WASHINGTON – The US is engaged in what amounts to a slow-boil arms competition against rising global powers like Russia and China. As the Pentagon prepares to withdraw from nearly 15 years spent fighting counterinsurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, the US military must shift its focus to more high-end capabilities to compete with global powers with growing defense budgets.
"Our military has done a remarkable job dealing with these terrorist threats," said Eric Edelman, co-chair of the National Defense Strategy Commission.
Edelman stresses that the guerilla warfare waged against terrorists "has taken up a lot of time, equipment, and investment and we haven't been investing in capabilities that would allow us to fight at the high end."
That high end includes highly sophisticated military technology. China and Russia have both spent years investing in new nuclear weapons and delivery platforms.
"The Russians have invested very heavily over the last decade in their military. There has been a very significant military modernization and that modernization has gone in particular into its nuclear forces," explained Edelman.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claims a new hypersonic Kinzhal missile can carry nuclear warheads and hit targets over a thousand miles away at speeds 10 times faster than the speed of sound. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office warns that "there are no existing countermeasures" to defend against hypersonic weapons.
That's not the only Russian high-tech Russian weaponry in the works. "The Russians are developing a very modern nuclear arsenal with a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and they are testing a rail-mobile ICBM," said Edelman.
"Whether they'll be able to deploy it or not, we don't know yet," said Edelman. "But they have modernized their nuclear forces significantly over the last decade, and they've invested in a smaller but more agile and more lethal conventional force."
In contrast, the US has not built a new nuclear weapon in over 20 years, and it has not tested one since 1991. "The platforms that we use, the ballistic missile submarines that we use the SSBMs, the ICBM, and the gravity bombs that we use on bombers are all aging," said Edelman.
"We have to modernize some parts of our arsenal," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that "some of the pieces of it are the equivalent of a 15-year-old family car. It's time to replace them."
"Nuclear war would be crazy in the abstract," said O'Hanlon. Unless a terrorist group like ISIS or al Qaeda gets their hands on a nuclear weapon, "no one's going to just decide to somehow launch it out of the blue," he said.
The danger is in an escalating regional conflict with Russia in the Baltic States or Ukraine – or with China in the South China Sea or the Senkaku Islands. "No side ever wants to admit defeat so if they're on the losing end of a conventional fight, they make some nuclear threats, hoping that would be enough to get a better-negotiated outcome, for example. And then if there is no relenting on the other side after these threats, maybe they pop one off," said O'Hanlon.
"Maybe it's an airburst somewhere where there's very little damage," said O'Hanlon, "but it's showing their willingness to attack and use nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945, and then, where does it stop?"