US Is Racing To Achieve Atomic Supremacy Over Its Key Foes As ‘Second Nuclear Age’ Begins, Experts Say

Micaela Burrow 

  • The U.S. is heading into a “second nuclear age” as tensions with China and North Korea prompt further demonstrations of nuclear power, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • North Korea and China recently demonstrated new nuclear capabilities aimed at overpowering the U.S.
  • “The biggest threat is that either or both powers might in the future feel emboldened to revise the postwar order and risk triggering a nuclear conflict,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.

The U.S. is heading into a “second nuclear age” as it doubles down on nuclear deterrence to counter atomic saber rattling, mainly from North Korea and China, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

China and North Korea recently displayed milestones in their nuclear weapons arsenals in ways that could outmatch similar U.S. capabilities and overwhelm defenses, according to media reports. At the same time, U.S. policies to negotiate disarmament and reduce tensions have largely fallen flat, prompting a reliance on piling up its own nuclear resources that could reinforce and escalate a global arms race, experts told the DCNF.

“We are living through a second nuclear age. Today China has embarked on a nuclear program to achieve rough parity with the United States, and North Korea has set out to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses” and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and allies, Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.

“The biggest threat is that either or both powers might in the future feel emboldened to revise the postwar order and risk triggering a nuclear conflict,” Cronin continued.

Of the two, North Korea has demonstrated the most volatility, test-launching ballistic missiles in 2022 at a rate more than twice that of the year prior, according to a tracker from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The closed country showed off a massively expanded intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the U.S. in an annual Wednesday-night parade. Featured in the parade were at least 11 of North Korea’s most up-to-date Hwasong-17 ICBMs — the most ever displayed at once — and a mock-up of a more advanced version that can deploy faster and evade detection, state media photos showed, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The missiles signaled North Korea’s resolve to achieve “tremendous nuclear strike capability,” state media said, according to the WSJ.

Assuming North Korea could mount multiple warheads on each ICBM, it could potentially launch enough missiles simultaneously to drown out the U.S.’ 44 ground-based missile interceptors, Patty-Jane Geller, senior policy analyst for Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense at the Heritage Foundation, explained to the DCNF.

“The U.S. could still defend against a first strike but might have to take additional action to neutralize an imminent attack in a crisis,” Cronin said. “Thus, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, far from providing more security, could add to crisis instability.”

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un demanded the military size up the country’s nuclear arsenal and develop tactical nuclear weapons prepared to strike South Korea in December 2022.

Kim accused the U.S. and South Korea of attempting to “isolate and stifle” his country with U.S. nuclear assets positioned in South Korea, state media KCNA reported, according to Reuters.

U.S. policy is still to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and the U.S. would pursue arms control talks if it found North Korea willing to engage, State Department officials said in October, Reuters reported.

Pyongyang in February rebuked calls for negotiations with Washington after the U.S. military conducted joint exercises with Japan and South Korea demonstrating that U.S. nuclear deterrence umbrella extends to its Asian partners, Bloomberg reported.

“We have to play favorably with North Korea and try to reduce tension,” Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities, told the DCNF.

Absent serious arms control talks, a nuclear arms race could grow more heated, Goldstein warned.

Most countries accept the near political impossibility of conducting a nuclear strike, but instead focus on buildup to convince other nations that any aggression against them would be met with devastating consequences, experts explained. However, total collapse of a state with nuclear weapons, like North Korea, could yield devastating consequences.

China is also concerned about North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Goldstein told the DCNF. However, it is pursuing a policy of its own aimed at demonstrating superiority to the U.S.

China plans to triple its nuclear warheads by 2025, according to a 2022 Department of Defense report on China’s military and security developments. The head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) notified Congress on Jan. 26 that China’s construction of ground-based ICBM launchers had exceeded those operated by the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reported.

Many of those silos are empty, and the U.S.’ total nuclear arsenal, including air, land and sea-based capabilities, is still much larger than China’s, officials said.

However, the news highlighted China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and concurrent U.S. efforts to modernize its nuclear triad. The Pentagon intends to replace the Minuteman III ICBMs with the LG-35A Sentinel by 2029, the Air Force said.

The U.S. launched an unarmed but nuclear-capable Minuteman III Thursday night from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. ICBM launches have occurred hundreds of times and are planned months or years in advance, and the Pentagon characterizes launches as a display of America’s effective nuclear deterrent against hostile foreign powers.

“These tests are long-planned, well in advance of the test date, and not driven by current events. These tests are scheduled 5-years in advance and validate that our nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, effective and ready; deterrence is a product of a credible threat based on demonstrated capability,” Carla Pampe, a spokesperson for Air Force Global Strike Command, told the DCNF.

Still, the launch “signals to adversaries that the U.S. nuclear missile arsenal will work as intended should a nuclear strike become necessary,” Cronin said.

The Biden administration has advocated for upgrading the aging Minuteman III missiles, and Congress authorized $25 million in unrequested funds to continue research and development for a sea-launched nuclear weapons program.

U.S. nuclear assets could continue expanding as the administration feels pressured to outrun its adversaries’ pace, experts said.

“As China’s nuclear force in particular continues to grow, the U.S. will need to invest in its own nuclear forces to ensure it has the capabilities necessary to maintain strong deterrence against China,” Geller told the DCNF.

The administration appears to be “planning for a continued and even elevated level of nuclear competition among the great powers,” Goldstein said. “This will cost the American people dearly even if there’s no conflict … this is trillions of dollars.”

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