President Biden’s nominee to take over the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal and missile-defense operations warned on Thursday that China’s rise as a nuclear power poses historic threats and challenges requiring a reevaluation of current policies.
Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, told lawmakers reviewing his nomination to lead U.S. Strategic Command that the military’s assessment of China’s nuclear mettle had changed dramatically since 2018 when Beijing was judged as requiring “minimal nuclear deterrence.” At that time, the Pentagon’s nuclear posture review assessed China’s ambitions as being focused on “regional hegemony,” he explained.
That impression started to shift in recent years, as China made concerted efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities, and stepped up its aggressive posture toward the United States and its regional allies.
The Pentagon’s latest nuclear posture review was transmitted to Congress in March and has not yet been made public, but Cotton appeared to foreshadow some of its top-line findings during Thursday’s testimony.
“We have seen the incredible expansiveness of what they’re doing with their nuclear force — which does not, in my opinion, reflect minimal deterrence. They have a bona fide triad now,” Cotton explained, meaning the Chinese military has nuclear-capable forces that operate on land, and in the air and sea.
The nuclear threat posed by China, he added, cannot be sufficiently addressed by duplicating the approach the United States has taken toward Russia, whose nuclear aims are familiar to the United States and date back decades to the Cold War. Beijing and Moscow, the general said, “act differently, from a doctrine’s perspective.”
After racing each other for years to build up their nuclear arsenals, the United States and the former Soviet Union struck several arms reduction pacts in the later part of the 20th century. Only one of those treaties — the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which applies to intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear capable bombers — remains in effect.
Historically, Beijing did not possess the arsenal of the two major Cold War superpowers, nor were its nuclear ambitions regarded in Washington with the same intensity as Moscow’s. China was also never a party to the arms-control regimes that have defined the nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia — a fact that politicians and advocates insist must be remedied going forward.
“We need to seriously consider that we are entering a new, trilateral nuclear competition era,” the committee chairman, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told Cotton. “You will be responsible for continuing to ensure that the United States and its allies can deter not one, but two near-peer nuclear adversaries, something your predecessors did not face.”
Cotton did not detail his plans for updating the military’s approach to China, but he acknowledged there was work to be done to correct the imbalance.
“We understand Russian nuclear theory and nuclear doctrine,” Cotton said, citing President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on high alert days after the invasion of Ukraine — a move met largely with indifference by the Pentagon, and one that so far has not resulted in any direct assault on NATO.
“We’re going to have to understand more deeply the Chinese nuclear strategy,” he added.
Cotton was resolute, however, in assessing that “at the end of the day, Russia and China both understand that we have a strong, resilient nuclear force that is offering deterrence to ourselves and extended deterrence to our enemies.”
But the United States must take seriously threats by Moscow or Beijing to use nuclear weapons, the general said — particularly when it comes to potential confrontation over Taiwan.
“If you have a credible deterrent, it would make them think twice before engaging with us,” Cotton noted.
Some senators challenged Cotton to say not only what he would do to expand and update the military’s portfolio of nuclear weapons, but how he would go about ensuring that U.S. proliferation won’t get out of hand.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hi.) asked Cotton to say whether he agreed with the Biden administration’s recommendation to scrap the development of sea-launched low-yield nuclear cruise missiles over concerns about the program’s cost and efficiency.
That position, which administration officials have said was informed by the most recent nuclear posture review, has inspired some controversy, with some fearing the program’s cancellation will negatively impact the U.S. military’s ability to compete with its adversaries’ nuclear capabilities.
Earlier this year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley publicly joined those criticizing Biden’s decision. When asked for his take Thursday, Cotton demurred, saying he wanted an opportunity to conduct a full review of the program after his expected confirmation.
But when Hirono asked Cotton whether he believes the United States has a role to play in limiting the nuclear arms race, he answered: “I do.”
“Whatever treaty that we could do to prevent proliferation is good, with a caveat: that it incorporates every aspect of what the signing agreement would be. Weapons that are currently not seen as strategic weapons need to be added to that calculus,” Cotton elaborated, before concluding: “Any treaty that would prevent proliferation across the globe, I am for.”