It’s quite bad enough that with Communist China carrying out a live-fire rehearsal for a military blockade and seizure of Taiwan, President Biden and his team chose to postpone a long-scheduled test of America’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Worse is the White House rationale for the delay, which suggests an administration so lost in fantasy that we ought to commandeer a spaceship and send out a search party.
The Minuteman test delay made the news when Sen. Tom Cotton wrote a letter dated August 4 to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as China was threatening Taiwan close up with drills including warships, warplanes and missiles launched over and around the island. Cotton asked if there was truth to reports that the Biden administration had delayed or canceled its routine ICBM test launch, scheduled for this week. Referring to Biden’s delay (and later cancellation) of a similar ICBM test in March, which the Biden team attributed to a desire not to provoke Russia (which had already begun its military assault on Ukraine), Cotton asked: “How long does the administration intend to allow Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to dictate our missile testing schedule?”
Making a guest appearance at Thursday’s White House press briefing, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the administration had postponed the ICBM test, to avoid “escalating tensions” with China.
Kirby framed this as a signal that the U.S. is a “responsible”and “strong, confident, capable nuclear power.” He added that the test would be rescheduled, and said the delay would not impede “the readiness or the reliability of America’s safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.”
Really? Even if America’s arsenal is in fine working order, the basic requirement for an effective U.S. deterrent is that our opponents (say, Putin or Xi) believe the U.S. would be willing to use it. If not, then all those missiles are just a lot of expensive high-maintenance hardware.
So, in what universe do Biden and his strategists believe this ICBM test postponement will help deter Xi Jinping? How does that work, exactly? Perhaps they imagine something like the following scenario:
Setting: Xi Jinping’s Beijing office, People’s Republic of China. Xi is at his desk, in his shirtsleeves, hard at work reviewing reports of PRC naval blockade maneuvers and missiles launched over and around Taiwan, including five landing in the waters of Japan’s nearby Exclusive Economic Zone.
A bevy of Communist Party flunkeys arrives with word that in Washington, Biden has reacted by postponing a long-scheduled ICBM test. Xi pauses, then reels back in horror, so dismayed that he shares his thoughts aloud: “Do you realize what this means?” he says to his CCP minions. They know, but they wait for it.
“This is terrible news,” says Xi. “This test delay is a sure sign of a strong, confident, capable nuclear power. Just ask Putin. The Americans did this same thing to him, this test-cancellation strategic gambit.” In despair, Xi beats his own brow. “We are outmatched! I am terrifed! Stand down the live-fire exercises, apologize for the threats against Taiwan–free Hong Kong while you’re at it. Scrap our DF-17 hypersonic missiles and apologize to Joe Biden. Quick! Before he undermines us entirely by canceling even more missile tests!”
OK, I grant you, in the imaginations of Biden and his strategic advisers–assuming they’ve thought it through at all–this scene probably looks a bit less dramatic. And quite likely they believe they are impressing not only China, but the world more generally, with their responsible, strong, confident, capable willingness to delay (or even cancel) American ICBM tests every time a predatory, nuclear-armed tyranny fires bullets and launches missiles in the course of invading a friendly power, or rehearsing for it.
But it’s worth wondering if our allies might find it more reassuring, and our foes find it more daunting, were the U.S. to go ahead on schedule with its ICBM tests, on the theory that Putin and Xi are dictating quite enough already.