The Buckley Program hosted Professor Matthew Kroenig and Dr. Jeffrey Lewis on February 3rd, 2022 for a Firing Line Debate on US Nuclear Strategy. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at CNS. Before coming to CNS, he was the director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. Prior to that, he was executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a desk officer in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. He is a regular columnist for Foreign Policy, and has published articles in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, and The New York Times. He is the founder of ArmsControlWonk.com, the leading blog and podcast on disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation. The following interview was conducted on January 26th via Zoom.
Would you mind giving a little bit of background about yourself? What your work is, what you’re involved with? I know you’re at Middlebury College.
Dr. Jeffrey Lewis:
I’m a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. That’s the Monterey campus of Middlebury College. It’s a graduate program where we give two year master’s degrees. Although at the moment I’m actually in Vermont teaching a January term at the undergraduate college. Most of my work currently involves what we would call open source research on nuclear weapons programs around the world. So we use a lot of commercial satellite imagery and other kinds of new technology to track the spread of nuclear weapons. But my life prior to that, before I moved out to the Middlebury Institute I spent about 15 years in Washington, DC in a variety of positions and that included doing a lot of work on U.S. nuclear policies and posture.
Great. So you mentioned, this is actually a question I was gonna bring up, the open source intelligence aspect of your work. And so I’m curious if you could expand on that, maybe explain how that’s changing efforts for non-proliferation and nuclear arms control. For example, recently, Chinese silos were discovered with commercial satellites.
Right. Well, I mean, I wouldn’t put it in the passive voice. We recently discovered Chinese silos using commercial satellite imagery. It was actually, an undergraduate student named Decker Eveketh, who is an admitted student at MIIS. He’s still an undergraduate and a former summer intern with us. I suggested to him that I thought it was very likely that China was expanding its ICBM force. And, we worked with a company called Planet, which, among other products, offers a monthly mosaic of the whole earth at three-meters resolution. Decker worked with that data from Planet, and was able to find the first of what would later turn out to be three different silo fields showing a substantial expansion of their nuclear forces. The reason that we do that kind of work is that I think central to the kind of debates about what U.S. Nuclear weapons policies and postures should be, is an assessment of what the international environment looks like, and just, you know, America being the country that it is, and that we know and love.
A lot of times people’s intelligence assessments are very reflective of their personal political views. So, when I got into this field prior to the open source work, typically the way things work is, [the] U.S. Government might make a statement about a certain state of affairs, whether a country was developing missiles or not, or how many nuclear weapons they might have. And then civil society would have a giant debate about whether those statements were true. With obviously the implication being, if they were true or false, that would have certain implications for policy. And so as an academic, one of the things that I really wanted to do was to see if we could, on an open basis,, replicate the, kind of analyses and other intelligence communities do so that we could have a, well, we’re never gonna have a common set of facts.
I’m not that optimistic. But at least we could have some transparency about how estimates happen. So for example, with the Chinese silos for many, for maybe a year, Admiral Richard had been saying that China’s aresenal was growing and there was a big discussion about whether that was true or not. And so by finding the silos, we actually put ourselves in a position where we can now discuss in a slightly more sophisticated way, what the arguments for, the idea that the arsenal might be growing are and aren’t, and what kind of things we know and what things we might just guess and what the uncertainties are. So that, that’s been very much the work that we have wanted to do to try to focus as much as we can on, on the factual situation, to inform policy debates. Not that it makes any difference at the end of the day, but we try.
So China is, as we’ve mentioned, currently undergoing a very large expansion of its nuclear arsenal. But so far has shown very little willingness to engage in any sort of arms control talks with the United States or with NATO. What should the American policy response to that be?
Well, I would say it’s a little more complicated than that in two ways. I mean, one is, we don’t really know fully the extent of the buildup that’s taking place. You know, when we found the silos, we were quite surprised at the layout of two of the three silo fields. So two of the silo fields are laid out in a way that caused us to wonder, if China was pursuing what used to be called the shell game, which is the idea that the easiest way to protect a relatively small number of missiles is to have a much larger number of silos and a shuffle them. Now that’s based solely on the layout, right? So that we don’t have the Chinese saying they plan to do that. And honestly, if they plan to do that, they probably won’t tell us, so it could be, they’re all full.
