The Escalatory Attraction of Limited Nuclear Employment

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  • By Dr. Christopher Yeaw

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The United States has entered a dangerous new era in which, for the first time in history, the nation is soon to face two nuclear-­­peer adversaries: Russia and China. In the three decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States focused on a variety of national security challenges that did not include emphases on Russia and China, who, over that period, observed the American way of war and developed capabilities to counter US strengths. While achieving some success in closing the gap across a wide spectrum of military capabilities and operational realities, Russia and China determined that limited nuclear employment might be required in any conflict with the United States. They also determined that escalation to limited nuclear conflict affords a unique advantage for both states since it is an area in which the United States has neither the perceived will nor the apparent capabilities to compete. This article discusses the escalatory attraction of limited nuclear employment for Russia and China.


After the fall of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia emerged in a world clearly dominated by the United States. Not only did US dominance in the Gulf War demonstrate the effectiveness of the “Second Offset,” but it also confirmed Russia’s perception of an abiding antagonism through several rounds of NATO expansion and especially the bombing of Serbia—a longtime Russian client state.1 Thus, despite the early optimism of the post–Cold War years, with a welcome focus on cooperative diplomacy and historic reductions of nuclear weapons, by 2000 Russia began to increasingly rely on nuclear weapons for security and turned to inveterate opposition to the world order directed by the United States.2

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) also faced a dominant United States through at least two defining crises: the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) and the Taiwan Strait Crisis (1996). Having observed the conventional military overmatch of the United States, the PRC embarked on a multipronged military response, which included the development of a variety of nonnuclear upgrades to its defense posture and two specific nuclear upgrade programs, thus increasing the survivability of its strategic nuclear forces. This was an effort to deter the United States until the PRC could achieve strategic nuclear parity. Developing robust theater nuclear forces, enabling theater nuclear strikes, was also a developmental goal.3

Strategically, Moscow and Beijing made it their goal to resist the status quo for a “lightly multipolar” world order, in an effort to replace the United States with a more “heavily multipolar” world order favorable to Russia’s and China’s own interests.4 To achieve this overarching goal, as separate poles in this multipolar geopolitical environment, both require a “sphere of interest” in which they hold sway over allies and neutrals, together with some degree of worldwide reach through allies and basing. And, while there may exist slight divergences in their respective economic interests, for the past two decades it was in their separate but congruent interests to align their efforts, including in the military domain.5 Operationally, Russia and China need to construct near-­­abroad spheres of influence that are militarily uncontested. This requirement is still only aspirational, especially in light of Russia’s arduous invasion of Ukraine, and remains so until they can demonstrate the overall military capability to “seal off” these respective spheres of influence from the dominant form of warfare that the United States and its allies perfected. This includes the overwhelming aerospace blitzkrieg resulting in the rapid destruction of enemy defenses, situational awareness, and ability to command and control forces. Russia and China embarked upon strategies to cope with and even gain ascendancy over the US aerospace blitzkrieg, but both concluded that such success is far from a foregone conclusion—requiring contingency capabilities and planning.6

Necessary but Insufficient Symmetric Responses

Nevertheless, due to the deep and abiding reluctance of nations to opt for nuclear employment, military symmetry is preferred and employed.7 In space, the domain that ensures situational awareness and command and control of forces, Russia has regenerated much of its once comparatively strong infrastructure and capacity. During the 1990s, for example, Russia lost much of its space-­­based capacity—including early warning of ballistic missile attack. However, Moscow has reestablished and modernized Russia’s space-­­based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and early warning capabilities.8 China went from operating a handful of satellites in the early 1990s to almost 500 in just less than 30 years’ time, most of which support the military. Space is an increasingly contested domain with urgent needs, but the United States remains ahead and will remain so for years to come with the proper investment.9

In the areas of air and counterair, while Russia remains ahead of China in integrated air and missile defenses, China is ahead of Russia in fielding fifth-­­generation aircraft. While there is no commonly agreed upon definition of fifth-­­generation for fighters, consensus elements include stealth, enhanced situational awareness, electronic warfare, advanced engine performance, and networking.10 The Russian aerospace industry is struggling to produce the Su-57 fifth-­­generation fighter.11 Meanwhile, China produced 150 J-20s and will soon produce the H-20—its new bomber.12 Against large numbers of truly fifth-­­generation F-22s, F-35s, and fourth-­­plus-­­generation F-15EXs and Block III F-18E/Fs, Russian and Chinese air defenders will likely experience high early attrition rates in any conflict.13 The United States will keep this advantage well into the future as it is already flight testing a sixth-­­generation fighter aircraft.

