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A Response by Kari Bingen

Tim Morrison skillfully lays out the state of our nation’s nuclear deterrent and calls on the next president to demand a nuclear modernization plan as one of the first acts of the administration. As Morrison points out, such modernization will require presidential leadership, prioritized investments, and accountability for delivering results.

But nuclear deterrence is not a compelling political issue. Making the case will require revisiting the why. Why are nuclear weapons important in this modern era when we have an array of advanced conventional weapons, emerging technologies, and other instruments of national power that enable us to deter aggression and defend our interests? What is different now than in the past?

As successive administrations have stated, our nuclear deterrent remains the ultimate security guarantee for our nation: protecting the homeland, deterring strategic attacks, and assuring our allies and partners.1 It is the strongest reminder to any would-be aggressor that the cost of action will far exceed any benefit. U.S. nuclear forces underpin our overall defense capabilities and forces and shape our conventional force options and investments.2

However, the current strategic environment is different. For the first time in our history, the United States must contend with two nuclear-armed powers in China and Russia, both of whom are expanding and modernizing their nuclear forces.3 Despite the poor performance of its conventional forces in Ukraine, Russia still maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and has become more reliant on it.4 Beijing is “accelerating its nuclear expansion” as it seeks to match or surpass U.S. nuclear capability.5 China already exceeds the United States in its number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers and is on track to field over 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.6

As Morrison notes, it is not just the number of warheads and delivery systems to pay attention to, but the nuclear infrastructure, where Beijing and Moscow’s “friendship without limits” has also spread. Beijing has hot production lines for its missiles. It is building complex “fast breeder” nuclear reactors – fed with Russian-supplied nuclear fuel – and facilities that enable it to make weapons-grade plutonium and other necessary nuclear materials, and to surge production to make more.7 

Such a nuclear backstop gives adversaries top cover to pursue more assertive and aggressive foreign policies, including opportunistic aggression.8 Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces into a “special mode” (or higher state of alert) during its invasion of Ukraine.9 The Intelligence Community, in its annual threat assessment, judges that “Beijing’s heightened confidence in its nuclear deterrent is likely to bolster its resolve and intensify conventional conflicts.”10 Beijing is already rattling its neighbors with aggressive air and maritime incursions.

Our allies and partners are increasingly concerned by these trends, continued North Korean belligerence, Iranian nuclear progress, and the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. They juxtapose these adversaries’ increasing nuclear reliance with our policies of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategy. So much so that, in the Indo-Pacific, even Japan11 and the Republic of Korea12 are openly discussing their own nuclear options to guarantee their security.13 With Seoul, this led President Biden to go further in providing nuclear assurances in the “Washington Declaration” of April 2023.14

The United States will need nuclear capabilities up to the task of deterring two nuclear powers and assuring allies and partners who, if in doubt, may seek to develop their own. However, the size and composition of our nuclear forces, and how they are arrayed, were calculated largely based on a bipolar world: comparable Russian strategic nuclear forces, agreements on commensurate strategic weapons reductions, and a small Chinese nuclear arsenal. Further, Washington and Moscow developed, over decades of practice, mutual understandings to manage nuclear risks and ways to communicate during crisis.

These assumptions and practices are not holding. And this is a near-term problem. We are at the point where we must have the conversation about investing in new, different, or more nuclear warheads beyond our current “refurbishment” approach. At a minimum, we need an agile, ready enterprise that gives the president options to quickly increase our nuclear capacity and to hedge against uncertainty.15

Further, policymakers will need greater insight on the threat, intelligence on adversary nuclear decision-making, and a better understanding of the implications of three-party deterrence dynamics. In addition to the Intelligence Community, this is where the think tanks, war colleges, and other academic institutions can contribute, as they did throughout the Cold War. We will also need a reinvigorated technical workforce in our defense institutions, national laboratories, and industry.  

When President Reagan addressed the nation in November 1982, he spoke about “two parallel paths: deterrence and arms reductions,” and stated that nuclear modernization and arms control are not mutually exclusive. Today, while we modernize our nuclear deterrent, it is not in our interest to enter a new nuclear arms race. We will need to consider new approaches to reduce nuclear risks.16 However, these new approaches must go beyond traditional arms control, recognizing that Beijing, in particular, has no interest in any agreements that restrict its nuclear growth plans, continues to operate in secrecy, and spurns responsibilities that other nuclear powers uphold, such as reporting plutonium stockpiles to the International Atomic Energy Agency.17

Further complicating this landscape are Beijing and Moscow’s pursuit of non-nuclear weapons that can have wide-ranging strategic and catastrophic effects: advanced conventional weapons, hypersonic and maneuverable missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber attacks. Any of these could escalate a conventional crisis into a nuclear one. We need to understand the roles these advanced non-nuclear weapons play in our adversaries’ war plans and how they are viewed in escalation.  We cannot treat nuclear deterrence as a siloed mission. We must better integrate our nuclear and conventional planning, wargames, and exercises. 

We must also recognize that our nuclear and conventional forces are mutually reinforcing, not an either-or choice.  Both must be modernized to give the president a full range of options to deter and respond to aggression.  Our nation can do hard things, and it can innovate in ways unmatched by our competitors, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reminded us at the unveiling of the B-21 bomber in December 2023.18 But doing these hard things takes executive leadership, bipartisan commitment, and sustained investment across administrations.

1 U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review 2022,; U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review 2018,
2 Testimony by Dr. Keith Payne before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, March 19, 2013,
3 U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review 2022,
4 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, February 6, 2023,
5 U.S. Department of Defense, 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China,; testimony by General Anthony J. Cotton, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2023,
6 U.S. Department of Defense, 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China,
7 Jonathan Tirone, “China’s Imports of Russian Uranium Spark Fear of New Arms Race,” Bloomberg, February 28, 2023,
8 Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, 2007.
9 Matthew Luxmoore, “Putin Puts Nuclear Forces in a ‘Special Mode of Combat Duty’,” The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2022,  
10 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, February 6, 2023,
11 Jesse Johnson, “Japan should consider hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, Abe says,” The Japan Times, February 27, 2022,
12 Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “South Koreans overwhelmingly want nuclear weapons to confront China and North Korea, poll finds,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2022,
13 Takahashi Kosuke, “Japan, South Korea Wonder: How Strong Is the US Nuclear Umbrella?” The Diplomat, January 7, 2023,
14 The White House, Washington Declaration, April 26, 2023,
15 The Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, China’s Emergence as a Second Nuclear Peer: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Strategy, Spring 2023,  
16 Ulrich Kühn and Heather Williams, “A New Approach to Arms Control: How to Safeguard Nuclear Weapons in an Era of Great-Power Politics,” Foreign Affairs, June 14, 2023,  
17 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, February 6, 2023,; Jonathan Tirone, “China’s Imports of Russian Uranium Spark Fear of New Arms Race,” Bloomberg, February 28, 2023,
18 Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Unveiling of the B-21 Bomber (As Delivered), December 2, 2022,