that seeks to challenge American primacy would be unwise to do so by fighting a major war or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Challenges are more likely to come through small-scale attacks and repeated confrontations that promise to gradually chip away at U.S. authority. U.S. forces need to be able to respond to these challenges in ways that signal strength and resolve.
This is where the United States is least prepared.
Despite all the talk about the United States maintaining its military technological edge and the search for a new offset strategy, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as the spread of other high-end military technologies, threaten to restrict U.S. options in future conflicts. It may be increasingly difficult for the United States to take military action without escalation toward a major conventional war or even a nuclear war. The costs and risks of such an outcome are too high to fathom.
Because nuclear weapons appear to take major war and regime change off the table, they promise greater space for smaller powers to conduct proxy warfare, violent provocations, and even limited military operations at lower levels of escalation. These developments pose a dilemma for the United States and other status quo powers: responding militarily could lead to escalation and the risk of nuclear war, but failing to do so could lead to a cascade of low-level coercion in the future.
Salami-slicing tactics by Russia in Ukraine and China in the western Pacific pose a serious threat to American primacy. Russia under Vladimir Putin is challenging the United States and NATO not by massing forces or threatening nuclear attack, but by waging a semi-covert proxy war against the West. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are part of an incremental campaign of escalation meant to test the limits of what the United States is willing accept and its resolve to take military action against another nuclear power. In this battle of wills, Russia so far appears to have the upper hand.
China’s actions in the western Pacific pale in comparison to the blatant aggression evinced by Russia in Ukraine. Nonetheless, China has for years been gradually chipping away at American primacy in the Pacific through repeated confrontations with the naval vessels and aircraft of the United States and its allies. Patrick Cronin has coined the term “tailored coercion” to refer to low-level aggression by China against Japan and several Southeast Asian countries, as well as U.S. naval forces, in pursuit of disputed maritime claims.
Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals serve as a shield behind which to poke and prod the United States and its allies. Some experts have argued that Russia has been increasing its reliance on nuclear weapons in recent years as a means to counter advances in U.S. precision strike capabilities, and may even be seeking nuclear superiority as the U.S. continues to reduce its nuclear arsenal. China is also in the process of modernizing its nuclear capabilities.
Second-tier powers, such as North Korea and Pakistan, are also growing their nuclear capabilities. Iran, it appears, is pursuing a nuclear capability of its own. Since acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea and Pakistan have engaged in coercive and violent provocations, calculating that their larger rivals would concede rather than risk escalation that could lead to nuclear use. These include torpedo and artillery strikes on South Korean forces in 2010, and limited ground incursions and terrorist attacks against India in 1999 and 2001 that were attributed to Pakistan. These actions threaten to destabilize key regions unless measures can be devised to deter acts of coercion at the lower bounds of the warfare spectrum.
The United States will need a more tailored and discriminate deterrent to address these threats. Policymakers will need options that promise to deter adversaries at the low-end as well as the high end, in order to dissuade potential adversaries from attempting to coerce the United States and its allies. At the same time, U.S. leaders will need tools – military and diplomatic – aimed at controlling escalation and minimizing the risk of nuclear use. This will be important for extended deterrence as well, because allies and partners are the more likely victims of low-level coercion. Defending them against coercive pressure will be important for continued U.S. influence in Asia.
Forward-deployed conventional forces capable of calibrated responses to low-level attacks are likely to play a central role. Nuclear threats are not likely to be credible against anything short of a major act of war. U.S. commanders will need a variety of military options below the threshold of major combat operations, aimed at sending a message rather than disarming an adversary. These options will need to be proportionate, timely, precise, and calculated to signal both resolve and restraint.
Capabilities that might enable such responses include tactically oriented unmanned platforms, conventional cruise missiles, special operations forces, and non-kinetic options such as cyber and electronic attack. Employing ground forces may not be advisable, given the risks of becoming tied down in a protracted conflict.
Attempts to deter small-scale attacks through limited military operations could involve considerable risk of escalation. Escalation control measures must be integrated into war plans and concepts of operation. The United States may need to allow adversary leaders a way out in a crisis in order to avoid trapping them in an escalatory spiral. In the event of a strike that could be perceived as a strategic threat, it may be advisable to signal that the attack is limited, through public statements, discreet diplomatic and military channels, and careful choice of targets, weapons, and flight paths.
Recent exploits by Russia in Ukraine and China in the western Pacific threaten to chip away at U.S. power and influence unless effective responses can be developed. Policymakers will need strong but proportionate military options designed to counter and deter offensive actions at lower levels of conflict while controlling follow-on escalation. This may require a more diverse array of usable conventional capabilities that pose less risk of escalation, as well as greater attention to escalation control in military planning and concepts of operation.
Jerry Meyerle, Ph.D. is a senior research scientist in CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies. He has served on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy reviews and as an advisor to the commander of the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team in eastern Afghanistan. From August 2011 to March 2012, he served as an advisor to the commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward in southern Afghanistan. He is the author of On the Ground in Afghanistan: Counterinsurgency in Practice (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).