The Strategic Posture Commission’s Amazing Trip Back to the Future

photo-3-honest-john

In mid-October 2023, the 12 members of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States presented 81 recommendations as threat-informed, forward-looking, nonpartisan, and consensus-driven. The group membership was split evenly between Democratic and Republican affiliations and were all very well-known policymakers, legislators, and analysts who have extensive experience in nuclear weapons-related issues. This made it all the more surprising when the report endorsed a significant increase in U.S. conventional and nuclear forces in the context of Russia’s and China’s growing capabilities between 2027 and 2035. The report noted:

A further increase in the number and power of our nuclear weapons is necessary in order to assure the effectiveness of any U.S. retaliatory blow, but would not of itself seem to change the basic logic of the above points. Greatly increased general air, ground and sea strength, and increased air defense and civilian defense programs would also be necessary, to provide reasonable assurance that the United States could survive an initial surprise atomic attack of the weight which it is estimated Russia and China will be capable of delivering by 2035 and still permit the West to go on to the eventual attainment of its objectives. Furthermore, such a build-up of strength could safeguard and increase our nuclear deterrent, and thus might put off for some time the date when either Russia or China could calculate that a surprise blow would be advantageous. This would provide additional time for the effects of our policies to produce a modification of the great power competition.

In fairness, the commission’s members did not make this statement. The above quote was in National Security Council Memorandum 68 (NSC-68), developed in 1950 by a group led by Paul Nitze, with a few keywords replaced for effect (“Russia” for “U.S.S.R.,” “United States” and “West” for “free world”). President Harry Truman directed the assessment of U.S. national security objectives after the Soviet Union’s detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 and given economic turmoil in Japan and Europe. Nitze, as the director of policy planning within the State Department, drove a narrative that emphasized the need for a massive increase of U.S. military power to restrain a Soviet Union that he saw as intent on global domination. Its significance is still hotly debated as far as whether it accurately framed the threat and as to how it emphasized a strategy of military containment over the diplomatic measures that George Kennan — the author of the State Department telegram that framed U.S. containment policy — had preferred. 

 

 

Yet, the tone of the 2023 strategic posture report and NSC-68 are remarkably similar — they both warn against the potential inability of U.S. military forces to counter the ambitions of a nuclear-weapon state or states and counsel significant increases in both conventional and nuclear forces as a remedy. They both left the cost estimate of their recommendations out of the report, leaving that task to others to work out. This is not to say that the 2023 commission adopted a Cold War mentality in its review. However, it still remains startling that former members of the past three Democratic administrations would come to consensus with their more hawkish colleagues, considering how the Clinton, Obama, and Biden administrations have developed nuclear deterrence and arms control policy.

Congress created the 2023 commission to review the nation’s current strategic posture, perhaps in part due to disagreement with aspects of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. There were several other things that Congress wanted to see from the review, such as the role of conventional weapons and missile defense in the context of strategic stability, but this report largely focused on the U.S. nuclear weapons program and its related infrastructure. The commission received numerous briefings from government officials, defense agencies, armed services and combatant commands, think tanks, and representatives from foreign governments before promoting a proposal of unconstrained military growth. As much as NSC-68 locked U.S. policymakers into a particular paradigm of thinking throughout the Cold War, there is a danger that this commission’s report will similarly attempt to push today’s policymakers toward an overly aggressive approach to dealing with China and Russia. “Great-power competition” ought not to be addressed solely through military containment. Given the potential fiscal and political implications of the report’s findings, it is worth examining how it assessed the current threat to the United States and why it recommends increases in both nuclear and conventional weapons.   

Threat Assessment

The commission begins with a dire statement as to the growing threat of Russian and Chinese military power and their governments’ intentions to disrupt and displace the American-led international order. In particular, the “prospect of regional aggression by nuclear-armed adversaries against the United States and its Allies and partners now threatens U.S. vital interests and strategic stability. Now, this statement in and of itself is not news. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is rife with statements as to China and Russia’s advancing capabilities and intentions to challenge the United States, not to mention its Nuclear Posture Review report. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy also echoes this dual challenge, often referring to China as the “pacing threat” and Russia as a “resurgent” or “acute threat.”

