On Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the new flag of Russia. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Behind us were the days of the “duck and cover” drills — the exercise in anxiety that Americans conducted for decades. The bipolar world of competing nuclear titans gave way to the unipolar world we enjoy today.
Though Russia inherited the massive arsenal once wielded by the Soviet Union, several of the rungs in the escalation ladder were removed. There was no conceivable situation in which post-Soviet Russia would escalate past the brink of nuclear war. For the average American, Russia became a second-tier priority. It was less menacing than the rash of terror that characterized the following three decades and the associated fears of proliferation of nuclear weapons into less stable, former Soviet states. The world was largely safe from the threat of nuclear war, and the American ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy flourished and spread across the globe.
The fall of the Soviet Union meant more than simply reducing the likelihood of nuclear weapons usage, however. For as long as nuclear weapons have existed, nations have been scrambling to find an effective counter. As early as the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union worked to develop anti-ballistic missile systems to shoot down and, hypothetically, defang the nuclear threat. The ABM system was a double-edged sword: While it protected the country that deployed the systems from nuclear strike, their existence could potentially embolden that country to progress further up the escalation ladder.
Furthermore, as ABM evolved, so did technologies designed to evade it. Supposing one anti-ballistic missile could shoot down one intercontinental ballistic missile, it would follow that the likelihood of a successful nuclear strike would be improved by increasing the number of warheads on that ICBM.
Enter multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, or MIRV: One missile is launched into orbit, and multiple warheads are released from space. Now the number of anti-ballistic missiles required to shoot down these warheads increases by an order of magnitude. In this system, missiles and warheads are not limited to a 1-to-1 ratio: The number of warheads in a country’s arsenal is incentivized to increase exponentially. So disruptive was MIRV, that it prompted the United States to propose the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed on May 26, 1972, by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The treaty rose from the fear of an arms race, but in effect it stymied ballistic missile defense development for decades.
Ultimately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the bilateral support for this agreement began to wane. On June 13, 2002, the United States withdrew from the treaty and recommenced work on ballistic missile defense. Some pointed to advances in ballistic missile defense as heralding the end of mutually assured destruction. I wish I could agree, but again, for as long as nuclear weapons have existed, nations have found effective counters — and counters to those counters. Now the world takes another deep breath as it watches history begin to repeat itself.
On March 1, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the development of new missile systems in response to the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. On May 15, 2020, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. was developing a missile that could travel “17 times faster than what we have right now”. These are glimpses into the coming age of hypersonic weapons and a return to the multipolar era of mutually assured destruction. Ballistic missile defense didn’t end the age of strategic deterrence — it merely challenged adversaries to develop yet another counter. We aren’t returning to the bipolar world of the 20th century, however.
China has been a regional power for far longer than we give it due credit for, and it is now elevating itself to a global power — one that is looking to usurp U.S. primacy. The back-and-forth between Russia and the U.S. regarding hypersonic development overshadowed an alarmingly effective Chinese effort to destabilize existing nuclear paradigms. Ballistic missile defense has a gaping hypersonic hole, and this gap has returned the world to a sheer numbers game. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that, recently, the Pentagon predicted a five-fold increase in the Chinese nuclear arsenal over the next decade. China would be unwise not to build up its arsenal. Every warhead on target is one less warhead in return fire.
The immediate response the United States must take is a cleareyed commitment to recapitalize our nuclear enterprise. Much of the supply chain associated with the manufacture and maintenance of our strategic weapons systems has atrophied from decades of disuse. Most of those with the advanced technical expertise in fields critical to strategic weapons have either passed away or are advanced in age. The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent continues to face political headwinds, and many members of Congress remain unaware of upcoming challenges that face the Trident missile’s D5 Life Extension Program.
The decision point for the future of our strategic programs is at our doorstep. China and Russia have forced us back into a numbers game, and the cost to play is cheaper than the cost to sit out.
As for our longer-term response: China is cementing its place on the global stage, with the requisite arsenal to boot. The time has passed to overwhelm China through shock and awe. This competition has evolved into a reboot of the Cold War, where only calculated risk, an increased focus on national security and strong leadership can prevent a cataclysmic end. We need now, more than ever, to develop a consolidated, whole-of-government approach to counter China. This problem goes beyond a strategic problem; the China problem cannot be shouldered by the Pentagon alone. There was a clear consensus during the Cold War that our national effort needed to be directed against outpacing our Soviet adversaries on every front, and ultimately the war was won without major conflict.
This same alignment, across all branches, all agencies, all parties — the same national ideals shared by generations of Americans — will be required to emerge victorious against the authoritarian, coercive and destructive global ambitions of President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. We prevailed on Dec. 25, 1991. We can prevail again.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking member of its Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.