WASHINGTON – The US must modernize its aging nuclear stockpile with China on pace to possess at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, the Defense Department said in a new report.

The Pentagon’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, published Thursday alongside its new National Defense Strategy, takes aim at Russia and China as the nation prepares to contend with two major nuclear-armed competitors for the first time ever.

While Moscow and Beijing have been improving and expanding their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, the US has focused on repairing its existing stockpile rather than developing new weapons to keep pace.

“At a time of rising nuclear risks, a partial refurbishment strategy no longer serves our interests,” the document said. “We must develop and field a balanced, flexible stockpile capable of [keeping up with] pacing threats, responding to uncertainty, and maintaining effectiveness.”

To do so, the Pentagon has asked Congress for about $34 billion in its 2023 budget request to maintain and modernize its nuclear forces.

While Russia and the US have long-held stockpiles totaling in the thousands, China and its rapidly growing military are poised to ramp up from the estimated 350 warheads it has now, placing more pressure on US nuclear forces to “deter aggression, assure allies and partners and allow us to achieve presidential objectives if deterrence fails,” according to the strategy.

A picture of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the Pentagon is “fully committed to modernizing all three legs of our nuclear triad,” referring to weapons launched from the air, land, and sea.
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It’s estimated that Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads, while the US has 5,428, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

“Nuclear weapons have not been employed in more than 75 years,” the strategy said. “While ensuring our security, our goal is to extend this record of non-use and reduce the risk of a nuclear war that could have catastrophic effects for the United States and the world.”

The report – which describes the Biden administration’s nuclear strategy, policies, and military forces – also reaffirms the US’ “continuing commitment” to its nuclear weapons program to keep the homeland safe.

“To deter aggression and preserve our security in the current security environment, we will maintain nuclear forces that are responsive to the threats we face,” the Pentagon said. “For the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrence effects that no other element of US military power can replace.”

A picture of The formation of Dongfeng-41 nuclear missiles.
The US must modernize its aging nuclear stockpile to possess at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, the Defense Department said in a new report.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

But while keeping America’s nuclear force remains the main strategy to deter attack, the new document acknowledges that alone “will not reduce nuclear dangers.” The strategy also encourages arms control and communication with other powers to prevent miscalculations that could lead to nuclear war.

“The United States will pursue a comprehensive and balanced approach … to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally,” the document states.

Still, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that while the US will continue to discourage nuclear weapons development globally, the new report reflects that the Pentagon is “fully committed to modernizing all three legs of our nuclear triad,” referring to weapons launched from the air, land, and sea.

“Our nuclear capabilities remain the ultimate backstop for our strategic deterrence,” Austin said. “The nuclear posture review reaffirms that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the fundamental role of US nuclear weapons is to deter an attack on the United States, our allies, and our partners.”

A picture of a military aide carrying a case filled with alleged codes for nuclear weapons.
“The United States will pursue a comprehensive and balanced approach … to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally,” the document states.
Getty Images

The document was released as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens with increasing frequency to use nuclear weapons as his forces enter the ninth month of his war on Ukraine.

“The Russian Federation’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a stark reminder of nuclear risk in contemporary conflict,” the strategy states. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores that nuclear dangers persist, and could grow, in an increasingly competitive and volatile geopolitical landscape.”

It describes Russia as conducting its war “under a nuclear shadow characterized by irresponsible saber-rattling, [spontaneous] nuclear exercises, and false narratives concerning the potential use of weapons of mass destruction.”

The latter references recent suggestions by the Kremlin that Ukraine plans to use a “dirty bomb” – something senior defense and security officials have said likely means Russia may be planning a false flag operation.

“In brandishing Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and [NATO], Russia’s leaders have made clear that they view these weapons as a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against their neighbors,” the report said. “Irresponsible Russian statements and actions raise the risk of deliberate or unintended escalation.”

A picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to threaten with increasing frequency to use nuclear weapons as his forces enter the ninth month of his war on Ukraine.
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Moscow officials have also discussed using lower-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons, which carry smaller payloads and travel shorter ranges, which Austin on Thursday said would still trigger a swift US response.

“We are certainly concerned about escalation, we have been so from the very beginning of this conflict,” Austin said. “It would be the first time that a nuclear weapon has been used in over 70 years so that certainly has the potential of changing things in the international community.”

When asked what that response might look like, the retired four-star Army general demurred.

“I won’t get into any responses here, but I’m the guy that makes a recommendation to my boss on what we should do and how we should do it,” Austin said. “And so I’ll make sure that he has credible responses that are actually effective in terms of what we want to do and as we always have.”



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