Nuclear Weapons, China, and a Strategic Defense Initiative for this Century
Michael R. Pompeo
The National Interest
January 18, 2022
In 2019, I was honored to receive the Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn Award. Herman Kahn, the esteemed physicist, strategist, and futurist, founded the Hudson Institute. No book is more aptly titled than Kahn’s Thinking about the Unthinkable, published in 1962.
Kahn forced American strategists, our military, and our political leaders to confront issues that are supremely important, but, in equal measure, repellent. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to confront our nation’s strategic threats and options.
With callous and unbridled ambition, President Xi seeks to mold the existing world order into a system of global governance controlled by Communist China through its prophesied future supremacy in all forms of international power. China, therefore, represents the greatest threat that America has faced in the modern era, for no other nation that has contested the United States has possessed China’s relative economic power or population.
As Secretary of State, in London, on January 30, 2020, I called the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times.” China today epitomizes an unmatched danger to the free world. In the wake of COVID-19, the NATO alliance and the leadership of many nations comprehend the Chinese threat, having embraced my assessment due to revealed facts.
China is tempting global catastrophe in its ill-administered gain-of-function experiments that could release another deadly pathogen; in its taking Hong Kong; in its threatening Taiwan; in its building militarized, artificial islands in the South China Sea; and in its testing of a new class of nuclear-capable weapons, its orbital hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV).
The enhancement of America’s nuclear deterrent is essential, for it must continue to be resilient and be capable of coping with reductions in warning that could arise from technological or doctrinal innovations. China’s orbital hypersonic missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads, are a grave threat to world peace in that they have the potential to limit strategic warning. The diminution of strategic warning could escalate the risks of global nuclear war, due to miscalculation.
Deterrence arises from strength and never from weakness because weakness invites belligerency. Unilateral restraint in the maintenance and disposition of forces does not support deterrence, for deterrence cannot arise from unilateral restraint if such restraint circumscribes power in the face of burgeoning threats. Unilateral restraint can signal weakness, which may begin a dangerous cascade of responses by nations that believe they are unbound.
Meaningful, stabilizing strategy must pose a convincing deterrent composed of survivable strategic systems, which are complementary, for deterrence is a function of the credibility of a nation’s armed forces as seen by an opposing state. To deter effectively, we must be capable of posing accurate and certain counteraction that is unacceptable to an adversary, given its beliefs, values, and intentions.
American nuclear policy is a product of presidential directions to the Departments of Defense and Energy. It is also a product of our strategic forces in being as well as their technology, accuracy, yield, and readiness.
Clarity of voice is the sine qua non of effective statecraft and principled leadership. It is essential to consequential arms control. Such strategic clarity should not be confused with realpolitik, which lacks a moral core.
We cannot, in our information age, speak imprecisely. A new paradigm is required.
Strategic clarity is the means to impart critical advantages through the clear articulation of national objectives with regard to potential adversaries or enemies. It helps preclude conflicts and aids in deconfliction by clearly delineating stakes; such a policy rests on the certitude of actions, which uphold declarations.
Clear-sightedness permits insight that allows us to frame plausible goals and perspectives for the future. Moral clarity and strength are critical to operationalize these imperatives. The world is dynamic: leaders must comprehend that communication derives from what is understood and often not what is said. Thus, diplomacy’s objective is to ensure that what is grasped is what is conveyed, which is difficult.
We must not allow the militarization of a new stage in science to be used for eugenic or hegemonic objectives. We must not permit science to alter or to rescind the diversity of humankind, to create a world in which global dominance could be achieved with a ferocious, weaponized plague, whose totality could be held in a single dish.
We must grasp this threat to prevent its emergence. Although it is abhorrent to contemplate, we must imagine what a psychopath might do with an ethnic bioweapon that could devastate opposing armies and innocent populations, through its mechanism of attack on unique and specified polygenic sequences. This unprecedented nightmare is what we must confront and eliminate.
A no-first-use doctrine, if embraced by the United States, would make massive chemical or biological attacks more likely, not less. For this reason alone, America must eschew such callow posturing, while securing deterrence and meaningful arms control that cover new classes of weapons of mass destruction.
Fundamentals of Deterrence
Strategic deterrence reduced the chances of conventional wars becoming global conflagrations in the aftermath of World War II. The perilous stakes present in any nuclear exchange led to caution and forbearance in confliction zones or in regional wars in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The nuclear forces of the United States and the Soviet Union provided a backdrop of stability through the absolute certainty of retaliation in response to a first strike.
In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, multifaceted deterrent forces on both sides, coupled with sound intelligence and warning by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, which determined that the Soviets were placing nuclear warheads in Cuba, allowed President Kennedy to act prudently, not precipitously. This combination of a spectrum of strategic forces and intelligence capabilities is the foundation for deterrence. This bedrock has been greatly enhanced by America’s emphasis on defensive systems, employing advanced radars, ABMs, and Aegis cruisers and destroyers, which possess inherent anti-ballistic-missile capabilities.
As we consider the steps we must take as a nation to secure peace and promote world stability, we must enshrine America’s illustrious history. We must draw on our record of averting conflict through preparedness.
George Washington’s admonition, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace,” has never been surpassed in its profundity or in its application. Though nuclear war is unconscionable, we must grasp, as Herman Kahn did, many decades ago, that it is our preparedness for conflict that substantiates deterrence.
Read the full op-ed HERE.