STEVE LIEWER Omaha World-Herald
OMAHA — Not since the days of “Dr. Strangelove” has the commander occupying Adm. Charles Richard’s Offutt Air Force Base headquarters faced so many fast-rising threats to the United States and its nuclear umbrella.
Russia has launched the largest land war in Europe in 80 years while engaging in what Richard calls “not-so-thinly veiled nuclear saber-rattling.” China is building desert silos for up to hundreds of ballistic missiles. North Korea has tested rockets with the range to hit the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. Iran is free from an international agreement that constrained it from developing its own bomb.
Against the backdrop of these threats, Richard, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, brought some of the West’s top nuclear policy experts to Nebraska this week for the two-day Deterrence Symposium in La Vista.
“We just haven’t had stress on strategic deterrence in the last 30 years that has compared with what we have today,” Richard said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. “The strength of our nuclear deterrent is what underpins and backstops every other thing we do inside the Department of Defense to defend our nation.”
The symposium has been held annually since 2009, though the last two were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Often the conference focuses on the military and academic theory governing the nuclear balance of power that kept the U.S. and Russia from destroying each other during the Cold War and in the years after.
This year, though, sessions focused on concrete topics like China’s strategic breakout and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One panel looked at how to deter two nuclear-armed peer competitors at once — a threat that seemed distant as recently as two years ago.
“China’s strategic breakout is not just a talking point anymore,” said Christopher Yeaw, a top nuclear strategist at the National Strategic Research Institute, a StratCom-funded think tank at the University of Nebraska.
Currently the U.S. and Russia remain well ahead of China, but analysts have warned that China — which, unlike the U.S. and Russia, is not part of any arms control agreements — could catch up in a decade or so.
Several panelists warned of the consequences of a three-way nuclear duel among the powers.
“We don’t have the luxury of just deterring one near-peer nuclear power at a time,” said Patty-Jane Geller, a nuclear deterrence and missile defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We need to be able to absorb a first strike, and then retaliate.”
Paige Cone, an assistant professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Montgomery, Alabama, warned of “opportunistic aggression.” For example: if China tried to seize Taiwan while the U.S. and NATO are focused on Russia and Ukraine.
It also provides the opportunity for two to ally themselves against the third. At least for now, it appears the U.S. is most likely to be the odd man out.
“(Russia and China) both view the United States as a singular threat,” Cone said.
Keir Lieber, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, described arms control talks as “dead, or at least in a coma.”
He supports the U.S. development of lower-yield nuclear weapons such as the proposed submarine-launched cruise missile, which would help to offset what he sees as a growing U.S. disadvantage in Asia compared with China and North Korea.
And he warned that the U.S. employed a “ham-fisted” Ukraine policy in recent years that needlessly antagonized the Russians.
“We should be playing kissy-face with the Russians right now, to prevent them from siding with China in the coming conflict,” he said, exaggerating for effect.
All of these are factoring into Richard’s strident calls for the U.S. to keep modernizing its out-of-date nuclear arsenal, though he stopped short of requesting more weapons beyond those called for in the still-unreleased 2022 Nuclear Posture Review.
He singled out Russia specifically for rhetoric “that is irresponsible, that is unhelpful, that is unnecessary” — unseen, he added, even during the depths of the Cold War.
“What previously in some cases had been thought to be a theoretical or highly improbable threat,” Richard said, “has now turned out to be real.”