In the area of air defenses, Russia and China certainly take these capabilities very seriously and rely on them in blunting US airpower. While the integrated air defense systems (IADS) of the western Russian and Chinese coast are formidable, the operational radars that are tasked with detecting, identifying, tracking, and targeting US fifth-­­generation aircraft simply are not up to the task. They are subject to suppression and/or destruction at ranges well beyond their ability to detect. The numbers of fifth-­­generation allied aircraft and their concomitant long-­­range ordnance preclude any reversal of this situation for at least a decade. While it was initially expected in analysis for this article that nuclear-­­tipped S-300/400/500 interceptors might change this equation, research suggests that this remains remote for the foreseeable future.14

In fact, across the entire range of nonnuclear military capabilities, the United States has repeatedly and enduringly demonstrated the will and ability to establish and maintain superiority through congressional commitment (adequate funding), innovation (unparalleled research and development), and operational dominance (tactics, techniques, and procedures). Despite the “peace dividend” of the 1990s and the necessary counterterrorism focus of the past two decades, the United States manages to stay competitive across the entire range of nonnuclear conflict. Moreover, in both materiel and nonmateriel components of conventional military competition (including space and cyberspace), the United States maintains a relatively durable military advantage, even in the case of an “away game” within the aspirational spheres of influence of Russia and China. More importantly, it seems clear that US adversaries reached the same conclusion, even while attempting to rectify the situation.

The Competitive Attraction of Limited Nuclear Employment

Over the past three decades, the United States has resolutely refused to compete in the area of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. This refusal is evidenced by the rapid and near complete divestment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the 1990s and failure to reconstitute any countervailing capabilities, even after it was clear that Russia reversed course.15 The failure of presidential administrations to advocate for recapitalization of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and congressional resistance to authorizing or funding even minimal recapitalization activities over the past two decades only underscores the desire to avoid fielding a sufficient force of credible, theater nuclear weapons—even in the face of Russian nuclear threats.16 It is worth noting that it was only in light of clear Russian cheating on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that the United States, wisely, highlighted the extent of Russian reliance on nonstrategic nuclear weapons.17

While the United States rapidly and irreversibly dismantled its nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal via thorough implementation of the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991 and 1992, Russia, after a promising start, abandoned the effort by the end of the 1990s.18 Moscow’s unilateral abandonment, indeed reversal, of this informal arms control process was not unknown by the United States. Nor was it unknown that China was focusing on nonstrategic nuclear weapons development and deployment for the past decade-­­and-­­a-­­half by that time, culminating with design of both low-­­yield tactical and enhanced radiation warheads, deployment of a large variety of dual-­­capable theater missile systems, and the development of a doctrine of “dual deterrence/dual operations.”19

Additionally, while the United States has strictly observed a “zero-­­yield” interpretation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) since 1992, Russia and China appear to test at extremely low yields.20 While it is unknown what benefits are gained through this activity, not only are there specific areas in which the United States could benefit from similar testing, but more importantly the US relinquishment of this field of military scientific inquiry dangerously underscores Washington’s aversion to competition within the general area of nuclear weapons development. Indeed, at the time of the CTBT ratification hearings, Ambassador C. Paul Robinson, then-­­director of Sandia National Laboratories, stated bluntly, “If the United States scrupulously restricts itself to zero-­­yield while other nations may conduct experiments up to the threshold of international detectability, we will be at an intolerable disadvantage.”21

