The head of the United States Strategic Command, Navy Adm. Charles Richard, sent an alarming message by affirming that the country must be prepared for a nuclear war with Russia and China. The admiral assured that there is a “real possibility” of a regional crisis between the superpowers and warned that the United States should prepare to rise to the occasion. 

The U.S. Strategic Command is the department that manages integrated missile defense and other U.S. military systems. Richard asserted that a regional crisis with China or Russia “could quickly escalate into a conflict involving nuclear weapons.”

“Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility,’ and act to meet and deter that reality,” Richard wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute’s monthly magazine published in February. “We cannot approach nuclear deterrence the same way.  It must be tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment we face.”

According to Richard’s statements, Russia and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have begun to aggressively challenge international norms and global peace using instruments of power and threats of force in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War, and even in some cases, ways not seen even during the Cold War, such as cyberattacks and threats in space. 

This destabilizing action puts at risk the political stability that has been achieved over the last decades since World War II, and, according to Richard, if left unchecked, increases the risk of a major power crisis or conflict on a global scale. It could lead to the need to actively compete to contain aggression; “Ceding to their initiatives risks reinforcing their perceptions that the United States is unwilling or unable to respond, which could further embolden them,” Richard asserted.

Over the past 10 years, Russia has reportedly begun to aggressively modernize its nuclear forces, including its non-treaty medium- and short-range systems. 

The CCP is also on a trajectory to be a strategic peer of Russia in terms of military might. Like Russia, it is acting aggressively in defiance of democratic values and shaping the world economic order to its advantage. 

Both countries in recent years have invested in nuclear capabilities designed to constrain and counter the United States and even “escalate beyond us,” Richard added.

Finally, Richard asked the Department of Defense to rethink how it prioritizes the acquisition of future capabilities. Looking for capabilities that preserve the U.S. competitive advantage and, if requested, are decisive early on, before the adversary’s stakes are too high or the opportunity has passed.

Richard said he does not mean to discourage with his message; on the contrary, he assures that the Department of Defense has demonstrated a willingness and ability to address changing environments, in a scenario that is by no means insurmountable for the United States. 

“It is through a holistic risk assessment process that we can better align national resources and military readiness to ensure strategic security. In the end, it comes back to the threat,” Richard said.