In a recent U.S. Naval Institute publication, the head of U.S. Strategic Command warned about the very “real possibility” of a potential nuclear conflict between the United States and either China or Russia. More specifically, the strategic playbook needs updates to account for a “very real possibility” of nuclear war.

According to Adm. Charles Richard, the STRATCOM Commander, the U.S. Military must change its approach to focus on conflicts “we are likely to face” rather than conflicts “we prefer” to face.

According to Adm. Richard, U.S. Strategic command assesses the probability of nuclear use is “low”, though not beyond the realm of possibility, particularly during times of crisis when foreign enemies continue to advance their own nuclear capabilities and global presence. He also added that “assessing risk is more than just assessing likelihood,” in that accounting for outcomes is another crucial component of risk assessment. 

Consequently, the U.S. Military “cannot dismiss or ignore events that currently appear unlikely, but, should they occur, would have catastrophic consequences.”

Adm. Richard also noted that the DoD has been primarily focused on counterterrorism, though China and Russia have increasingly challenged global peace and international norms by “using instruments of power and threats of force in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War,” which include conducting cyber attacks and taking advantage of global pandemics “to advance their national agendas.”

Given these “destabilizing” behaviors, the risk of a serious conflict escalates.

Per Adm. Richard, Both Russia and China have made “sobering” advancements in their strategic capabilities, within China “[continuing] to make technological leaps in capabilities in every domain.”

Adm. Richard also added that China has continued to invest heavily in “hypersonic and advanced missile systems”, alongside expansion of “its space and counter-space capabilities.”

While China has adhered to its “No First Use” policy, initiated in the 1960s, which states it will never use a nuclear weapon first, Adm. Richard also observes that the recent buildup “should give us pause”, especially since China’s policy “could change in the blink of an eye,” especially with Beijing’s current military investments.

Consequently, Adm. Richard warns that “a very real policy possibility exists that a regional crisis with China or Russia” could advance very rapidly to a nuclear conflict, especially if they perceive “a conventional loss” as a threat to their national agenda. 

Thus, the U.S. Military must shift its focus to one “tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment” that the nation faces, Adm. Richard added.

Adaptation can involve understanding the threats and decision calculus of foreign opponents, as well as the acceptance of “greater power competition” in terms of nuclear capabilities, Adm. Richard continued, noting that a thorough risk assessment can be achieved through a “holistic” process that “better [aligns] military readiness and national resources to ensure strategic security.”

“Until we come to a broad understanding of what the threat is … we risk suffering embarrassment, or perhaps worse, at the hands of our adversaries,” Adm. Richard concluded.

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