America’s New Nuclear Deterrence Era

In a speech earlier this month, senior National Security Council official Pranay Vaddi acknowledged a new, uncomfortable reality: For the first time ever, the United States must deter two nuclear peer adversaries.

“The president recently issued updated nuclear weapons employment guidance, which takes into account the realities of a new nuclear era,” Vaddi told the Arms Control Association in a speech on June 7. “It emphasizes the need to account for the growth and diversity of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal—and the need to deter Russia, the PRC, and North Korea simultaneously.” Considering President Biden has been cheerleading disarmament efforts for decades, this remarkable announcement speaks to the gravity of the nuclear threats.

The White House’s finding echoes the chief assessment of the bipartisan U.S. Strategic Posture Commission, on which I served as a commissioner.

After the Cold War, the United States sought to rely less on nuclear weapons in its national defense strategy and instead focused on pursuing arms control and disarmament goals. The Russians were the only peer nuclear power, and Republican and Democrat administrations alike made investments in the U.S. nuclear deterrent on the assumption that relations between the U.S. and Russia were in a more productive and less adversarial period. Around 2009, when the last Strategic Posture Commission released its recommendations and when the United States was initiating its nuclear deterrent requirements, China had only a relatively modest nuclear arsenal. Strategy documents from around that time expressed cautious optimism that China would choose to engage in dialogue to build strategic stability, as a responsible state would.

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Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and the director of its Keystone Defense Initiative. She served on the 2023 bipartisan U.S. Strategic Posture Commission.