Should U.S. Nuclear Strategy Be More Like China's?

05/26/2015 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

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I was born in the USA but spent a lot of years in China. If you asked a thousand people like me which place is better, I'd be astonished if more than five would prefer the PRC. American air is cleaner. American food is safer, if less interesting. Americans enjoy a greater degree of freedom.

But when it comes to nuclear strategy, China may be the wiser.

U.S. nuclear strategy is focused on destroying military targets. The list of targets is classified but we know it isn't short. Remember the final scene of the movie War Games, when the main electronic brain at NORAD runs through a long list of nuclear war scenarios before deciding it would prefer a game of chess? U.S. defense planners use a list just like that that to determine how many and what types of nuclear weapons the United States needs.

The Obama administration projects the United States must spend more than a trillion dollars to continue to implement the current U.S. nuclear strategy, i.e., to maintain the option to hit the military targets on its list. This includes funds for a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, subs and bombers as well as significant upgrades to the complex of laboratories and facilities needed to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons those missiles, subs and bombers carry.

China's nuclear strategy is focused on damaging a handful of enemy cities. It doesn't need a lot of nuclear weapons to pull that off, which may be why China's nuclear arsenal is a lot smaller.

The Chinese military does not disclose how much it spends on nuclear weapons but it is probably safe to assume that it is a fraction of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget. International estimates of China's total annual military expenditures place them hundreds of billions of dollars lower than the total annual military expenditures of the United States.

While its nuclear budget may be secret, China's nuclear strategy is explained with unprecedented clarity in the most recent edition of a Chinese military page-turner called The Science of Military Strategy. The authoritative tome, written by a committee of 35 scholars from the Academy of Military Science, echoes the wisdom of the NORAD computer at the end of War Games.

"After the United States and the Soviet Union went through a nuclear arms race and reached a balance of nuclear terror, they could not but face the fact that a nuclear war has no winner."

According to the authors, the sole purpose of China's nuclear arsenal is "to prevent enemy nations from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against us." Their logic for targeting cities is straightforward.

"Chinese nuclear deterrence is built on the foundation of effective retaliation, and through this capability presents an enemy with the possibility of the creation of unendurable nuclear destruction, a possibility that accomplishes the objective of preventing an enemy nuclear attack.

... Targeting cities can cause great damage to an enemy society and a large loss of life, which creates the effect of a strong shock with comparatively lower requirements for the scale of the force of a nuclear attack, the capabilities of nuclear weapons, the timing of a nuclear attack, etc."

In plainer English, Chinese strategists assume that when it comes to nuclear war the only winning move really is not to play. The only strategic purpose of nuclear weapons is to keep a nuclear war from starting, i.e. to deter an enemy nuclear attack. According to the text, Chinese strategists believe the most efficient and effective method is to convince their enemies that a nuclear attack on China will cost them a few major metropolitan areas. They are betting no nuclear-armed adversary would make that trade.

The Chinese may have a bad reputation for gambling, but that seems like a pretty good bet.

So why is U.S. nuclear strategy so much more complex? Why won't the United States make the same bet?

One reason is that U.S. strategists want to preserve the option to use nuclear weapons for war fighting. So U.S. strategy calls for targeting a long list of military and industrial sites, with the idea of crippling its adversary's military capability if a crisis started. Obama's 2011 review of U.S. nuclear policies reiterated a reliance on this "counterforce" strategy.

In part, U.S. strategists see this policy as strengthening deterrence, since a U.S. president could be self-deterred by moral reservations about retaliating with nuclear weapons against cities. But it's a moral distinction without a difference. The twenty W88 warheads U.S. nuclear planners would use to destroy the Chinese DF-5A missile silos just outside the ancient city of Luoyang would also kill between five and twenty-five million Chinese civilians, depending on the weather. Only the egregiously hypocritical would argue such a U.S. strike is morally superior to a Chinese nuclear attack on Los Angeles because it is aimed at a military target. Should Barack and Xi Dada show up at the pearly gates after the fallout settles from that exchange, I don't believe St. Peter would look kindly on either one of them.

Finally, this strategically questionable distinction between military and civilian targets guides U.S. thinking about the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence for its allies. U.S. strategists apparently assume, for example, that U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation against Chinese military targets are more credible than U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation against Chinese cities because it decreases the possibility of Chinese retaliation against U.S. cities, despite Chinese claims to the contrary. This dubious U.S. assumption is supposed to assure the Japanese government that the U.S. would not be deterred from launching against China, thereby making extended deterrence more credible. I've spoken to responsible Japanese officials and experts and can assure you it does not.

The U.S. strategic focus on the destruction of military and industrial targets requires a much larger U.S. arsenal than if its target list were confined to retaliation against a small number of enemy cities, like China's. It also suggests U.S. strategists are more likely to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict than their Chinese counterparts, who argue a nuclear war cannot be won and that the only strategic purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by other nuclear-armed states.

In truth, the first and last time that any nation actually used a nuclear weapon was seventy years ago. When you visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki it becomes easier to understand why the probability that any nation will intentionally use one again is very close to zero.

Some American officials like to say the United States uses nuclear weapons every day for deterrence. But is there any reason to believe that U.S. requirements for nuclear deterrence should be so much higher than China's? Is there really a strategically or morally significant advantage in choosing military over civilian targets? Is maintaining whatever distinction might exist worth the increased risk of a nuclear exchange? Is it worth the increased expense?

These are legitimate questions that deserve consideration during Congressional deliberations on the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, no one in Congress seems to be asking.