The United States has experienced a nearly unbroken string of catastrophic intelligence failures in the last eighty years. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught America by surprise in 1941, only to be followed by North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and China’s intervention in the Korean War a decade later. More recently, American intelligence failed to predict or warn U.S. policymakers about the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or the recent outbreak of the deadly global coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of over 700,000 Americans and millions of more people around the world. It seems possible that the U.S. intelligence community will fail to predict—let alone provide advance warning of—an existential nuclear, cyber, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack upon the U.S. homeland from America’s adversaries.
U.S. leaders have been seemingly unconcerned about the increasingly bellicose and militarily superior “New Axis” powers aligning against it since the end of the Cold War. This alliance by America’s two most powerful adversaries is not a recent development. The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2001. Russian president Vladimir Putin has since described it as “a reborn Second Warsaw Pact.” Russia and China now lead a military alliance that includes over 68 percent of the landmass of Eurasia, nearly 42 percent of the world’s population, nearly 30 percent of the world’s GDP, and approximately 75 percent of the world’s operational nuclear weapons, with over two-thirds of them deployed by Russia.
Russia developed super-electromagnetic pulse weapons more than two decades ago. These nuclear weapons are designed to greatly enhance their EMP effects. It subsequently shared this deadly technology with its Chinese and North Korean allies. More recently, Russia, China, and North Korea have been assessed as likely having the capability to use EMP and cyberwarfare attacks to shut down America’s electrical power grid and other critical infrastructure, including the internet, financial systems, transportation systems, food, and water distribution systems, communications systems and emergency services in a matter of minutes. Such attacks could possibly disable the Global Positioning System and military early-warning satellites, blinding Americans to subsequent attacks against the United States and its allies. U.S. military leaders have even expressed concern that our nuclear command, control, and communications system might be vulnerable to cyberattack. Such an attack could disrupt the president’s ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. Also, it could prevent America’s conventional military forces from being able to communicate with their commanders or coordinate their attacks, making them much easier to defeat. The United States has yet to develop any super-EMP weapons to help deter any such attack.
President Joe Biden was elected, in part, on a platform of protecting the environment from global climate change. However, few people realize that a super-EMP or cyberattack on the U.S. homeland would likely be far more catastrophic for American citizens and the environment. Such an attack could cause all ninety-four nuclear reactors in the United States to meltdown, spreading radioactive contamination and fallout to nearby cities. If such an attack were to occur, then U.S. leaders might not be certain which country attacked us or who to retaliate against. In 2008, the Congressional EMP Commission estimated that such a cataclysmic attack on a national scale could cause up to 90 percent of Americans to die within twelve months due to starvation, disease, and societal breakdown. A comprehensive cyberattack on the U.S. homeland could also kill tens of millions of Americans. Given their destructive potential, U.S. national security professionals should seriously consider reclassifying cyber and EMP weapons as weapons of mass destruction. Despite these warnings, U.S. leaders have done little to protect the American people from EMP and cyberattacks. They have also failed to deploy a national missile defense system to protect against nuclear missile attacks. In the event of a catastrophic Sino-Russian attack against the U.S. homeland, there is a good chance that even America’s allies would decline to come to its defense for fear of sharing its fate.
How did America’s leaders allow the country to become so vulnerable? U.S. leaders began a policy of nuclear disarmament at a pace far exceeding Russia’s following the end of the Cold War, naively believing the existential threat had passed. This exposed the United States to unnecessary and increasingly intolerable risks. By 2016, the U.S. nuclear arsenal had been reduced from 30,000 nuclear weapons to only 1,750 operational warheads. Many of these weapons are deployed on aging delivery systems of increasingly questionable reliability. Today, only 720 of America’s warheads are ready to launch at any given time, of which 50 percent would likely survive a full-scale nuclear first strike. The reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile is also a major concern. Successive administrations have failed to ensure it will function as designed in the event of a crisis.
Over the past decade, the United States has allowed itself to be overtaken by the Sino-Russian alliance in virtually every recognized measure of strategic military power. This includes offensive nuclear weapon systems, national missile defenses, hypersonic weapons, super-EMP weapons, and cyberwarfare capabilities. America has fallen behind its adversaries in terms of their combined economic and industrial manufacturing might, their ability to produce major weapon systems without foreign components, their hardening of critical infrastructures against EMP/cyberattack, their civil defenses, and overall nuclear war survivability.
