The Pentagon warned of an “increased potential” for a nuclear conflict in a document that was released to the public on Tuesday. The document is a manual on the Pentagon’s nuclear strategy originally published in April 2020. It was posted online this week after being obtained by the Federation of American Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act.
The manual blames US “adversaries” for the heightened risk of nuclear war. The document reads: “Despite concerted US efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs and to negotiate reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, since 2010 no potential adversary has reduced either the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy or the number of nuclear weapons it fields. Rather, they have moved decidedly in the opposite direction. As a result, there is an increased potential for regional conflicts involving nuclear-armed adversaries in several parts of the world and the potential for adversary nuclear escalation in crisis or conflict.”
Over the past few years, the US has been tearing up arms control treaties and does not appear to be making efforts to pursue new agreements. The Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War-era piece of arms control between the US and Russia that prohibited the development of medium-range nuclear and ballistic missiles.
While it’s not a nuclear treaty, the Trump administration also left Open Skies, an agreement that allows unarmed surveillance flights over participating countries. Russia left open the possibility of reviving Open Skies, but the Biden administration recently notified Moscow it would not rejoin the treaty, so Russia has formally left Open Skies.
The Trump administration appeared to be ready to let the New START treaty lapse, which is the last nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia. Fortunately, President Biden moved quickly to extend New START, and he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to renew the treaty for five years.
During the June 16th Biden-Putin Geneva summit, the two leaders agreed to eventually hold more arms control talks. But since the summit, the US has been threatening more sanctions and is stepping up military exercises in the Black Sea, not sending the best signal to Moscow.
The US also hypes the threat of China’s nuclear arsenal, although Beijing’s stockpile is only estimated to be between 300 and 350 warheads, a fraction of the 5,800 warheads in the US arsenal and the 6,375 possessed by Russia. China recently called on the US and Russia to “substantially slash” their nuclear arsenals.
Despite the US’s recent failure at arms control, the Pentagon document blamed Russia and China for the increased chance of nuclear war. The manual reads: “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenal, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior.”
The document helps the Pentagon justify its plan to modernize its nuclear arsenal. The US has a plan to overhaul and replace each leg of the nuclear triad that could cost up to $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years. US weapons makers stand to win big over the modernization plan. Raytheon, the former employer of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, was recently awarded a $2 billion contract to develop a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile that would replace a 1980s era missile.
With so much money behind the modernization effort, arms control will likely fall by the wayside, and Washington will continue to hype the threat of nuclear war and escalate tensions with nuclear-armed states. The strategy also plays into the Pentagon’s new focus; so-called “great power competition” with Russia and China.