These competitive developments accelerated after the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively. The clear outlines of a coercive new “theory of victory,” which locates limited theater nuclear employment at its core, are now in full view.22 Rather than respond competitively, the United States responded repeatedly with unambiguous messages refusing to compete. Asymmetric Presidential Nuclear Initiative compliance, congressional prohibition on low-­­yield weapons development, cancellation of Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), prohibition on even conceptual design efforts, retirement and disassembly of the W84 cruise missile warhead, the planned retirement of the B83 gravity bomb, asymmetric adherence to a zero-­­yield testing policy, and myriad correlating political statements emphasized the US desire to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” even as Russia and China did the opposite.

The Pursuit of Competitive Limited Nuclear Employment Capabilities

Moscow continues to expand Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons and will soon have a fully modernized operational force of some 8,000 nuclear warheads by the end of this decade, roughly half strategic and half nonstrategic.23 Currently, Russia is more than 90-percent complete with its strategic force modernization and it is almost 80-percent complete with the modernization of its nonstrategic nuclear forces.24 In its strategic modernization, Russia displays a distinct preference for building significant upload capacity into its force structure. The United States, on the contrary, eliminated multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV) from Minuteman IIIs, taking the entire fleet to single-­­reentry vehicles (RV). Russia’s newest strategic intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems, the Yars and the Sarmat, have reported maximum RV capacities of 6 and 20 RVs, respectively.25 Fielded Yars are declared as single RV weapons under the New START Treaty but offer an opportunity for significant upload. In light of the fact that the two Russian nuclear production plants have a combined capacity of at least 10 times the capacity that the two US pit production plants will have by some indeterminate date in the 2030s, Russia can rapidly expand its strategic nuclear arsenal where the United States cannot.26 At the expiration of New START in 2026, or anytime sooner in the event of a breakout, Russia could rapidly triple the number of operational strategic nuclear warheads. Because of much less reversible logistics constraints and the lack of warhead-­­production capability, it would take the United States years to even double the number of operational strategic nuclear warheads.27

Though the net balance in strategic nuclear forces significantly favors Russia, the true focus for Russian nuclear modernization is what was known during the Cold War as long-­­range theater nuclear forces. The bottom line for these systems is simple: Russia requires recourse to theater-­­range, ultra-­­low yield, nuclear systems to blunt an American-­­led NATO air war. Russia views such a campaign as the inevitable opening gambit of any conflict with the West.28 Russia may find a way to blunt that formidable capability through the use of electronic warfare, an advanced long-­­range radar architecture, and highly integrated nuclear-­­armed IADS.29 Nevertheless, purely defensive operations, even nuclear-­­armed operations, against a NATO aerospace blitzkrieg will rapidly be demonstrated as cataclysmically insufficient, and almost immediate recourse will be to deep interdiction against allied air bases across the NATO landscape to dramatically reduce the sortie rate of fifth-­­generation aircraft.30 Russia realized this as early as 1999 and began focusing a large fraction of its defense spending on theater nuclear forces, successfully developing and fielding a variety of such platforms, including the SSC-8 ground-­­launched cruise missile (GLCM), the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-­­launched hypersonic missile (ALHM), the 3M-14 Kalibr land-­­attack cruise missile (LACM), and the P-800 Oniks antiship cruise missile (ASCM).31 These systems are fielded, and Russia has built the operational plans, formulated the doctrine, and conducted the exercises to successfully execute strikes with these systems in actual combat.32

China has followed a similar path. The advent of the DF-41 heavy mobile ICBM, the JL-3 intercontinental-­­range submarine-­­launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and the H-20 heavy stealth bomber has ensured the survivability of China’s strategic nuclear forces and positioned China to “sprint” to rough strategic nuclear parity with the United States over the course of the coming decade. However, what is perhaps more disconcerting is that China achieved theater nuclear superiority centered on a paced build-­­up of advanced theater missiles of various ranges, most of which began developmental life with an explicit nuclear mission—i.e., DF-21 and DF-26. The extent of dual-­­allocated theater systems is unknown. Where there is opacity in the nuclear posture of China, Western analysts are quick to downplay the threat. For example, even though every previous “stealthy” bomber in P-5 nations was accompanied by suitable air-­­delivered, direct-­­attack gravity bombs, Western analysts remain surprisingly unconvinced that China possesses a modernized nuclear gravity bomb.33