It could be, some of them are full and we just don’t know. The issue of arms control negotiations is difficult because what China expressed interest in the past, and we saw this in the 1990s is that China was interested in multilateral arms control arrangements, but not bilateral ones. And this reflects their concerns with transparency and a bunch of other things. But China, for example, did sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. That was a multilateral arms control negotiation in which they participated. That treaty has not, has never entered into force. I don’t believe it will ever enter into force. I think it’s very unlikely the Senate will ever ratify it in the United States. But, similarly, China, at least initially supported talks, to limit the amount of nuclear material that was produced for nuclear weapons but once the CTBT debate kind of came to a crashing end, then that whole process stopped.
So I would draw a distinction between China’s interest in multilateral arms control negotiations, of which there was some evidence. And then this question of bilateral or trilateral negotiations with, U.S. and Russia, which I admit zero interest on their part. What we do about that depends a little bit on what our goals are. So, and the challenge with that is without really having a clear view of what the Chinese want to accomplish with the new silos and other systems they’re building up, it becomes hard to know what you’re aiming at. So for example, if the Chinese goal, if China’s build up is motivated by missile defense, and a desire to defeat U.S. Missile defenses, then that’s a pretty typical arms racey dynamic and so then the solution to that problem is, you have to be willing to consider limiting defenses and exchange for them limiting offensive developments. Talking about defenses in the U.S. Is extremely unpopular. So I don’t, I don’t think we’re gonna do that. If, on the other hand, the goal is to undermine extended deterrence, and give China a certain amount of coercive leverage against its neighbors, then, limiting defenses, isn’t, doesn’t really solve that problem.
So what I have tended to suggest is that instead of trying to go for an arms control negotiation immediately, which strikes me as being fairly hard to do, that what we ought to be trying to work out is a kind of, what I would call a joint statement on strategic stability, because what typically happens is the Chinese have asked U.S. To make a no first use pledge, which I don’t think we’re gonna do. And the U.S. is, I think, very worried that China will try to seek numerical parity. And so what I wonder is, is it possible for us to imagine a, what I think the nature of the debate, let me say it this way: The nature of our problem is that neither of us is very certain of the motives of the other and each of us thinks with some reason that the other one is looking for some kind of superiority. And so what I would suggest is starting with something like a joint statement, where we try to define a status quo that we can both live with, which is really what happened with Taiwan. If you look at the Taiwan communique, it isn’t really an agreement so much as it is an observation of the tiny things we can agree on, which really boils down to the Chinese refusal to accept Taiwanese independence and we insist that any solution be peaceful and that’s really all we agree on. What I would think the place to start with the Chinese would be, we would have to find a way to say that we don’t, that we accept that they have some measure of deterrence against us, nuclear deterrence, and in exchange, they would have to say that they’re not seeking numerical parity or to otherwise undermine extended deterrents. I don’t even know if we could get that far, but that seems to me to be the kind of first step we could make, to defining strategic stability, that would then allow us to have all the other conversations about [things] like, “Well, what would transparency look like? What would numerical limits look like?” None of this is going to happen by the way, we’re just gonna have a giant arms race. So that’s, you know, but in 10 years I’ll be sitting here with my wine saying, I told you so, so *laughs*, that’s the purpose of this.
*laughs* Thank you. So you mentioned that China has asked the United States to make a “no first use pledge” in terms of our nuclear weapons. Recently at the Air Force Association Symposium, the Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall essentially said that China’s move at their land-based ICBMs amounts to them developing, in his words, “a de facto first strike capability.” Would you agree with that analysis and how does China getting a first strike capability affect our [U.S.] view?
Yeah, I wouldn’t agree with that analysis because China just simply doesn’t have the numbers to do that. We’re looking at a couple of hundred ICBM silos out there now, maybe several hundred, depending on how many they ultimately build the U.S. Has 400 ICBMs. So, each field was like 120, so that’s like 240 plus whatever the third field ends up being, which is really small. So unless they are at a position where they are at numerical parity with us, for them to go first would be absolute madness. And then on top of that, even once you get to big numbers there are a bunch of other requirements to be able to execute a disarming first strike, right? Things have to be pretty accurate. They have to be pretty reliable. They can’t just go after the ICBM fields. They have to go after the submarines, which,good luck. So I just, I think Secretary Kendall is wrong about that but ultimately, that’s where we run into this problem, right? Where we don’t know how big their buildup is going to be, and we don’t really have a good sense of how they make decisions about which systems to acquire, um, which is why I kind of come back to the joint statement, which is we, we have to find a way to start putting guardrails or boundaries on. So,, I think one thing is working out whether, I mean, even if we just find the Chinese say, “No, we might want numerical parity, so we’re not gonna sign your damn statement.” That’s a valuable thing to know that numerical parity is a goal. So, I don’t think right now we’re in the near future with the systems that are developing, first strike capability is something that’s a serious possibility. If that became a serious possibility, then that would be extremely destabilizing, and would probably suggest a pretty significant shift in our posture, probably with lots more sea-based forces.
