The threat posed by Russian, Chinese, and North Korean nuclear modernization

Table of Contents:

Not all modernization programs are created equal. The effect of a state’s nuclear modernization on international security depends upon that state’s objectives and strategy, in accordance with its broader geopolitical disposition. Russia, China, and North Korea are revisionist states dissatisfied with the prevailing status quo. Their broader strategies seek to disrupt or displace the U.S.-led order, and thus their defense capabilities, including nuclear weapons, are oriented toward these destabilizing objectives. Nuclear modernization programs in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang, therefore, tend to undermine international security and stability.


Russia seeks to disrupt the rules-based international order.53 Under President Putin, Russia has sought to reassert itself as a global great power and to ensure that any major international security issue cannot be decided without Russia at the table. In addition, it seeks to carve out a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe at the expense of the security and sovereignty of its neighbors. It views the spread of the U.S. alliance system and of democratic forms of government as a fundamental threat to the existence of its regime.54 Consequently, it seeks to exploit Western vulnerabilities in order to divide democratic nations within themselves and against each other. To achieve these objectives, Russia employs a “hybrid” or “new-generation warfare” military strategy that combines activities across the full spectrum of conflict, from information operations at the low end to nuclear coercion at the high end.55

The nuclear component of this broader grand strategy is designed to deter NATO from intervening in Russia’s sphere of influence, to coerce neighboring states, and to divide NATO allies against each other.56 In recent years, Russia has increased reliance on nuclear weapons in its strategy.57 Russian leaders have made explicit nuclear threats and have postured and exercised nuclear forces in ways we have not seen since the Cold War. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” and that “it is best not to mess with us.”58 He also put nuclear weapons on alert and moved them into Kaliningrad and Crimea. The message was clear: if the West interferes with Russia’s attempts to use force against its neighbors, the result could be nuclear catastrophe.

The most dangerous component of Russian nuclear strategy is the so-called “escalate-to-de-escalate” doctrine.59 This is simply the idea, widely acknowledged by Russian experts, that Russia will rely on nuclear weapons, including limited nuclear strikes, to offset the conventional superiority of the United States and NATO. This strategy sounds reasonable enough if it were only a defensive strategy to defend the Russian homeland from invasion. The concern is that, like in Ukraine, it will be used as a nuclear backstop to bolster future conventional aggression. Russia could invade a NATO member and then use threats of early nuclear escalation to deter a unified NATO response. Short of invasion, it can continue to use the threat for quotidian nuclear coercion of NATO members over foreign policy decisions of which it disapproves, such as regional states hosting NATO military capabilities.

To support this strategy, Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal. It is currently finishing a modernization cycle of its strategic nuclear forces. The Kremlin is building a new generation of non-strategic nuclear weapons, expanding its asymmetric advantages over NATO in this space, and giving credibility to its “escalate-to-de-escalate” approach.60 Finally, it is developing exotic nuclear weapons, including nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicles, nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missiles, and nuclear-armed submarine drones.61 The latter is designed as a system of pure terror to hold at risk Western port cities with the threat of a stealthy, large-yield, and highly radioactive strategic attack. These weapons contribute to Russia’s strategic goals of weakening and terrorizing the free world and, as such, they undermine global security and stability.


While Russia is the more dangerous near-term threat, China is the greater threat to the global order over the long term. Russia can only disrupt the rules-based order, but China may seek to displace it. China endeavors to gradually replace the United States as the global hegemon by 2049.62 The effort begins regionally in Asia where Beijing seeks to expel the United States as a regional power and establish itself as the region’s hegemon. Globally, China is expanding its political and economic influence in every region of the world through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Made in China 2025 plans.63 Its state-led capitalist approach seeks to prey on the rules-based economic order at the expense of open market democracies. It is also consciously or unconsciously exporting this state-led capitalist model and seeking to make the world safe for autocracy. Therefore, the rise of China is a profound threat to the rules-based order.

China supports this strategy with an ambitious military modernization program. In East Asia, its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) approach seeks to undermine U.S. power projection capabilities and enable China to pursue territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, while providing coercive leverage vis-à-vis other regional actors.64 In recent years, the balance of power in Asia has shifted and many question the ability of the United States to defend longstanding allies.65 China is also expanding its global military footprint with overseas bases and military exercises in other world regions.

China is also building nuclear forces designed to contribute to these revisionist aims. While China claims to desire only a “lean and effective” deterrent, it has gradually expanded and modernized its forces in recent years.66 Beijing is clearly attempting to develop a greater ability to hold the U.S. homeland at risk, to increase U.S. vulnerability to a large-scale nuclear exchange, and to deter U.S. military action, including in defense of its allies. In the past decade alone, the number of Chinese strategic nuclear weapons that could reach the continental United States has more than doubled. And U.S. intelligence has recently estimated publicly that China’s nuclear arsenal will at least double again in the coming decade.67 In addition to its strategic forces, China possesses a large stockpile of medium- and intermediate-range missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.68 These capabilities contribute to China’s A2/AD strategy and could be used to blunt U.S. and allied military forces in their attempts to defend against possible Chinese aggression. While China espouses a formal nuclear No First Use Policy, Chinese experts acknowledge that there is a narrow range of contingencies, such as a major war with the United States in East Asia, in which China might very well use nuclear weapons first. In the future, China may leverage its substantial resources to sprint to nuclear parity, potentially igniting an arms race with the United States and undermining U.S. extended deterrence and assurance in Asia.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >