Jeffrey LewisNNSA's Harvey At New America

Yesterday, I hosted John Harvey, Director of Policy Planning at NNSA, here at New America.

John was a good sport—what we planned to be a 25 person brown bag lunch turned into a 75 person event that will air on CSPAN. (You can listen to the audio. I will post when CSPAN announces when they plan to air the talk.)

John took that in very good humor. He also laughed when he realized that this is my blog.

Anyway, I learned a lot from John’s talk, but something in particular struck me.

You may remember when Donald Rumsfeld argued that the United States couldn’t go below the Moscow Treaty levels of 1700-2200 nuclear forces, for fear that the Chinese would attempt what he called “a sprint to parity”—rapidly increasing the size of their force by two magnitude from about 20 ICBMs.

Harvey confirmed that the Moscow Treaty numbers are in fact premised on intelligence estimates of future foreign nuclear deployments. In other words, one could argue that the numerical levels necessary to assure allies and dissuade competitors are judgment calls.

His remarks reaffirmed my sense that the “sprint to parity” scenario sets an artificially high “floor” that prevents further numerical reductions in our deployed nuclear forces.


I think a Chinese “sprint to parity” is extremely unlikely in any case (though the numbers should modestly increase as the DF-31 family deploys). I do, however, worry that keeping our own forces artificially large (and maintaining first use options) creates adverse incentives that are more likely to abet those in China seeking a “sprint to parity,” than would reductions to, say, five or six hundred nuclear weapons. At least, that is what I argued in the Bulletin:

Yet, if the United States were truly interested in discouraging a Chinese sprint to parity or the development of a Chinese ballistic missile force that could undertake coercive operations, the president would disavow the vision for nuclear forces outlined in the NPR. The Chinese leadership chose their arsenal in part on the belief that the United States would not be foolish enough to use nuclear weapons against China in a conflict. By asserting that Washington may be that foolish, and by attempting to exploit the weaknesses inherent in China’s decision to rely on a small vulnerable force, the NPR creates incentives for Beijing to increase the size, readiness, and usability of its nuclear forces.

I also wrote a blog post on the subject.

Update AFP has now picked up the event.


  1. J (History)

    Um, I think it is on CSPAN RIGHT NOW—6:34 pm.

  2. epaminondas (History)

    It doesn’t matter.If the Chinese are determined to achieve parity, they will. Nothing will stop it. The only variable is how much has to be designed and built to achieve that end.

    If the purpose of nuclear arms is to deter, then the number might as well be low (consonant with the lower limit needed to achieve that), but unfortunately in this world, as we can see, there are some people who may not be deter – able (who are not Chinese), and therefore since we are politically unable to sustain conventional combat for longer periods (a statement of fact,not a qualitative political judgment), we had BETTER have SOME nuclear warfighting capabilities, which of course will jazz up the Chinese.

    So sorry, that’s the world.

    Wish I could have seen this event