Nuclear war with Russia or China is now a "very real possibility", a US military chief has claimed.
Admiral Charles Richard warned the countries have challenged international norms and global peace "in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War".
The head of US Strategic Command published his alarming analysis amid speculation the country's military budget will be cut, the Times reports.
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Admiral Richard, who is in charge of nuclear strike capabilities and missile defence, claimed the US had become too focused on counter-terrorism over the past two decades.
Writing in the US Naval Institute journal Proceedings, he said it had "grown accustomed to ignoring the nuclear dimension" when assessing threats to security.
He added Moscow and Beijing have challenged international norms and global peace "in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War – and in some cases, in ways not seen during the Cold War".
Admiral Richard wrote: "There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state.
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"Consequently, the US 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.
"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Department of Defence has not had to consider the possibility of great power competition, crisis, or direct armed conflict with a nuclear-capable peer. Unfortunately, the current environment no longer affords us that luxury."
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Russia has been able to overhaul its nuclear capabilities with a modernisation programme now “about 70 per cent complete”, Richard warned.
The Kremlin’s investment includes new bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, warning systems and command and control capabilities in addition to hypersonic glide vehicles and nuclear-armed torpedoes.
China "is also on a trajectory to be a strategic peer" of the US and is investing significantly in hypersonic and advanced conventional missile systems, in a nuclear-capable long-range bomber and in a nuclear weapons stockpile that is "expected to double – if not triple or quadruple – over the next decade".
He wrote Russia and China had demonstrated their confidence by menacing neighbours, harassing US forces in neutral territory and expanding conflict into new arenas, such as cyberattacks and threats in space.
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