Interrogating the “Nuclear Trilemma”

Christopher Ashley Ford
14 min readOct 3, 2021

The remarks below are those Dr. Ford prepared for the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) Conference on “The Nuclear Policy Trilemma: Balancing Nuclear Modernization, Alliance Management and Effective Arms Control in a Competitive Security Environment,” on September 22, 2021.

Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be on a panel with such high-powered fellow panelists. For my contribution, I’ll offer some thoughts on how to handle what is here being called the “nuclear policy trilemma” — which apparently means “the tensions between nuclear modernization, arms control, and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security, and revitalizing alliances.”

This is merely my own personal opinion — and does not necessarily reflect that of anyone else at the MITRE Corporation or elsewhere — but to my eye, if “trilemmas” are related to “dilemmas” in being situations in which one is caught between competing and interests that work to some degree at cross purposes, I don’t think we actually have that much of a problem.

Nuclear modernization, arms control, revitalizing alliances, and nuclear role reduction do not all work at cross purposes. All but one of these objectives, in fact, are actually quite complementary in the current security environment. The final one is more problematic — and may indeed present a “dilemma” — but I think ultimately the answer for U.S. policy is pretty straightforward.

To my eye, this ought to leave the Biden Administration in the enviable position of being able to move forward with a solid strategic agenda of modernization, arms control, and strong U.S. alliances that enjoys a significant degree of bipartisan support. But I also recognize that during the last generation or so since the end of the Cold War, the arms control and disarmament community has been enthralled by the teleology of reduction and elimination, any questioning or delay in the implementation of which is treated as something akin to apostasy.

That fixation can apparently make the objective of modernization feel problematic and make role reduction feelaxiomatically important. I hope, however, I can convince you that such a conclusion is more of an ideological assertion than a strategic fact. Indeed, if anything, I would argue that under current conditions, that instinct may get it backward. In fact, U.S. nuclear modernization is essential both to arms control and to America’s alliances, whereas the role reduction agenda — at least under current circumstances — raises various conceptual problems and internal contradictions, and could potentially harm the causes of arms control and ally reassurance.

I. The Non-Tension

Modernization, for example, is not just consistent with but actually essential both to successful arms control andto U.S. alliance relationships.

A. Modernization is Essential to Arms Control

I don’t mean to be cute, but if we hope to bargain with other possessors over restraints upon or reductions in nuclear weaponry, for instance, we need to have something to bargain with. Since our current nuclear weapons and delivery systems are either already at the outside edge of their service life or soon will be, this necessarily means modernizing our arsenal, as all the other nuclear possessors are doing, or have already completed, so that our own systems don’t “age out” by essentially decaying in place. Unless we wish to disarm ourselves unilaterally, therefore — which some might perhaps support, but I think would be notably stupid — U.S. modernization is how we get from the today’s world to one in which negotiated agreements are in hand limiting or reducing nuclear arsenals.

Were we not to modernize, there would be little reason for our adversaries to consider arms control with us. (Why would they want to pay us to cap or eliminate something that’s will shortly fall apart on its own?) If we want to negotiate a new arms control framework, we need to make sure we possess things that our adversaries wish to limit, and that theyhave reason to think long-term competition without limits is not in their interest. It would be foolish for U.S. leaders to do the work of Russian or Chinese negotiators for them by abandoning U.S. programs or allowing them to decay in place without getting anything for this in return.

Modernization to prevent today’s looming block obsolescence is all the more essential because it seems unlikely that significant arms control progress will be possible in the near term. Unfortunately, we will surely need nuclear weapons for some time yet.

To be sure, Russia might be willing to entertain the idea of arms limits, perhaps including a warhead cap and some kind of geographic restriction on ground-based intermediate-range missiles of the sort that Moscow destroyed the INF Treaty in order to start building — at least, at any rate, if we were willing to deny our NATO allies access to conventionally-armed U.S. missiles of this sort as they confront risks of Russian aggression unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And of course I’m pleased to see that my successor at the State Department, Bonnie Jenkins, has endorsed the Trump Administration’s idea of capping all nuclear warheads and bringing Russia’s new “exotic” strategic nuclear delivery systems into an arms control framework.