The Department of Defense estimated in 2017 that the Russian Federation was in the process of building its own nuclear arsenal to total 8,000 deployed warheads, which is over four and a half times more operational nuclear warheads than the United States possesses. Russia has also deployed six strategic nuclear “superweapon” systems of a type the United States does not even possess that are not limited by existing arms control treaties. Former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer Rebekah Koffler has stated, Putin believes war with the United States is “unavoidable.”
In August, Koffler wrote in an op-ed for The Hill that,
Moscow is prepared to fight a nuclear war over its perceived sphere of influence, on which Russia has relied for centuries as its strategic security perimeter… The Kremlin envisions fighting a limited nuclear war with Washington, over contested areas such as Ukraine and Crimea, the latter of which Russia illegally annexed in 2014… Moscow also has conducted mock nuclear attacks on the U.S. homeland. The Russians regularly practice nuclear launches in simulation exercises, with Putin “pressing the button.” … There is no question that Russia is preparing for a nuclear conflict with the United States and NATO. The only question is whether this conflict can be deterred or fought.
Meanwhile, U.S. satellite imagery has revealed that China is in the process of rapidly expanding its strategic nuclear arsenal by up to 4,000 warheads–a number of nuclear warheads up to twenty times greater than recent U.S. Department of Defense estimates of the size of their entire nuclear arsenal. Peter Huessy recently noted in an op-ed published by the National Interest that “U.S. satellites have discovered some 350-400 new Chinese missile silos, each laid out in a grid pattern some three kilometers apart. These new intercontinental ballistic-missile ‘launchers’ are designed to hold the DF-41 missile.”
“The DF-41 is a ten-warhead missile,” Huessy explained. “Added up, the Chinese potential sprint to nuclear superiority may indeed be materializing, a possible four-thousand warhead build that would be 266 percent of the total deployed warheads currently in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. More worrisome, China’s future nuclear force could be 400 percent of today’s U.S. alert nuclear forces. … Alongside China, America’s two nuclear-armed enemies would have combined strategic nuclear warheads some 600 percent greater than the United States. If compared by the number of nuclear weapons that are on alert on a day-to-day basis, the imbalance reaches on the order of 1,000 percent.”
Huessy estimates that Russia and China could field a combined force of 9,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads within the next few years, 7,200 of which will be on alert and ready to fire at any given time. Based on the time it took the United States to build its own missile silos during the Cold War, China could complete the construction of its four hundred DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in as little as two years. However, given the rapid pace of their construction, it’s possible they could finish them even sooner. Last month, Adm. Charles Richard, that commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that America was “witnessing a strategic breakout by China.” “The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking. … Frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough,” he said. Richard characterized China as a “peer” nuclear competitor and noted that we now face two nuclear “peer” competitors, Russia and China, compared to one during the Cold War. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed Richard’s assessment.
“It is going to take us 10 to 15 years to modernize 400 silos that already exist,” Hyten said. “And China is basically building almost that many overnight. So the speed of difference in that threat is what really concerns me most. … Why are they building that enormous, enormous nuclear capability faster than anybody in the world? … It’s the almost unprecedented nuclear modernization. … They could put, you know, ten reentry vehicles on every one of those ICBMs if they wanted to; There’s nothing to limit that ability.”
Despite the increasing Sino-Russian nuclear superiority, the U.S. government currently has no plans to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, let alone restore “rough nuclear parity” with Russia and China along with our ability to credibly deter a nuclear/cyber/EMP attack on the U.S. homeland. As a result of the growing disparity between Sino-Russian unconventional warfare capabilities and those of the United States, the chances of an unconventional nuclear/EMP/cyberattack on the U.S. homeland have, arguably, never been greater.
The result of nuclear superiority could be calamitous. John Mearsheimer writes in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:
In the unlikely event that one state gained nuclear superiority over all of its rivals, it would be so powerful that it would be the only great power in the system. The balance of conventional forces would be largely irrelevant if a nuclear hegemon were to emerge.
The combined nuclear arsenal of Russia and China is already estimated to constitute nearly twice as many deployed strategic nuclear warheads as the United States. If the Sino-Russian alliance achieved anywhere near the 600 percent greater level that Huessy predicted, then the two countries would be the only remaining nuclear hegemons. The relative size of America’s conventional military would make no difference to deterring their aggression. America’s leaders must act quickly to prevent this from happening.
David T. Pyne, Esq. is a former U.S. Army combat arms and H.Q. staff officer with an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. He currently serves as Deputy Director of National Operations for the EMP Caucus on National and Homeland Security and is a contributor to Dr. Peter Pry’s new book Blackout Warfare. He may be reached at [email protected].