This lack of transparency into China’s theater nuclear forces largely meets with Western skepticism. Such forces likely include a cruise and ballistic missile delivered by the H-6K and H-6N theater bombers, augmented by in-­­flight refueling, and medium-­­to-­­intermediate range ballistic missiles like the DF-15, DF-16, DF-17, DF-21, and DF-26.34 Chinese theater nuclear forces may also include a dual role for the J-20 (analogous to the F-35), a dual capability for imported
S-400s, a submarine-­­launched cruise missile, and even a nuclear role for its newest 155mm artillery. The variety of Chinese dual-­­capable theater systems begs the question, is China racing to achieve theater nuclear parity with Russia—not the United States?

It is argued that China is postured to defeat the United States in a conflict close to the former’s own shores, but this is far from a foregone conclusion.35 It is at least probable, for example, that the so-­­called fifth-­­generation J-20 will suffer defeat at the hands of US F-22s, enabling fifth-­­generation strike aircraft to systematically suppress or destroy Chinese IADS and blind or confuse the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) complex. While it is debatable whether US forces can generate the required sortie rates over the much longer “Pacific-­­relevant” distances, it is at least a very real possibility that PLA planners must consider. The situation, then, for China is likely similar to Russia’s dilemma, placing China in a position to escalate across the nuclear threshold or face defeat. This is existentially untenable for the Chinese Communist Party. Given the geography of the theater of operations, though, China would likely resort to discriminate low-­­yield (it remains to be seen just how low) nuclear strikes on important theater targets to forestall defeat.

The combined outcome of these great-­­power dynamics is that Washington finds itself in a strategic environment in which the United States will soon face two nuclear-­­peer adversaries positioned favorably in the net nuclear balance. Russia retains its parity in strategic nuclear weapons, with a larger and more rapid upload capacity. Russia is also near complete in its nonstrategic nuclear weapons modernization program. China’s own “breathtaking nuclear breakout” came to light as previously unknown missile fields were identified, indicative of near-­­term strategic parity, and a surge in theater nuclear weapon development, production, and deployment.36 One other indicator of this theater nuclear expansion is the massive expansion at Pingtong, China’s nuclear weapons production site (roughly analogous to pit production plus Pantex in the United States), which cannot be entirely attributable to the expansion of the number of strategically deliverable warheads, notwithstanding the rapid expansion in that latter category.

Strategic and Operational Consequences

In the event that Russia or China crosses the nuclear threshold into discriminate, very low-­­yield theater nuclear strikes, the consequences for the United States and its allies are grim. Such “light” employment would be designed to encourage US capitulation and avoid galvanizing Americans, almost assuredly striking purely military targets with extremely low collateral damage and essentially zero fallout. Such theater targets are numerous for Moscow and Beijing to choose from since US forces enjoy extensive overseas basing options and allies are likely fighting alongside the United States. Especially attractive targets are airstrips supporting fifth-­­generation aircraft, air and missile defense radars, logistics hubs, and command-­­and-­­control nodes. These types of targets would seriously degrade operations if struck, particularly the immediate effort to establish air dominance in a region.

The rail and road links into Ukraine that are needed for allied reinforcement of Ukrainian armor and mechanized brigades might also be immediately destroyed by a relatively small number of ultra- and very-­­low yield nuclear strikes while avoiding significant civilian casualties. And as an example of the avoidance of collateral damage, the Aegis Ashore installation in Romania is separated from civilian populations sufficiently for Russia to strike it with an ultra-­­low or very­­low-­­yield Kinzhal and kill essentially zero civilians. Strikes like these are designed to pressure the United States and its allies by messaging to democratic populations and their leadership that the stakes of this conflict are high enough for the rival to go nuclear, without substantial likelihood of strengthening resolve, due to the purely military nature of the casualties. The implied (or explicit) message is simple—there are hundreds more strikes like these coming. Looming over all such operations is the real threat of escalation to strategic nuclear strikes if the stakes are high enough.