Yet Moscow shows little sign of being willing to negotiate any real reining-in of its growing arsenal of non-strategic weaponry, which it had once promised to all but eliminate under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the 1990s but to which the Putin regime now seems quite committed. And of course Moscow remains on course in developing new and destabilizing types of strategic weaponry as well, not all of which fall under the terms of the New START agreement (which will in any event evaporate in four more years anyway).

But here the biggest problem is China. This is the case just its refusal to talk about arms control and its extraordinary nuclear build-up, but also the knock-on effects that Beijing’s trajectory is likely to have both in dramatically constraining what is likely to be negotiable between Russia and the United States and in worsening the multi-party arms race spiral already involving India and Pakistan.

If over the last few years you had been wondering why Beijing has been helping sabotage international negotiations over a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), refusing to accept a policy moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons purposes, and potentially even conducting very low-yield nuclear tests, after all, you now have your answer: China is engaged in an enormous nuclear weapons build-up. As the head of the U.S. Strategic Command has noted, China’s current nuclear weapons building program is on track at least to double — and perhaps to triple or quadruple — the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile over the next decade.

China has apparently never stopped producing material for weapons, and in fact recently announced the creation of new production lines that will produce huge quantities of additional plutonium, which could be diverted to nuclear weapons uses. Beijing has recently begun “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” in the form of two new missile fields totaling about 250 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): “more than ten times the number of [Chinese] ICBM silos in operation today.” According to the Federation of American Scientists,

“The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force. The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.”

Especially if those 250 silos were filled with China’s new super-heavy DF-41 ICBM — a missile reported to be capable of carrying up to 10 multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) — this would amount to an expansion of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal of shocking proportions, being undertaken at shocking speed. And that’s not even counting China’s ongoing deployment of a new class of ballistic missile submarine, thus expanding its strategic nuclear capabilities to the sea for the first time, its development of yet a further new class of ballistic missile submarine, its development of air-launched ballistic missiles, and its sizeable and still-expanding arsenal of dual-use ballistic missiles. China is engaged in what appears to be the world’s biggest and fastest nuclear weapons build-up.

Making the prospects for arms control dimmer still, it is now clear that both Russia and China see nuclear weapons as key pillars of their geopolitical role in the world. Both are states obsessed by notions of lost glory and now working to claw their way back to great-power (Russia) or perhaps event preeminent (China) status vis-à-vis the United States and the Western democracies, in large part through expanding their military muscle, and for both, nuclear weaponry is felt essential to their country’s national identity and mission.

Nor do they want such nuclear weapons power simply for defensive purposes, for both the Putin and Xi regimes also seek to use their nuclear arsenals to create an “offensive nuclear umbrella” under which they can more easily contemplate moves against smaller neighbors, in service of their revisionist strategic ambitions. Whether in Russian saber-rattling in connection with Putin’s invasion of Crimea or in providing strategic “cover” to facilitate a future invasion of Taiwan by compelling other great powers to keep their distance, both Moscow and Beijing seem to envision their nuclear arsenals being used in support of regional aggression.

Significant arms control agreements with these two aggressive, nuclear-minded powers — much less disarmament-focused reductions — are likely not, therefore, “just around the corner.” And this makes actually completing the long-planned U.S. nuclear modernization program essential, a point of striking agreement between President Obama and President Trump, an agenda on which even the fractious U.S. Congress agreed on a bipartisan basis in 2010 in connection with ratification of New START, and hopefully a priority for the Biden Administration as well.

This is why modernization is essential not just to the future of the U.S. deterrent but also to the future of the arms control enterprise. If one wants to preserve the possibility of arms control and negotiated nuclear reductions, therefore we badly need that modernization. It is also essential that we restore the robustness and resilience of the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, without which an adversary would understand not merely that it need not actually negotiate with us, but also that it could perhaps out-compete us in a strategic arms race.

