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Congressional Research Service, "U.S. Conventional Forces and Nuclear Deterrence: A China Case Study," April 11, 2006

This report was written by Christopher Bolkcom, Shirley A. Kan, and Amy F. Woolf.
April 11, 2006


Congress and the Department of Defense (DOD) are engaged in an extended discourse over the future direction of U.S. defense strategy and military force structure. In the past, these discussions have focused almost exclusively on questions related to U.S. conventional military forces, with discussions about nuclear weapons held in separate fora. However, the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) examined both nuclear and conventional forces, a first in the QDR’s history. This indicates that analysts both inside and outside government are beginning to review and assess the potential deterrent and operational relationship between conventional and nuclear weapons.

It appears that considerable pressure is building on DOD leaders to make strategy and force structure decisions with cost-effectiveness in mind. A key question for contemporary defense planners is what proportion of U.S. military capabilities should be focused on traditional military challenges and what proportion should be focused on non-traditional challenges, such as “irregular, disruptive and catastrophic” threats?

To effectively analyze the desired size and characteristics of tomorrow’s military, some argue that we must take a hard look at feasible, real-world contingencies. A possible conflict with China attracts considerable attention from defense planners because it is a regional competitor today and could over time grow to be a “near-peer” competitor. Analysts can also easily identify flashpoints where the two nations might meet and feel compelled to defend national interests.

The analysis that follows seeks to explore the possible role that U.S. nuclear and conventional forces might play in four stages of potential conflicts: deterrence, prior to the start of the conflict; crisis stability in the early stages of the conflict; warfighting during the height of the conflict; and war termination, through either a negotiated settlement or a battlefield victory.

This report highlights a number of policy issues that may bear consideration in the ongoing debate regarding military investments. For example, this report suggests that nuclear and conventional military capabilities can simultaneously have positive effects on deterrence or warfighting and negative effects on crisis stability or war termination objectives. Therefore, changes in military force structure or capabilities to improve deterrence, for example, should consider potential effects on crisis stability, for example. Further, investments in military capabilities that may positively contribute to all potential stages of military conflict (e.g. deterrence, crisis stability, warfighting, and war termination), might be preferred to investments that have a mixed effect on the potential range of conflict. This report will not be updated.

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