So just to clarify, even if China does acquire a similar number of ICBMs- land based ICBMs- as the United States, that doesn’t necessarily, in your opinion, mean a first strike capability?
Probably not. I mean, it depends on a lot of factors, like what are the warhead loadings? So if you have 500 ICBMs and they have 500 ICBMs and everybody has a single warhead, you’re just not gonna be at a disarming first strike capability on either side. Cause it’s typically gonna take like two warheads per target. So 500 singlets against 500 singlets, just not gonna work. If they MERV the DF 41, which is the missile I expect to be in most of those silos, then it’s gonna depend how many warheads are on each missile and how accurate those missiles are and how hard are our silos. And that’s like a math question. Then you have the second question. If you get to a point where you say, “Okay, so we’re at numerical parity in terms of ICBMs, but everything is MERV’d. ” And so, they’ve got, we’ll call it 400 ICBMs, but it’s actually 1200 warheads and that’s enough to take out the ICBM force. Then you have a second question of, “But how do you factor in our submarines?” Right? And so there are two ways of dealing with that. One is you say, well, there are other reasons submarines might be vulnerable, or you go back to this late Seventies, argument of the so-called “window of vulnerability,” which honestly I don’t find very persuasive, but what you try to work out as well. Could you do it in rounds? Could the Chinese knock out our ICBMs? And then because it would only kill people in the Great Plains, would we be unwilling to use our submarines? I don’t buy that whole logic, but that’s typically how that debate goes. So, no, I think for them to have a first strike capability, I would think they would require not just an advantage in numbers, but, they would require large warhead loadings and demonstrated degrees of accuracy. And then we would have to be too lazy to make harder silos, which we don’t like to do, cuz it’s expensive, but we’d do it.
So in light of the changing security environment, China acquiring more nukes, we have rogue nations with nukes like North Korea, how should the United States pursue modernization of our aging arsenal? And should we rethink the nuclear triad?
Yeah. So I tend to think that it’s very hard for me to imagine a scenario in which it would be in our interest to use nuclear weapons. And I honestly think North Korea is a great example of that. Because, I think we ought to make the conventional investments to be able to conduct a successful conventional campaign in the event that Kim Jonu does something that deserves him being removed from power. And I just, I would find it very hard to imagine using a nuclear weapon against, for example, Pyongyang. My view is these people are already victimized by having the Kim regime controlling the country, it would be very hard for me to justify victimizing them a second time. And I don’t think Kim Jong cares if I kill a million North Koreans. They mean nothing to him.
My understanding for North Korea is that there’s really only a single target in North Korea that requires a nuclear weapon, and it’s a hardened command facility south of Pyongyang. So in general, I have a lot of concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In particular, what I’m worried about is North Korea. North Korea is in the process of building a large number of tactical nuclear weapons which they plan to use early in the event that the U.S. were to try to invade. So I’m fairly well deterred from wanting to invade North Korea, but I think the appropriate response to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in that case is large numbers of conventional systems that are capable of decapitating the regime so that it can’t send out the order, basically. So I would see with North Korea, conventional weapons making a lot more sense. With China, it’s a little different. The issue with China is, presuming their numbers stay where they are,I mean, things will change. So I don’t wanna be locked into this forever, but at the moment, the Chinese are basically afraid that the U.S. Will use its advantage in nuclear weapons to coerce them. And so I’m not really afraid of the Chinese initiating a nuclear war against us, if we don’t start with them. Whereas with North Korea, it’s different, they’re gonna use nuclear weapons on day one. The issue I have with the Chinese is that they have a lot of forces that are ambiguous: missile systems that have both conventional or nuclear warheads or missile systems that come in both conventional and nuclear variants. And so there’s a scenario where if we’re mounting a conventional defense of Taiwan, the big issue there is going to be, we’re gonna want to conduct conventional strikes against conventional missiles that they’re using. Some of those will also be nuclear systems.