Anyone serious about the future of negotiated arms control, therefore, should support modernization of U.S. nuclear delivery systems and the nuclear infrastructure. Nor, frankly, should any U.S. capabilities be scrapped unilaterally. Even if the Biden Administration doesn’t actually like recent deterrence-facilitating innovations such as the new nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N) program, the air-launched Long-Range Stand-Off weapon (LRSO), or the lower-yield W76–2 warhead, for instance — or perhaps especially if it doesn’t like those systems, since such distaste might open up “trade bait” possibilities once an arms control negotiation got underway– it would be a terrible mistake, at this point, to do the work of Russian or Chinese negotiators for them by abandoning any U.S. programs without getting anything for it in return.

And we certainly shouldn’t scrap the land-based missile leg of our nuclear Triad as some have suggested. This would not merely undermine deterrence, cutting back our nuclear forces at no cost to Moscow or Beijing, and perhaps dangerously reduce the reassuring technological diversity and responsiveness of our arsenal. It would also “free up” many hundreds of adversary weapons to be reallocated to other U.S. targets, thus giving Moscow (and perhaps soon Beijing) a notable degree of de facto numerical supremacy. Such a strategic “own goal” would do huge damage not just to our force posture and to deterrence, but surely also to the prospects of arms control. Why negotiate limits or reductions with someone who is busy throwing out his own weaponry even without your encouragement?

B. Modernization is Essential to U.S. Alliances

Making sure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent will remain effective, safe, and reliable for as long as we might continue to need it is vital to our own deterrence, of course, but it’s also needed for the security of the allies who rely upon our “nuclear umbrella.” Modernization is especially critical to strong alliance relationships in an era in which Russian and Chinese regional revisionism is both increasingly aggressive and increasingly well-armed, and in which our conventional military power is increasingly challenged by their advances, especially in some regional scenarios. Indeed, I’d think one of the surest ways to undermine our alliances would be to cut back or end the modernization effort upon which depends the future viability of our arsenal — and thus also of the “nuclear umbrella” upon which our allies rely.

U.S. nuclear modernization is thus key to our maintenance of strong relationships with our allies, both in Europe and in East Asia. At the very least, there certainly wouldn’t seem to be any “tension” between: (a) making sure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent will remain effective, safe, and reliable; and (b) continuing to tell the allies who shelters under our “nuclear umbrella” that we — and, if necessary, our deterrent force — will be there for them in a crisis to help protect them from aggression. That’s the message we’ve been sending to our allies for many decades, and it depends heavily upon the viability of our nuclear arsenal.

Accordingly, it seems clear that U.S. nuclear modernization, arms control, and alliances go together rather well. In fact, they reinforce each other. If there’s a skunk at the strategic-analytical garden party of what this conference is calling the “nuclear trilemma,” it’s “role reduction.”

II. The Challenge of “Role Reduction”

Now a good deal of role reduction certainly seemed possible for a while, and I supported it when serving in the George W. Bush Administration, when we emphasized this policy. And twenty years ago, when the strategic environment was still felt to be fundamentally non-competitive, the United States enjoyed massive conventional superiority over any adversary in any theater, and our great power counterparts were either not increasing their nuclear capacities much or were joining us in reductions, such role reduction seemed quite possible for the United States. Hence it was indeed possible to reduce the role of nuclear weaponry in U.S. thinking quite dramatically, and a process of nuclear reductions was set in motion that over time would see both Washington and Moscow reduce their holdings by nearly 90 percent compared to Cold War-era peaks — in our case, to the lowest numbers seen since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

But let’s not delude ourselves today. One might wish it otherwise, but none of those conditions is the case anymore. The security environment has been deteriorating, and we and our allies face growing conventional threats that are the most significant we’ve seen in decades, and which threaten our own forces with potential overmatch in some regional scenarios. Moscow and Beijing are also both building up their nuclear capacities — in China’s case, with quite shocking speed — and they are aggressively developing non-nuclear capabilities with potential strategic impact as well.