No one questions that Russia and China are nuclear-weapon peer states with considerable conventional forces that can project their power against U.S. security interests, which include the homeland, allies, and partners. Fortunately, the U.S. government has a significant national security enterprise that constantly assesses these adversaries and adjusts its plans and strategies to maintain U.S. security equities. There are numerous studies and analyses discussing ways to deter Chinese and Russian aggression across the domains of conventional warfare, “gray zone” conflict, cyber operations, space operations, and nuclear operations. The commission stressed that the challenge wasn’t merely Russia’s nuclear modernization efforts or China’s potential growth of its nuclear stockpile, but the possible simultaneous or opportunistic aggression by both states to coerce the United States to stay out of their affairs, counter U.S. military power in their areas of the world, or attack the U.S. homeland with conventional or nuclear weapons. 

The commission’s insistence that the U.S. military needs to go back to a strategy of being prepared to fight two simultaneous conflicts instead of one large war is particularly curious. The commission believes that the failure to simultaneously counter Chinese and Russian regional aggression “could have the perverse effect of making such aggression more likely.” The strategy of being able to simultaneously fight in two major theaters of war was a hallmark of the Clinton administration. The George W. Bush administration tweaked the strategy to fighting two nearly-simultaneous major regional conflicts and winning decisively in one of those conflicts. In both administrations, these conflicts were envisioned to be in the Persian Gulf and Korean peninsula, and not against a near-peer competitor. It is far from clear that the U.S. military could ever simultaneously fight two smaller nations, given high demand/low density availability of strategic transportation assets, air defense systems, fifth-generation aircraft, and medical and logistics units, not to mention caps on the overall size of the military forces. The U.S. military had significant challenges taking on Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time — fighting a near-peer competitor and a minor nation at the same time would be a significant stretch on U.S. military capabilities. The two-theater requirement was always a political statement and a sizing function rather than a realistic expectation of post-Cold War U.S. military capabilities. Increasing the force-sizing construct to simultaneously taking on two near-peer competitors is unprecedented and ignores understanding why China is modernizing its nuclear forces.

NSC-68 also exaggerated the enemy’s capabilities, stating that the Soviet Union had far more armed forces than it needed to defend its national territory. It viewed Soviet goals as being able to simultaneously attack the British Isles, invade the Iberian and Scandinavian peninsulas, operate forces in the Middle East, conduct air and sea operations against the United States, and conduct diversionary attacks in other areas. At the same time, the report quoted intelligence estimates that the Soviet Union would have 200 fission bombs within four years, of which half could be delivered against the United States to severely damage the country. To the NSC-68 writers, the only other option to effectively meet the threat with superior numbers was to capitulate to Soviet demands. Similarly, the 2023 commission asserts that there are only two choices — to deter a Chinese and/or Russian conflict with the United States that could escalate into a large-scale nuclear war or to fight a large-scale nuclear war. Both reports deliberately ignore strategic alternatives to great-power conflict.  

Nuclear Force Growth

On Nov. 7, Madelyn Creedon, one of the co-chairs of the commission, said that the members were not recommending significant increases to the U.S. nuclear force posture but that it did need more flexibility. She added that the report did “put a lot of emphasis on having more conventional capability.” Rose Gottemoeller echoed this sentiment that the report was not a call for more nuclear weapons but, rather, “a preference to continue to focus on our conventional force posture.” When the report was initially released, Gottemoeller emphasized that the report was not embracing nuclear warfighting but rather building up U.S. conventional capabilities so that the U.S. government would not have to rely on nuclear weapons to deter or counter aggression by China or Russia. But make no mistake, the focus of the report is on nuclear forces — even the discussion of non-nuclear military capabilities and risk reduction was couched in terms of nuclear deterrence.

The commission’s authors believe that the current nuclear program of record, which includes modernization of every leg of the strategic triad, is necessary but that it needs to be supplemented to ensure U.S. nuclear strategies continue to be effective against the “two-peer threat.” This assertion may be true, but given the extreme sensitivity with which Congress views the nuclear modernization program, the desire to seek arms control limits, and the slow speed at which the defense acquisition program moves, making the case for more nuclear weapons can be difficult. The commission suggested that their recommendations did not call for an increase in nuclear weapons if the additions came from the nuclear stockpile’s active hedge, which stores warheads that are not operationally deployed. This is a misleading statement in that the number of U.S. readily deployed warheads would certainly increase past the New START treaty limits, and that concerns critics who believe that this action would be destabilizing to global security. 