If these light theater strikes fail to collapse the will to fight in the United States and its allied nations, graduated escalatory responses are possible. For example, one of Russia’s known operational concepts is strategic operations for the destruction of critically important targets (SODCIT), which incorporates a mix of conventional and nuclear strikes, combined with cyber and space operations, to deliver significant damage to US infrastructure.37 In this context, a useful example is a very-­­low-­­yield nuclear cruise missile strike on the weapons storage area at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, the B-2 bomber base, which would destroy the target without killing many airmen less than a mile away. Alternatively, heavier theater strikes might be executed with higher yield (single-­­digit kilotons), against more valuable targets (early warning radars, for example), or more widely distributed. This could be coincident with ultra- and very-­­low-­­yield nuclear strikes across many in-­­theater air bases.

In all these cases, about which Moscow and Beijing contemplate, the intention is to undermine the will to fight. In this phase, as in every phase of a conflict, the adversary vigorously conducts information operations against the United States, supporting all voices that call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, advocating strenuously against nuclear escalation, and questioning the value of the political objective. The pressure to seek accommodation would prove very high, particularly since the United States and its allies have very limited proportional response capability. Proportional responses that do exist almost invariably demand strikes into the homeland of the enemy, giving a “shadow of legitimacy” to potential limited nuclear strikes on the United States.


While it may be distasteful to Americans to compete with Russia and China in nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the alternative is no longer an option if the United States intends to maintain its position in the world. Counter to the fears of many in the disarmament community, building a capability to credibly respond to the threatened use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons will deter the very action that is feared. The ever-­­present concern that Moscow or Beijing might opportunistically take advantage of a limited nuclear conflict between the United States and the other state—attempting a fait accompli of their own—is also worth considering as the nation thinks its way through how to lead the free world in a tripolar era.

It should be clear from the analysis provided here that the US strategic nuclear modernization program must be executed without further delay. Repeated Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against NATO and Ukraine only underscore the erosion of a nuclear taboo that saw few nuclear threats over the past five decades. President Vladimir Putin is certainly leaving many Americans to wonder whether the “apocalypse insurance” afforded by the nation’s strategic forces is now expired. Modernization of the nuclear triad is the floor of nuclear posture adjustment, not the ceiling.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review rightly concluded that not only would the W76-2 low-­­yield SLBM warhead be required as a force posture adjustment but also that the nation should pursue a sea-­­launched cruise missile with a nuclear warhead (SLCM-­­N). The W76-2 provides a survivable, penetrable, and prompt response option, but it suffers from two limitations. First, it was fielded in very small numbers. Second, the single low-­­yield option may not be sufficiently low for some cases where a very- or ultra-­­low-­­yield option is required. The SLCM-­­N alleviates the constraints imposed by these limitations, by allowing for adaptability and scalability in numbers and yield options. Unfortunately, the Biden administration cancelled the SLCM-­­N in May 2022. Putin’s repeated nuclear threats are certainly reason to reconsider this decision, and it is heartening to see funding restored by Congress in a rare bipartisan consensus.

Additional capabilities and nonmateriel solutions are also required. These include developing new strategic approaches to adversary nuclear doctrine.38 The Biden administration is developing integrated deterrence for this purpose. Although highly improbable, successful arms control efforts with Moscow and Beijing that include nonstrategic nuclear weapons would be one approach to limiting the threat.39 Given the criticality of the perceived value of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, Russia and China are unlikely to divest themselves of these capabilities, which would require the United States to field its own arsenal as a way to drive its adversaries to the negotiating table—similar to President Ronald Reagan’s effort that led to the INF Treaty.