So, in general, I’m somebody who’s pretty happy to live with what you call a fairly simple deterrent. I think the fleet of ballistic missile submarines is sufficient for the vast majority of tasks. I think it’s okay to have a dyad. So I’m okay with some ICBMs or some bombers. My feeling is that those things are not dangerous so much as they’re expensive. And so my big concern is that if we try to modernize everything, given tight budgets, we’re gonna end up with fewer submarines. And my goal is to have as many submarines as possible. So that’s a sort of long-winded way of saying in both of those scenarios, I think most of our deterrent needs are met with a large submarine force. And when I think about modernization, what I really wanna do is preserve and modernize that submarine force. And I see some value in ICBMS and some value in bombers, but I just don’t wanna spend so much money on those things that they come at the expense of the number of submarines. They have this crazy plan, which I think they’re lying [about]. They say that they’re supposed to build 12 submarines, but they’re gonna build the replacements at a slower rate than we retire the current ones. So we’re actually gonna go down 10 submarines and they’ve like, pinky promised us that on the back end, they’re gonna build two more. And I don’t think they’re ever gonna do that. I think that’s their way of cutting the submarine force without admitting it. I would much rather have those two submarines at the end of the day.
That makes sense to me. President Biden’s nuclear posture review is currently underway. It’s slated to be published, I believe sometime at the end of this month. What would you hope to see in it?
Well, so nuclear posture reviews are almost always a waste of time. I mean, there’s no congressional obligation to do this. It’s really just a study. And once the study’s done, it doesn’t implement itself. So, very famously the Obama administration did this, where they did the nuclear posture review. And then they did a “90 day implementation study” that took them another two years. So they didn’t get around to actually updating the nuclear weapons guidance until, I guess it was five years into the administration. So I mean, what I would’ve hoped is they wouldn’t have done a nuclear posture review at all. At this point I think it’s gonna look a lot like the Trump one, honestly, there’s not a lot of appetite in the Defense department to change things.
So I don’t really expect anything out of it. Like, I don’t think I’m gonna look at it and be like, “oh, this is a wonderful document,” but I never had that expectation to begin with. Where it could be helpful, it’s not, it’s not going to do this, but, what I, what I think they planned for the document is to try to take this off the table as a political issue. So[that’s where] they seem to be aiming. They’re concerned about what Senator Fisher thinks. Which is a sign that they just, they don’t wanna have any political fights over it. So my guess is it’s gonna be a temperature lowering document for the Hill more than anything else. But the problem with that is I think a lot of these, a lot of the modernization programs, especially the land-based ICBM are gonna run over budget. And so whatever the posture review says, that’s not gonna change the budgetary reality. And I think it just means we’re gonna defer this fight for two years. So I guess I’m talking myself into this idea. I guess the heroic thing to do would be to get out in front of the problem, but that doesn’t really sound very much like a presidential administration. So I think it’ll be pretty boring, to be honest.
Yeah *laughs* So under President Trump, the United States began development of the sea-launched cruise missile, the long range standoff weapon (LRSO), and put into service the W76-2 low yield tactical warhead. Do you think that these agendas should continue to be pursued? Should the Biden administration cancel these new developments, in favor of, as you said before, more submarines, what should be done about that?
So, LRSO was on the books before Trump came into office and you probably need LRSO if the new bomber is gonna be nuclear capable. So I don’t, I don’t have any objection to LRSO. I was a little worried, they were gonna try to build a brand new cruise missile, but it looks like it’s just gonna be an extended range version of the JASSM and that’s fairly inexpensive and probably worth doing. I’m not a huge fan of either the sea launched nuclear cruise missile, or W76-2. The W76-2 was supposed to be a placeholder basically for the sea launched cruise missile. So they’re, I think they’re the same. The reason I don’t love the W76-2 is I find it very hard to believe that there’s a scenario in which we would use a nuclear weapon against Russia, and that the Russians would see the thing be launched from the ocean, watch it detonate in Russia, and then wait to calculate the yield before they decide on their response.