Interestingly, the commission recommends maintaining current nuclear policies while increasing the weapons and delivery systems. The Federation of American Scientists has critiqued the commission’s recommended modifications to the U.S. nuclear force posture and has some good points on those actions. To summarize briefly, the commission recommends: putting multiple warheads on the future Sentinel intercontinental range ballistic missile (the current missiles have single warheads); producing more B-21 bombers, tankers, and air-launched cruise missiles; and building more Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines and Trident missiles. The commission does not make any recommendations on quantities. What’s more surprising are the recommendations to develop mobile nuclear missile launchers, to consider basing U.S. nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific region, and to develop new nuclear weapons options for countering Chinese or Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. This report directly conflicts with the Biden administration’s desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while continuing a commitment to a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.

NSC-68 also focused on nuclear weapons modernization, notably the decision to develop a U.S. thermonuclear bomb and the need for more fission bombs. Its authors called the U.S. nuclear stockpile at the time “adequate … to deliver a serious blow against the war-making capacity of the USSR” but not enough to deter the Soviet Union from attacking Europe or the United States. The review group estimated that it would require about $40 billion to build up U.S. forces, significantly up from Truman’s $13 billion defense budget, but believed that putting that number in the report would overshadow its recommendations. Between 1951 and 1953, the U.S. government would go on to increase the number of plutonium reactors from five to 13 and uranium gaseous diffusion plants from two to 12, increasing the U.S. stockpile from more than 400 to over 1000 fissile weapons, and testing the world’s first thermonuclear device at Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands. Similarly, the 2023 commission calls for not merely modernizing all aspects of U.S. nuclear delivery systems but significantly increasing the size of the U.S. nuclear force and its research and development infrastructure.

Conventional Weapons Growth

The authors of NSC-68 felt that the U.S. military “possessed the greatest military potential of any single nation in the world,” but that, at the same time, there was “a sharp disparity between [U.S.] actual military strengths and [U.S.] commitments.” As a result, it recommended an increase in numbers of military forces and “stockpiling of improved weapons of all types.” Similarly, the commission called for increasing the size, type, and posture of U.S. conventional forces for the purposes of “preventing regional conflict that may escalate to nuclear use.” This included increased funding for non-nuclear precision strike programs (hypersonics), for air refueling tankers, cyber defenses, electronic warfare systems, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, big data analytics, and directed energy. But this discussion is overshadowed by the commission’s recommendations on national missile defense, described as “integrated air and missile defense” in the report.

There is nothing in the commission’s views on air and missile defense that one could not get from any conservative think tank that discusses national security issues. While a U.S. nuclear arsenal is required to deter a strategic missile attack from a nuclear-weapon state, a limited missile defense capability would at best stop an unauthorized or accidental missile launch from Russia or China. However, the report argues that because adversaries are developing more advanced air and missile capabilities, there is an increased risk that they might threaten or strike the United States with a limited conventional or nuclear strike to coerce U.S. leadership in the event of a future crisis. To counter this scenario, the commission recommends increased funding for new sensor and interceptor capabilities as well as for increased levels of research and development for sensor architectures, integrated command and control, and cruise and hypersonic missile defenses. 

The report suggests that Russia or China could coerce U.S. leadership with a strike on the U.S. homeland that is not enough to trigger a strategic exchange but significant enough to change political directions. This is particularly absurd. It is understandable that there has been a resurgence of discussion on nuclear coercion due to Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling before and during its war with Ukraine, and due to China’s recent change in its nuclear posture. However, these two examples do not change the basic fact that nuclear blackmail does not work. This is because a state leader threatening to launch a nuclear attack for political gain is just not credible — so long as both sides have nuclear weapons, the risk of escalation is so catastrophic that there is a natural limit on force employment. This is why conventional weapons are better tools of coercion. The political gamble to threaten a limited nuclear strike is prohibitively dangerous and, historically speaking, nuclear-weapon states that have tried this gambit in the past have failed. The commission’s hypothesis is a strawman intended to push the need for an expanded national missile defense far beyond the current program of record.