Additional US countervailing capabilities might include symmetric and asymmetric options. An example of a symmetric countervailing capability is nuclear­­armed, mobile, ground-­­launched, continental-­­range hypersonic missiles. The nuclear warhead might even be of the variable-­­yield, “clip-­­in” type that were briefly pursued by the United States in the 1980s.40 Asymmetric countervailing capabilities almost certainly are kinetic, since nonkinetically induced effects, while operationally significant, generally do not carry the same psychologically escalatory effects. Several options exist, including some that are space-­­based, but they all face significant political hurdles and possibly even greater technological ones.

In either countervailing case, symmetric or asymmetric (but kinetic), the primary goal is to bolster deterrence. Moscow and Beijing must be convinced that there is no advantage to escalating across the nuclear threshold. Such a shift in perspective could diminish the attraction of limited nuclear employment. Without recourse to some means of escalating past the United States, Russia and China would then also be deterred from even beginning down the path to conflict. Of course, should deterrence fail, the United States would be well positioned to contain the conflict to nonnuclear modes and levels of escalation, since there would be no strategic or operational advantages for adversaries to gain using nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Moreover, by gaining countervailing capabilities the United States also gains arms control leverage. Fielding such capabilities, as done in the 1980s with the Pershing II and the GLCM, would potentially open the door to a multilateral arms control treaty that captures all nuclear warheads.

Finally, research and development of US warhead technologies require an accelerated modernization of the National Nuclear Security Administration lab infrastructure. Considering China’s massive expansion of its nuclear forces and Russian and Chinese limited nuclear employment plans, US inferiority in nonstrategic nuclear weapons will only become more pronounced in the decade ahead, if left unchecked. In the end, the United States needs to demonstrate its commitment to eliminating the advantages that a nuclear-­­armed peer might gain in employing nonstrategic nuclear weapons in a very limited and selective manner. Until that day, an attraction toward limited nuclear employment persists that Americans can expect Russia and China to assiduously attempt to exploit.

Dr. Christopher Yeaw

Dr. Christopher Yeaw is Associate Executive Director for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Programs at the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska, US Strategic Command’s University Affiliated Research Center. Immediately prior to his appointment at NSRI, Dr. Yeaw was the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Senior Policy Advisor for Defense Programs, having served as the Department of Energy’s lead official in the development and rollout of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Formerly, he was the founder and director of the Center for Assurance, Deterrence, Escalation, and Nonproliferation Science & Education (CADENSE), a nuclear-­­weapons think tank at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute. From 2010 to 2015, Dr. Yeaw served as the first Chief Scientist of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which was established in 2009 to organize, train, equip, operate, secure, and maintain all US intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear-­­capable bomber forces. He earned his PhD in nuclear engineering and engineering physics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1995.

1. Robert O. Work, “Remarks by Deputy Secretary Work on Third Offset Strategy” (speech, Brussels, Belgium, 28 April 2016),; Kathleen Hicks and Andrew Hunter, “What Will Replace the Third Offset? Lessons from Past Innovation Strategies,” Defense One, 12 April 2021,; Derek Averre, “From Pristina to Tskhinvali: The Legacy of Operation Allied Force in Russia’s Relations with the West,” International Affairs, 85, no. 3 (2009): 575–91,; and Inessa S, “Putin & ‘New World Order/ - 1999,” YouTube, 14 January 2018,

2. See for example, Putin’s various interviews and speeches: 1999, Inessa S, “Putin & ‘New World Order/ - 1999,” YouTube, 14 January 2018,; 2007 in Munich, RussianPerspective, “Putin’s Famous Munich Speech 2007,” YouTube, 19 November 2015,; 2014 on Crimea, The New York Times, “Ukraine 2014 | Vladimir Putin Announces Crimea Annexation | The New York Times,” YouTube, 18 March 2014, https://www
; 2018 to the Duma, RT, “Putin’s annual address to Federal Assembly (FULL VIDEO),” YouTube, 1 March 2018, 

; and Sergei Lavrov, “The Law, the Rights and the Rules,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation, 28 June 2021, https://

3. Christopher T. Yeaw, Andrew S. Erickson, and Michael S. Chase, “The Future of Chinese Nuclear Policy and Strategy,” in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon, ed. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 53–80.

