The secretary provided the stark warning on Friday at the U.S. Strategic Command’s change of command ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, where Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton assumed command of America’s nuclear forces as the leader of STRATCOM from the retiring Adm. Charles Richard.
“Today, STRATCOM faces new challenges,” he said. “The United States is on the verge of a new phase, one where for the first time, we face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors. The People’s Republic of China is expanding and modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces, and Russia is also modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal. And as the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling.”
The Department of Defense has frequently referred to China as its “pacing challenge” and Russia as an “acute threat.” The Pentagon, however, views China as the sole country that has the ability and the intent to reshape the global order.
A recent report from the department released in late November revealed that China’s operational nuclear warheads stockpile has likely surpassed 400 and the country’s stockpile could exceed 1,500 by 2035 on its current pace.
While the Chinese military works to accomplish those long-term goals, it has also increased its aggression within the region.
“Second, over the course of 2021, and evident in 2022, we have seen a trend of increasing PRC military coercion,” the report read. “The CMPR highlights that the PLA has adopted more dangerous, coercive, and aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region. PLA naval vessels and aircraft have exhibited a sharper increase in unsafe and unprofessional behavior in the Indo-Pacific region, including lasing, aerobatics, discharging objects, and activity that impinge upon the ability of nearby aircraft to maneuver safely.”
To counter their military ascension, the Air Force recently released the highly anticipated and very secretive B-21 bomber, “which is the backbone of the Air Force’s bomber fleet,” Austin said. “We’re working to modernize the other legs of the triad through new Columbia-class submarines and the Sentinel ICBM system.”