The NSC-68 group did not belabor the issue of air defense as much as the commission did, but it would have concurred with the report’s sentiment. “Effective opposition to this Soviet capability will require among other measures greatly increased air warning systems, air defenses, and vigorous development and implementation of a civilian defense program which has been thoroughly integrated with the military defense systems.” The Air Defense Command was re-established in January 1951, and the Air Force began focusing their efforts on plans to protect the homeland against projections of Soviet bomber strengths of up to 1200 Bull bombers by mid-1952. Once the Soviet Union exploded its thermonuclear device in 1953, measures to increase U.S. air defenses increased significantly. Despite the current costs of the U.S. national missile defense program ($174 billion between 2002 and 2022 and another $176 billion for 2020 through 2029), the 2023 commission has called for increased capabilities to “protect the critical infrastructure necessary to project power and avoid coercion in light of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear and conventional strike threats.” 

Conclusion

The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States has compiled a very passionate and articulate argument as to why the United States should increase its nuclear capabilities, particularly in light of China’s and Russia’s continued nuclear modernization efforts and challenges in developing new arms control agreements. Its recommendations, if enacted, would result in a significant increase in operational nuclear weapons, a more robust national missile defense system, and a much larger active-duty military force with a robust research and development program aimed at developing new and advanced weapon systems. The commission’s members uniformly see these outcomes as necessary to deter nuclear conflict with China and Russia. But it will ultimately fail because the potential cost of its recommendations is too high and the Department of Defense is already deep into a comprehensive and much-needed nuclear modernization program. 

When the commission briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee, it had a largely receptive audience with a few senators noting the lack of any cost estimate. Sen. Roger Wicker asked the co-chairs whether the commission had considered the cost of its 81 recommendations and the process of budgeting their implementation, considering that the national debt was over $33 trillion dollars. Former senator Jon Kyl called the effort “an affordable thing for the United States of America to prevent nuclear war.” Later in the hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tried to get the witnesses to commit to a general range of tens of billions of dollars (they did not). She noted that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the current nuclear modernization program would cost $75 billion a year between 2023 and 2032, and she was not comfortable with a “blank check” for this report. Creedon responded that the Defense Department needed to do the analysis to determine a path forward. 

The commission’s report and its co-chairs used the term “urgent” to describe the need for national focus and actions to improve the U.S. strategic posture between 2027 and 2035. The report’s release in October 2023 allows for executive and legislative decision-makers to consider its recommendations when developing the U.S. government’s budget for fiscal year 2025. Putting aside congressional reluctance to raise the defense budget past $895 billion in the next year, Congress would also have to consider the challenge of funding the additional military personnel required to increase conventional and nuclear forces in a time when the U.S. military faces “the most challenging recruiting environment in 50 years.” The NSC-68 writers had the Korean conflict to convince the president to change his defense strategy — the commission does not have a similar catalyst for its “back to the future” recommendations.

Both the NSC-68 memorandum and the commission’s report called for the integration of diplomatic and economic tools of power in addition to integrating allied and partner efforts. But, to be clear, this commission’s report was about nuclear weapons (mentioned 153 times) rather than conventional forces (mentioned 53 times). Gen. John Hyten — one of the commission’s members and former commander of U.S. Strategic Command — is well-known for stating his views that strategic deterrence is not just about nuclear capabilities but rather “all those things together that provide our overall strategic capability and our ability to strategically deter our adversaries.” This report failed to reflect that point of view in its 186 mentions of deterrence.

The U.S. nuclear force does need to modernize its delivery systems and warheads. There is perhaps no other defense program that has delayed its replacement for decades as the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile, strategic bomber force, and ballistic missile submarine communities have. In any contemporary discussion on the U.S. nuclear posture, it would be hard to identify more qualified candidates than these 12 commission members. But given an argument to grow the nuclear force based on a strawman argument about Russia and China teaming up to take down the United States and lacking an implementation plan and cost estimate, this report may have less impact on the direction of U.S. national security planning than the authors intended. 

 

 

Al Mauroni is the director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and author of the book BIOCRISIS: Defining Biological Threats in U.S. Policy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: National Archives 

Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko; compatible; bingbot/2.0; +http://www.bing.com/bingbot.htm) Chrome/116.0.1938.76 Safari/537.36