Dr. Christopher Yeaw, NSRI associate executive director for strategic deterrence and nuclear programs, appeared on a panel hosted by the Hudson Institute Jan. 12 entitled, “China’s Coercive Missile Strategy and the U.S. Response.”
The panel was moderated by Hudson Senior Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs and panelists included Dr. Mark Lewis and Hudson Fellow Timothy Walton. The 52-minute discussion is currently available on demand.
As the People’s Republic of China makes aggressive advances in both conventional and nuclear military weapons technology, and recently surprised analysts with a globe-spanning hypersonic weapon, the panelists were asked: How should the U.S. respond to this threat?
In his opening remarks, Dr. Yeaw shared his team’s recent estimates regarding operational nuclear warheads, expounding that China has developed approximately 700 operational nuclear warheads — double previous estimates. He emphasized the breadth of these as concerning in terms of an underlying nuclear strategy.
“What [China is] actually achieving is a strategic force that essentially acts as apocalypse insurance, if you will. But underneath that, there is a theater nuclear force that allows them to do discretionary, highly selective targeting in theater with nuclear forces,” he shared. “There is an escalatory hole in which [the U.S.] really can’t play because we ceded that ground [with nuclear drawdown in the 1990s]. They are filling that hole. That’s the gravitational attraction to them — to go where the adversary is not willing to go.”
The panelists were also asked to share what they hope to see included in the forthcoming National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Dr. Yeaw was a contributor to the prior Nuclear Posture Review in 2018.
He explained that it is counterproductive of the U.S. to join the arguably hypocritical declaration of the P5 regarding Article VI. Clearly, he said, Russia and China are undergoing breathtaking expansion and are pursuing theater range nuclear systems at the ultra-low, very low and low yield levels, designed to be deployed in warfare. Their actions do not affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, he said.
He also stated he hoped and anticipated that the NPR would reject discussions of sole purpose, no first use and elimination of the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. He emphasized the need for the U.S. to approach nuclear modernization with the appropriate mindset.
“We need to make sure our mindset is that the modernization of the triad is the floor and not the ceiling for nuclear modernization,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s a little bit of bad news because it’s expensive, nevertheless they are needed. As you look at the escalation space, and you see this perceived gap in theater nuclear escalation, the gap that I would argue Russia and China are both building forces and plans to exploit, we need to close that gap.”
Finally, he looked forward into the 21st century, calling for adaptability and resiliency in the overall weapons system, particularly in terms of the foundation built for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains and enhances the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
“If we set up NNSA on an adaptive footing, it would go a long way to assuring allies and deterring would-be aggressors,” he said. “Namely — you can’t get by and think there is going to be zero cost to you if you escalate across the nuclear threshold.”
Dr. Yeaw’s papers as well as NSRI’s capabilities for nuclear weapons enterprise support are available in detail at nsri.nebraska.edu/nuclear.
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Through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska leading scientists deliver innovative national security research, technology, product and strategy development, training and exercises, and subject matter expertise to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. One of only 14 DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Centers in the country, NSRI is sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command and works to ensure the United States’ safety and preparedness against increasingly sophisticated threats. Read about our mission.