WASHINGTON – Citing burgeoning threats from Russia and China, the Pentagon’s new National Defence Strategy rejects limits on using nuclear weapons long championed by arms control advocates and, in the past, by President Joe Biden.
“By the 2030s, the United States will, for the first time in its history face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries,” the Defence Department said in the long-awaited document issued on Thursday.
In response, the US will “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment” without ruling out using the weapons in retaliation to a non-nuclear strategic threat to the homeland, US forces abroad or allies.
Mr Biden pledged in his 2020 presidential campaign to declare that the US nuclear arsenal should be used only to deter or retaliate against a nuclear attack, a position blessed by progressive Democrats and reviled by defence hawks.
The threat environment has changed dramatically since then, and the Pentagon strategy was forged in cooperation with the White House.
The nuclear report that’s part of the broader strategy said the Biden administration reviewed its nuclear policy and concluded that “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” policies “would result in an unacceptable level of risk in light of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by competitors that could inflict strategic-level damage” to the US and allies.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has openly threatened to use nuclear weapons in his invasion of Ukraine. In the document, which was framed before the invasion, the Pentagon says Russia continues to “brandish its nuclear weapons in support of its revisionist security policy”, while its modern arsenal is expected to grow further.
Meanwhile, China remains the US’s “most consequential strategic competitor for coming decades”, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a letter presenting the new defence strategy.
He cited China’s “increasingly coercive actions to reshape the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to fit its authoritarian preferences”, even as it rapidly modernises and expands its military.
China wants to have at least 1,000 deliverable nuclear warheads by the end of the decade, the nuclear strategy document says, saying it could use them for “coercive purposes, including military provocations against US allies and partners in the region”.
The nuclear strategy document doesn’t spell out what non-nuclear threats could produce a US nuclear response, but current threats include hypersonic weapons possessed by Russia and China, for which the US doesn’t yet have a proven defence.
It does spell out, however, in the strongest terms, what would happen to another nuclear power, North Korea, if it launched a nuclear attack on the US, South Korea or Japan.
That action “will result in the end of that regime,” it says.
US nuclear weapons continue to play a role in deterring North Korean attacks.
The nuclear strategy affirmed modernisation programmes, including the ongoing replacement of the ageing US air-sea-land nuclear triad.
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