Restoring American Deterrence Act Offers Blueprint for Nuclear Arms Race, But No Hope for Winning One 

June 13, 2024 | 10:00 am
Robert Rust
China Analyst

This blog was co-authored with UCS Policy and Research Analyst Jennifer Knox.

In October 2023, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States released its report evaluating US nuclear strategy and posture. The Federation of American Scientists called the Commission’s Strategic Posture Review (SPR) a “full-throated embrace of a U.S. nuclear build-up,” and it’s not hard to see why. Some of the report’s recommendations include increasing deployed warheads, increasing missile, submarine and bomber production, and exploring the development of alternative delivery systems like road-mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It is, in short, the blueprint for a new arms race.  

While some members of the Commission claimed that the report was not advocating a nuclear buildup, it is already being used to justify the preliminary steps toward a 21st-century arms race. Testifying to the Senate Committee on Armed Services (SASC), US Strategic Command’s Commander Anthony Cotton suggested the SPR “validated many of the things” Strategic Command is already looking at, and that studies of the Commission’s recommendations are already underway.  

Then, Senator Debbie Fischer (R-Neb.), Ranking Member of SASC’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, introduced the Restoring American Deterrence Act. Co-sponsored by Senator Angus King (I-ME), chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the bill calls for several measures to expand the US nuclear arsenal, like adding another 50 Sentinel ICBMs to the current plan and kickstarting US domestic uranium enrichment. Perhaps most concerningly, it also calls for changes to the Atomic Energy Defense Act’s Stockpile Stewardship Program that would task the national labs with enhancing rather than maintaining the nuclear stockpile. 

Senator Fischer and her co-sponsors have prepared a bill that lays the groundwork for a disastrous arms race, one that would raise tensions and lock the United States, Russia, and China into a destructive cycle certain to further erode US security.  The SPR report’s argument that the US will soon face two “nuclear peers” in China and Russia dramatically understates the US nuclear triad’s strength and size relative to China’s and neglects to consider how Russia and China would respond to a US nuclear buildup. Implementing the SPR’s recommendations would increase the danger of nuclear war, not reduce it.  

 China’s nuclear buildup in context  

The Strategic Posture Commission’s recommendations are driven by fears that the United States will someday face “a world where two nations possess nuclear arsenals on par” with US capabilities. Russia and the United States have long maintained rough parity in their nuclear forces through a series of bilateral arms control agreements. China has historically maintained a much smaller arsenal, but has begun to expand its nuclear forces in recent years. Nevertheless, that expansion is still estimated to leave China with a much smaller arsenal than Russia and the US. In May 2023, the Pentagon estimated the size of China’s arsenal at over 500 warheads, forecasting that it would grow to 1000 by 2030 and 1500 by 2035. The United States has 5044 total warheads.  

 The report itself even acknowledges that the United States is “uncertain about the future course of China’s nuclear expansion,” recommending that the United States intensify intelligence collection on and analysis of “whether and how China’s thinking on the role of nuclear weapons is changing” (emphasis added).  

One factor in that uncertainty is fissile material. China stopped producing weapons-grade plutonium in the 1980s, and estimates of their stockpile range from 3.45 to 5.2 tons. Based on those estimates, China would have enough fissile material for between 540 and 1300 warheads. The United States is estimated to have 87.6 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. China could, of course, produce more, but there is no indication it has resumed the production of plutonium for military purposes, which we would expect to see if China were engaged in the rapid build-up described in the report. The report makes very few mentions of China’s stockpiles, suggesting only that its arsenal might grow past current estimates “as it acquires sufficient fissile material.” 

The report also argues that China has given nuclear weapons a new, larger role in its national security strategy, which has been echoed by US officials and politicians. However, for the past twenty years, Chinese nuclear experts have been warning the United States that improvements in US conventional precision strike capabilities, ballistic missile-defense deployments, and a US unwillingness to accept mutual vulnerability or engage on a no first-use guarantee would eventually lead to a larger Chinese nuclear force. If Beijing has decided it wants its nuclear arsenal to be more secure, that does not necessarily imply a changed strategy or a desire to use nuclear weapons aggressively. Nor is there anything to suggest that China has developed low-yield warheads comparable to those in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. 

These points of uncertainty are especially concerning, as the Restoring American Deterrence Act would require a ten-year projection of the “planned growth in target quantities” as part of the US’s targeting strategy, enshrining imperfect assessments of Chinese warhead and missile numbers in US force sizing requirements.  

More warheads will not make us safer 

In February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an illegal suspension of Russian compliance with New START. Despite this, both Russia and the United States have announced that they will continue to comply with the treaty’s central limits on deployed warheads and launchers. If the United States decides to go beyond those limits, Russia will rapidly follow suit. Between its ICBM force, bomber force, and fleet of ballistic missile submarines, Russia could deploy over 1,000 additional warheads in a matter of months.   

As the Cold War arms race demonstrated, any quantitative advantage the US might seek over its adversaries by expanding its nuclear arsenal will inevitably evaporate. Meanwhile, as threats multiply, so will the costs. We’ve seen this play out more than once; a significant nuclear buildup will only make the United States “less secure and less solvent.” Like Russia, the United States has planned its nuclear modernization efforts around New START’s limitations. Already that plan is expected to cost more than $1.4 trillion dollars, at least $756 billion of which would be spent over the next ten years, squeezing out other defense-related and domestic spending priorities. The US defense budget is already the highest in US history and threatens to spill over $1 trillion a year. By adding even more to the nuclear modernization program, which is already running far behind schedule and over budget, the United States places more risk on the success and the sustainability of the entire enterprise.  

Take the path forward, not backward 

As nuclear uncertainty grows, the Biden administration has demonstrated how restraint projects and protects strength. In response to Putin’s threats of nuclear use, a US national security official said, “we think provocative rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons is dangerous, adds to the risk of miscalculation, should be avoided, and we will not indulge in it.” When Russia threatened to raise the alert level of its nuclear forces, US Strategic Command coolly dismissed the idea that the United States might respond in kind, saying that the US nuclear force “remains at an appropriate posture.” These responses–firm, calm, fully assured of US capabilities–have so far deflected Russian nuclear threats without leading to escalation.  The best strategy is confidence in the continuing sufficiency of the US nuclear arsenal, as well as concrete steps toward meaningful international arms control. That means ratifying the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and solving the growing issue of space security. 
There is no denying that the world is facing a difficult and dangerous time ahead. But that means it’s also the worst time to panic. Nuclear weapons serve a limited military purpose; growing the arsenal will not raise their utility, it will only destabilize the geopolitical situation.  The United States doesn’t have to sacrifice strength to be smart, creating opportunities for the global threat environment to improve. One thing the United States will always share with Russia and China is the highest interest in—and greatest responsibility for—preventing a nuclear war. Even in the periods of greatest geopolitical tension, that reality has given us common ground to work together.   

Former Senator Jon Kyl, one of the co-chairs of the Commission, stated that the Commission did not “pick winners and losers” when evaluating the US deterrent needs. But as the report’s irresponsible calls for vast increases in US nuclear spending and a more aggressive nuclear posture gain traction in Washington, we continue to lurch closer to the precipice of an arms race that will have no winners, only losers.