Notably, as new types of non-nuclear military power have grown up which could have genuinely “strategic” impact — but to which there are not always obvious traditional conventional deterrent responses — the trend in U.S. planning has been to try to preserve at least some deterrence by holding open the theoretical possibility of a nuclear response to a devastating “high-end” attack via non-nuclear means. President Obama’s NPR of 2010, for instance, explicitly flagged the possibility of a U.S. nuclear response to a sufficiently severe biological weapons attack. President Trump’s NPR of 2018 built upon this precedent, articulating the idea of a “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” (SNNSA), a concept that implied — as I myself thereafter made clear when in office — concern about the potential strategic impact of catastrophic cyberattacks upon U.S. critical infrastructure or the destruction of the space assets upon which we rely for such things as critical communications, strategic early warning, and nuclear command and control.

And these problems are hardly going away. Indeed, it is increasingly hard to gainsay the concerns expressed in the 2010 and 2018 NPRs, for there has been no lack of reporting and official open-source intelligence warning about Russian and Chinese preparation for just such high-end cyberattacks against critical infrastructure and development of both terrestrially-based and on-orbit counterspace capabilities. And especially in a time of a devastating global pandemic caused by natural mutation or human accident, it would seem ludicrous to dismiss the potential strategic danger that could be posed by actual biological weapons — particularly since it is now possible to admit in an unclassified setting that Russia (to name just one potential U.S. adversary) actually does have a biological weapons program in addition to its now all too well known (if also illegal) continuing chemical weapons capabilities.

Today, we have more need of deterrence against great power adversaries than at any point since the end of the Cold War, and things are getting worse. But where would that deterrence come from if we reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. planning even further? And where even could it come from if we are not willing to invest in increased non-nuclear capabilities to make up the difference — even assuming money were available for this in the wake of Washington’s current domestic spending spree and debt burdens, and even assuming that significant conventional “substitution” for nuclear weaponry were really possible in the first place? (And those are big assumptions. As my friend and colleague Elbridge Colby and I both pointed out years ago, it is hard to imagine that any conventional weapons could completely supplant nuclear ones in all of the nuclear applications currently envisioned in U.S. strategic planning.) How is this supposed to work if we are to avoid having less effective deterrence in a worsening security environment?

Nor is it entirely clear that the reductions that have occurred in the role of U.S. nuclear weapons have actually helped make such weapons less relevant for others. If anything, our conventional military capabilities in the post-Cold War era may have made nuclear weapons seem more important to Moscow and Beijing.

Let me be clear: I don’t see Chinese and Russian motives in the modern era as being defensive ones; they are clearly revisionist and hence inherently aggressive in their strategic outlook. But that certainly doesn’t make “role reduction” any easier, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that the more high-end conventional capabilities we have in an effort to “replace” nuclear deterrence, the more others may feel they need more such nuclear deterrence themselves. And this could undermine the prospects for arms control agreements, for while our own nuclear “role reduction” would presumably make us more likely to be comfortable with limits or cuts, it is likely to make others less so — dimming the prospects for negotiating arms limitation or reduction agreements. It’s not clear to me how one squares that circle.

Finally, U.S. nuclear “role reduction” could also hurt America’s alliance relationships. Unless and until the United States can provide a non-nuclear answer to the worsening deterrence challenges we and our allies face, role reduction is likely to undermine our relationships, especially at a time when these alliance partners need such reassurance more than they have in many years. For my part, I’d like to keep the nuclear tools and posture needed to reassure them — and also to persuade them that they don’t need such things themselves.

III. Conclusion

So where does all this leave us? Well, while the idea of role reduction may create something of a “dilemma,” I don’t think its resolution is that difficult. We can have modernization, arms control, and robust alliances together, and thus also the bipartisan consensus on this in Washington that has existed for the last decade. But if antinuclear zeal compels us also to try to swing back into “role reduction” mode in the current environment, we’d risk throwing all that away — thus potentially imperiling deterrence itself, undermining our alliance relationships, and making arms control agreements less likely, not more so.

With a Biden Administration nuclear posture review supposedly in the works, I hope the new team will opt for the former rather than the latter, but time will tell.

Thank you.



Christopher Ashley Ford

Dr. Ford is a former diplomat, Senate staffer, naval intelligence officer, and think tank scholar who works and writes on foreign and national security policy.