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US plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, a reversal of decades of budget cuts

US plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, a reversal of decades of budget cuts
US plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, a reversal of decades of budget cuts

 


A senior Biden administration official warned Friday that absent a change in nuclear strategy from China and Russia, the United States could be forced to expand its nuclear arsenal, after decades of scaling back arms control agreements now largely abandoned.

Friday's comments from Pranay Vaddi, a senior director of the National Security Council, constitute the most explicit public warning yet that the United States is ready to move from simply modernizing its arsenal to expanding it. They were also a warning to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin about how the United States would likely react if the last major nuclear arms control agreement, called New START, expires in February 2026 without a replacement.

Mr. Vaddi, speaking at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association, a group that advocates limits on nuclear weapons, confirmed what officials have been saying in private conversations and closed-door testimony to Congress for more than one year. They say it is the inevitable consequence of China's rapid nuclear expansion and Russia's repeated threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

But it would be an epochal change, fraught with the dangers that many Americans believed they had left behind when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Fifteen years ago, President Barack Obama laid out his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and took steps to reduce their role in American strategy and defense. As the country's nuclear complexes have been improved and made safer, and old weapons have been replaced with more reliable or updated versions, the United States has insisted that it is simply modernizing its arsenal, without extending it.

As vice president in the Obama administration, President Biden became the spokesperson for this strategy.

At the time, China still maintained its policy of minimum deterrence, dating back to its first nuclear test in 1964, and Mr. Putin seemed uninterested in financially ruinous arms races. This has now changed.

China is on track to match the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the United States and Russia by 2035, according to public Pentagon estimates. Mr Putin has focused on unusual weapons, including an underwater nuclear torpedo that could be launched across the Pacific to destroy the US west coast. And the United States has warned in recent months that Russia has a program underway to put a nuclear bomb into orbit.

There have been no discussions with Russia since it invaded Ukraine to negotiate a replacement for New START, which limits each country to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, those that can be launched from continent to continent. the other.

China is unwilling to engage in in-depth nuclear negotiations with the United States, making clear that it is not interested in arms control until its own arsenal is comparable to that of the two largest nuclear powers. (Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all have their own arsenals, but in much smaller numbers.)

Although the Biden administration has not abandoned its rhetorical support for a world without nuclear weapons, officials have acknowledged that the prospects for new arms control agreements are now so distant that they must consider new strategies.

Mr. Vaddi said the development of the B61-13 gravity bomb, a nuclear weapon intended for use against large, rugged military targets, was an example of the type of projects the United States would pursue.

For now, the United States is improving its nuclear arsenal, without expanding its nuclear arsenal. But Mr Vaddi made it clear that this could change.

Absent a change in the trajectory of the adversary's arsenal, we may reach a point in the coming years where an increase over currently deployed troops will be necessary, and we must be fully prepared to execute if President makes that decision, he said.

The United States remains prepared to enter into arms control agreements to reduce nuclear threats by limiting and shaping an adversary's nuclear forces, Vaddi said. And citing the history of separate diplomatic channels for such agreements, he suggested that Russia's war in Ukraine would not pose an obstacle to a discussion.

But he said Russia's refusal to negotiate a successor deal to New Start cast a shadow over diplomatic issues.

At least in the short term, the prospects for strategic arms control are bleak, he said.

A year ago, at the same conference, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, pledged to redouble efforts to bring China into arms control negotiations. Since that speech, the United States has attempted to engage with the Chinese on nuclear security issues and recently led the first talks, in Geneva, to determine whether it would be possible to reach an agreement that artificial intelligence should never control nuclear weapons, among other limitations. .

This meeting was preliminary and it is unclear whether others will follow. Although China has urged the United States to adopt what it calls its no-first-use policy of nuclear weapons, it has not substantively followed the U.S. proposals.

One of the complications of the current nuclear environment, administration officials say, is the possibility that Russia and China will coordinate their nuclear policies, as part of the no-holds-barred partnership announced by Mr. Putin and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, in 2022.

The failure of Russia and China to engage in meaningful negotiations, Mr. Vaddi said, requires the United States and our close allies and partners to prepare for a world where nuclear competition occurs without constraints digital.

Modernizing America's nuclear arsenal, he argued, will incentivize both Russia and China to return to the negotiating table and put Washington in a stronger position in those talks.

We must persuade our adversaries that managing rivalry through arms control is preferable to unbridled competition, he said.

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