4. See, for example, Alexander Vaughan, “Chinese Realism: Why Were the Liberal Internationalists Wrong on China?” NIPP Information Series, no. 500 (30 August 2021),; Andrew Scobell et al., China’s Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-­­Term Competition (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2020),; R. Doshi, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” book summary, Brookings Institution, 2 August 2021,; and Robert Person, “Russian Grand Strategy in the 21st Century,” SMA briefing, 3 May 2019,

5. Leon Aron, “Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance? The Evidence Is Less Than Impressive,” Foreign Affairs, 4 April 2019,; and Ling Guo and Steven Lloyd Wilson, “China, Russia, and Arctic Geopolitics,” The Diplomat, 29 March 2020, Seen as early as in Putin’s 1999 interview here: Inessa S, “Putin & ‘New World Order/ - 1999.”

6. For example, Michael Kofman, “A Bad Romance: US Operational Concepts Need to Ditch their Love Affair with Cognitive Paralysis and Make Peace with Attrition,” Modern War Institute, 31 March 2021,; and Michael Kofman, “It’s Time to Talk About A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge,” War on the Rocks, 5 September 2019,

7. Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants,” International Security, 42, no. 1 (2017), 41–79,

8. Leonid Ryabikhin, “Russia’s NC3 and Early Warning Systems,” NAPSNet Special Reports, 11 July 2019,

9. See, for example, General John Raymond, Department of the Air Force Posture Statement Fiscal Year 2022, testimony before the Armed Services Committee, US Senate and US House of Representatives, 117th Cong., 1st sess., n.d., https://www.armed-­­; and Mark Stokes et al., “China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities,” Report Prepared for The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 30 March 2020,

10. Roy Boone et al., “The Challenge of Russia’s Non-­­Strategic Nuclear Weapons: Western Air Supremacy as One Russian Justification for NSNW,” National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, 2021,

11. John A. Tirpak, “Russia Officially Unveils New Checkmate Fighter, But Performance Claims are Ambitious,” Air & Space Forces Magazine, 22 July 2021,

12. See, for example, Zachary Keck, “Explained: Why China’s J-20 Stealth Fighter Can’t Compete with America’s F-22 or F-35,” The Buzz (blog), 29 November 2018,

13. John Venable, “The F-35A Fighter Is the Most Dominant and Lethal Multi-­­Role Weapons System in the World: Now Is the Time to Ramp Up Production,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3406, May 2019,

14. Boone et al., “The Challenge of Russia’s Non-­­Strategic Nuclear Weapons.”

15. Chris Osborn, “Biden Administration Cancels Nuclear-­­Capable, Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM),” Warrior Maven, 13 May 2022,

16. Jonathan Medalia, “‘Bunker Busters’: Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator Issues, FY2005-FY2007,” Congressional Research Service, 21 February 2006,; and Guy Faulconbridge, “Will Russia Use Nuclear Weapons? Putin’s Warnings Explained,” Reuters, 4 October 2022,

17. “Blame Russian Cheating, not America, for Killing the INF Treaty,” The Economist, 9 February 2019,

18See Susan J. Koch, The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991–1992 (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2012),

19. US Defense Intelligence Agency, “Nuclear Weapon Systems in China,” 24 April 1984,; Christopher Yeaw, Hearing on China’s Offensive Missile Forces, testimony before for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 1 April 2015; and Yeaw, Yoshihara, and Holmes, “The Future of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Policy,” 53–80.

20. R. L. Heinrichs, “The Arms Control Landscape ft. DIA Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr.,” transcript, Hudson Institute, 29 May 2019,

21Quoted in Eric Shmitt, “Experts Say Test Ban Could Impair Nuclear-­­Arms Safety,” New York Times, 8 October 1999,

22. Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), ch. 4 and 5.

