China is growing its nuclear forces more rapidly than American analysts anticipated, according to the outgoing commander of the Pentagon’s Strategic Command, who warns that Beijing is now in the midst of a “breakout” buildup of forces.
Adm. Charles Richard, who has headed the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) since 2019, says the Chinese nuclear expansion is a near term problem that requires action by the United States.
“As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking,” Adm. Richard warned in a speech last week during the Naval Submarine League’s 2022 Annual Symposium & Industry Update.
“It is sinking slowly, but it is sinking, as fundamentally they are putting capability in the field faster than we are,” he said in the remarks on Nov. 2.
The four-star admiral, who will be retiring soon, has made similar comments in the past, most notably during congressional testimony earlier this year and last year.
In his latest remarks, however, Adm. Richard expressed even more alarm about the buildup of adversary nations’ nuclear forces, warning that the Ukraine war is not the largest conflict likely in the future and that the United States needs to better prepare for a war involving China.
“This Ukraine crisis that we’re in right now, this is just the warmup,” Adm. Richard said. “The big one is coming. And it isn’t going to be very long before we’re going to get tested in ways that we haven’t been tested in a long time.”
He added that “rapid, fundamental change” is needed for national defense.
“I will tell you, the current situation is vividly illuminating what nuclear coercion looks like and how you, or how you don’t stand up to that,” the four-star admiral said.
The warning was made days after the Pentagon released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review, which altered the military’s decades-long policy on the use of nuclear weapons.
Specifically, the review reduced the role of American nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy by eliminating a decades-long policy of using nuclear arms to “hedge” against future developments and unforeseen threats.
The review also said a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile supported by senior military leaders will be canceled, along with a nuclear gravity bomb that some nuclear analysts say is needed to target deeply buried targets.
Additionally, the posture review said the Biden administration is seeking to use arms control agreements as a way to deter foes.
Russia and the United States broke off arms talks following the February invasion of Ukraine, and China has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. appeals to join arms talks on its nuclear forces.
‘We used to know how to move fast’
The U.S. nuclear weapons cuts and reduced role of American nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy indicated by the Nuclear Posture Review come against a backdrop in which China, Russia and North Korea are expanding their own strategic weapons arsenals.
The Biden administration is continuing a nuclear forces modernization that will see the deployment of new ground-based missiles, missile submarines and bombers that will not see the first new weapons until 2030.
Adm. Richard said that as trends like China’s buildup continue, “it isn’t going to matter how good our [nuclear deterrence plan] is or how good our commanders are, or how good our forces are – we’re not going to have enough of them. And that is a very near-term problem.”
The U.S. military in the past was capable of building and deploying defenses but is now struggling in that area, he said.
“We used to know how to move fast, and we have lost the art of that,” the four-star admiral said.
An example was the AGM-28 Hound Dog cruise missile that was deployed in 1960.
“The Air Force went from a request, almost written on a napkin…when they figured out in the late 1950s that the Soviet integrated air defense systems were getting to the point that the B-52 just wasn’t going to make it in, and we needed a thing called up ‘cruise missile,’” Adm. Richard said. “And so, they envisioned what a standoff weapon looks like.”
The Hound Dog was subsequently built in 33 months.
“We had two squadrons of B-52s equipped with this 800-nautical-mile Mach 2-plus, one megaton nuclear warhead with accuracy that was really good for its day, hanging off the wings of B-52s in less than three years,” said Adm. Richard. “This weapon was so cool you could actually turn the engines on, on its cruise missiles on your wings, to give you additional thrust on takeoff.”
He criticized current talk among officials about delays and potential failures in the development of the Navy’s Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine and the Air Force’s B-21 Raider strategic bomber and Long-Range Stand Off (LSRO) weapon.
“We have got to get back into the business of not talking about how we are going to mitigate our assumed eventual failure to get Columbia in on time, and B-21, and LRSO, and flip it to the way we used to ask questions in this nation, which is what’s it going to take? Is it money? Is it people? Do you need authorities? What risk?” Adm. Richard said.
“That’s how we got to the Moon by 1969,” he said. “We need to bring some of that back. Otherwise, China is simply going to outcompete us, and Russia isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
Last year during congressional testimony, Adm. Richard revealed that China’s rapid nuclear buildup is a strategic breakout not seen since the Soviet nuclear buildup in the 1960s.
“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China,” he said. “The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking, and, frankly, that word breathtaking may not be enough.”
The National Posture Review, released as part of the National Defense Strategy, states that China “likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade.”
Adm. Richard, meanwhile, said U.S. submarine forces provide the United States with a key strategic advantage.
“Undersea capabilities is still the one … maybe the only true asymmetric advantage we still have against our opponents,” he said. “But unless we pick up the pace, in terms of getting our maintenance problems fixed, getting new construction going … if we can’t figure that out … we are not going to put ourselves in a good position to maintain strategic deterrence and national defense.”