Arms Race Returns

The early contours of the muscular Trump doctrine can be discerned in three important documents released in the last several weeks by the US government. The US National Security Strategy (NSS), released in December 2017, was followed in quick succession by the National Defence Strategy (NDS) and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

In stark contrast with the more measured language of the past, the NSS castigates China for "using economic inducements and penalties... and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda." Arguing that "China's infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations," it points out that China's "efforts to build and militarise outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade… and undermine regional stability."

The NSS asserts that though China says "its ambitions (are) mutually beneficial Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific". High on praise for India, it welcomes "India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner." It seeks to increase quadrilateral security cooperation with India, Australia and Japan for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. However, it is sharply critical of Pakistan's continued sponsorship of terrorism.

Flowing from the NSS, the National Defence Strategy (NDS) seeks to sharpen the American armed forces' combat edge, build a more lethal force and strengthen alliances. It takes note of the "resilient but weakening" post-1945 international order by "revisionist powers" like China and Russia and the emergence of "rogue regimes" like Iran and North Korea that seek to gain "coercive influence" over their neighbours.

The NDS heralds a marked shift in US strategic orientation from the war against terrorism to the strategic challenge posed singly and jointly by China and Russia. The NDS also identifies jihadist terrorist organisations, violent extremism, cyber-attacks, non-state actors and technological advances as asymmetric, transnational threats.

To meet emerging threats and challenges, the NDS postulates "a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force…(to) sustain American influence and ensure favourable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order." To do all this, the military budget for the year has seen a huge hike -- to $700 billion.

The NDS envisions the Indo-Pacific region as the centrepiece of the emerging strategic competition. Though the Obama administration had seen it as necessary to "pivot" or "re-balance" to the Indo-Pacific, it did not actually initiate the full range of measures to give effect to its thinking. That is now likely to be taken up by President Trump.

The Indo-Pacific region includes the area of responsibility of the US Pacific Command up to the west coast of India. This does not find resonance in New Delhi as India would prefer that the rest of the Indian Ocean, up to the east coast of Africa, also be included. China is building a military base at Djibouti, constructing a port at Gwadar and developing logistics infrastructure in East Africa, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka, besides South-east Asian ports.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), undertaken after a gap of almost 10 years, is perhaps the most important of the three documents. The NPR is a review of US nuclear policies, posture and programmes. Its objectives are to ensure that the US "nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready and appropriately tailored to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies."

The NPR, a continuation of US nuclear policy formulated over seven decades, seeks to carry on the Obama administration's efforts to continue to replace ageing nuclear warheads and delivery systems. It re-affirms the necessity of a strategic triad of land-based missiles (ICBMs), sea-based missiles and bomber aircraft armed with nuclear glide bombs, including basing these on European bases for the reassurance of allies. It reiterates the moratorium on nuclear weapons tests, re-affirms negative security assurances given to various countries and promises to honour all arms control agreements with Russia. However, it berates the surging role of nuclear weapons in Russia's national security strategy and charges it with continuing violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russian actions hamper strategic stability, especially as Russia believes in the "limited first use" of nuclear weapons.

To counter Russian and Chinese assertiveness and retain the initiative, the NPR recommends two controversial new additions to the US arsenal: a low-yield nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and the re-introduction of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM). These initiatives are designed to signal that any use of nuclear weapons is best not contemplated as it will afford Moscow no major advantage, only unacceptable consequences.

Sharply critical of the NPR, the Russian government reiterated Russia's military doctrine emphasising that it "limits the possibility of using nuclear weapons to two…scenarios: first, in response to an aggression against Russia… involving the use of… weapons of mass destruction, and second, in response to a non-nuclear aggression, but only if Russia's survival is endangered."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has since gone on to publicly announce a set of Russia's own new nuclear weapons, designed to beat anti-missile defences. China said it "firmly opposed" the NPR and

urged the US to "drop its Cold War menta-lity." Its spokesperson said that China has "always exercised the utmost restraint in the development of nuclear weapons…" and reiterated its no first use posture.

The NPR merits criticism for recommending a nuclear build-up, including the development of a highly destabilising low-yield nuclear warhead (<20 Kt) for the SLBM; seeking to re-introduce a sea-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missile; and, suggesting that the only remaining megaton-class warhead remain in service rather than be retired early. Also, it does not support reduction in the number of old, non-deployed warheads. Overall, the Trump NPR fails to promote peace and stability.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.