23. Mark B. Schneider, “Will Russia Build 8,000 Nuclear Weapons by 2026?,” RealClear Defense, 26 January 2018,

24. Mark B. Schneider, “Russian Modernization of Its Nuclear and Military Forces in 2021,” RealClear Defense, 20 February 2021,; and Directorate of Media Service and Information, Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, “Russian Armed Forces have the highest rate of modern weapons and military equipment among the armies of the world,”

25. Kris Osborn, “How Dangerous Is Russia’s New Yars ICBM?,” The Buzz (blog), 6 August 2021,; and Jamie Goodwin, “What Is Russia’s Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile?” National News, 21 April 2022,

26. Houston T. Hawkins, “History of the Russian Nuclear Weapon Program” (presentation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 19 November 2013),; and Dan Leone, “NNSA Can’t Make 80-Pit Production Deadline, Acting Administrator Says,” Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor 25, no. 23 (2021),

27. Peter Huessy and James Howe, “China ICBM Missile Production: Implications for the US Nuclear Deterrent,” Warrior Maven, 7 September 2021,

28. Boone et al., “The Challenge of Russia’s Non-­­Strategic Nuclear Weapons.”

29. Alex Hollings, “The S-400 Myth: Why Russia’s Air Defense Prowess is Exaggerated,” Sandboxx (blog), 21 July 2022,

30. Boone et al., “The Challenge of Russia’s Non-­­Strategic Nuclear Weapons.”

31. Jill Hruby, Russia’s New Nuclear Weapon Delivery Systems (Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2019),

32See Dave Johnson, Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds, Livermore Papers on Global Security No. 3 (Livermore, CA: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, February 2018),; and Vladimir Putin, “Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence,” trans. CNA Russia Studies Program, 4 June 2020,

33. As one example to serve for many, see Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76, no. 6 (2020), 443–57,

34. Yeaw, Hearing on China’s Offensive Missile Forces, testimony.

35. See, for example, Ryan Morgan, “US Will ‘Lose Fast’ in War with China, Air Force’s Simulation Shows,” American Military News, 11 March 2021,; Michael Peck, “Could China Beat the U.S. in a War? They’re Certainly Preparing To,” The Reboot (blog), 24 October 2020,; Jamie Seidel, “The US Could No Longer Win a War against China,”, 25 May 2020,

36. See, for example, Aaron Mehta, “STRATCOM Chief Warns of Chinese ‘Strategic Breakout,’” Breaking Defense, 12 August 2021,; Joby Warrick, “China Is Building More Than 100 New Missile Silos in its Western Desert, Analysts Say,” Washington Post, 30 June 2021,; Jeffrey Lewis, and Decker Eveleth, “Chinese ICBM Silos,” Arms Control Wonk (blog), 2 July 2021,; Matt Korda, and Hans Kristensen, “China Is Building a Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field,” Strategic Security (blog), 26 July 2021,; Rod Lee, “PLA Likely Begins Construction of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silo Site near Hanggin Banner,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, 12 August 2021,; Ma Xiu and Peter W. Singer, “China’s New Missile Fields Are Just Part of the PLA Rocket Force’s Growth,” Defense One, 11 August 2021,; and Peter Wood and Alex Stone, China’s Ballistic Missile Industry (Maxwell AFB, China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2021),

37. Johnson, Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, citing “Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” 2014, paragraph 27.

38See Keith B. Payne, Redefining ‘Stability’ for the New Post–Cold War Era, National Institute for Public Policy Occasional Paper No. 1 (Fairfax, VA: National Institute Press, 2021), 27–42.

39. For example, Antony Blinken, “On the Extension of the New START Treaty with the Russian Federation” (press statement, US Department of State, 3 February 2021), https://www
; Tim Morrison “Special Presidential Envoy Marshall Billingslea on the Future of Nuclear Arms Control,” transcript, Hudson Institute, 22 May 2020,; Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia at New START Treaty Signing Ceremony and Press Conference” (press release, The White House, 22 December 2010),; and The Senate Resolution of 22 December 2010 giving advice and consent to New START Treaty.

40. Fred Hiatt and Rick Atkinson, “Insertable Nuclear Warheads Could Convert Arms,” Washington Post, 15 June 1986,


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