I think if we find ourselves in a position where we wanna use nuclear weapons against Russia, that’s a really big decision. And I think we’re kind of fooling ourselves if we think we can tiptoe into it with onesies and twosies. I mean, it’s very hard for me to imagine using only one nuclear weapon against Russia, and then just waiting to see what happens. The cruise missile is a little different. It’s weird that one was seen as a stop gap to the other because they kind of have a fundamentally different mission. But you know, the reason the Tomahawk got retired was that the Navy really hated it. The nuclear arm Tomahawk because they had to spend a certain period with [it]. They selected attack submarines every year, like two, and then they had them do a dedicated training where they practiced deploying the system and then putting it back.
And the Navy just found it was a lot of money, time, and effort that they didn’t like. And the guidance system for that, for the sea launched cruise missiles was really undesirable in a lot of ways because of the Gulf war in 2003. Actually, it was true in 1991, but it was worse in 2003. The way the Tomahawk works is when it pops up outta the ocean, it doesn’t really know where it is. So it doesn’t figure out where it is until it’s over land and it uses a radar map to navigate. And so in the course of that, navigating a lot of them crash land. About 2%, which turned out to be a huge problem because we had Tomahawks crashing in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and that was a big political problem. They actually had to suspend conventional Tomahawk launches.
And the Navy just did not wanna do that with a nuclear weapon against North Korea. They didn’t wanna fly a nuclear armed cruise missile over Japan and South Korea with the risk that it was gonna clobber before going in. So for a sea launched cruise missile, one question I would have is “What does the guidance look like?” And, “What is the mission? So I say, I’m not an enormous fan of it, but I mean, I’m open to the idea that a sea launched system could do something that maybe the air launched one couldn’t, but, we’d have to sit down and figure out how much they cost and ask whether whether one of them performs better than the other. That said, that’s not why we built them. It’s just a lot of partisan posturing on these issues on both sides. And so the Obama administration had retired the nuclear armed cruise missile. Interestingly it was the Navy, the Navy triumphed over the political appointees. The political appointees from the Obama administration, including Brad Roberts, wanted to keep it but because it was seen as an Obama decision, I think theTrump people just wanted to reverse it.
And for my last question, just today, the United States delivered our written response to Russia’s demands in Eastern Europe. We don’t have the exact text of those demands. But we do have some statements from Secretary of State Tony Blinken.I know that Russia had demanded that the U.S. Remove all nuclear weapons from Europe, which is obviously an untenable demand. I’m wondering if you could just explain how these nuclear weapons factor into the current tension involving Russia, Ukraine, NATO?
This is really tough because the Russians are extremely paranoid. So while there are nuclear weapons available for delivery by aircraft in some NATO states, Putin is absolutely convinced that the missile defense systems in Poland and Romania are designed to be swapped out with offensive nuclear missiles, which is insane. It’s crazy, but he absolutely believes that.I had a big argument with some people in the Obama administration about this because they just kept trying to reassure the Russians that the missile defense systems weren’t aimed at them. And so they would give them technical briefings to show that the system in Poland couldn’t shoot down a Russian ICBM going to the U.S. And they released a bunch of these briefings. And I kept trying to say to them, “That’s not what he’s worried about, he thinks you’re gonna put nuclear missiles in the [defense] silos.” And they’re like, “Well, that’s crazy.” I’m like, “It’s not my, that’s not my problem. I am telling you what the man thinks.” It’s not “crazy” [or] “not crazy.” You know, whatever, it’s what he thinks. And you saw a little bit of it when they talked about how NATO was gonna make Ukraine a missile base, NATO’s not gonna make…that’s insane. That’s a long way of saying that one of the hardest parts about this field is we can have an argument among ourselves about what a sane, rational nuclear posture is toward Russia. There is no evidence that the Russians will perceive it correctly. and then, where are you? So, I mean, *laughs* it’s really frustrating. And actually, Bob Gates, when he was Secretary of Defense, he stayed on from Bush to Obama. Gates said in a press briefing that he could not believe that Putin had raised this issue. I think it was Putin raised the issue with him. Maybe he said the Russians. They’re absolutely convinced that the U.S. Was gonna covertly deploy nuclear, armed offensive missiles in Eastern Europe, even though we’re not. So, I don’t know what to do. I mean, we can tell them that, we can promise them that we’re not gonna do that, but getting them to believe it is really tough.
Great. Thank you for all of that. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and participate in our firing line debate next week.
Trevor MacKay is Publication Director of the Beacon and a freshman in Timothy Dwight College majoring in History. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.