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The Obama Administration’s New Nuclear Policy

An Assessment of the “Nuclear Posture Review"

On April 6, the Obama administration released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will set the direction for U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the next five to10 years. The review recommends the most far-reaching changes in policy since the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago, and reflects the reality that nuclear weapons have become a liability in today’s world.

The review was developed through an interagency process led by the Department of Defense (DOD), and approved by President Barack Obama. Nonetheless, it will only serve as a guide. Actual policy will be set by presidential orders and directives, congressional budget decisions, and other steps over the coming months.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that he intends to make substantial changes in U.S. policy. A year ago, during a speech in Prague, he pledged to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” He made that same pledge last September at the United Nations.

The review does move U.S. policy in a much-needed new direction, although not as far as it could—and should—have.

These five key issues are among those covered by the review:

1. Declaratory Policy: The purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons
What the NPR says:

  • Currently, the “fundamental” role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies, but the goal is to have deterrence be the “sole” purpose.
  • The United States will not use nuclear weapons against any country that does not have nuclear weapons and that is abiding by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits all but five signatories (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) from possessing nuclear weapons.

This is the first time since the dawn of the nuclear era that the United States has made a clear commitment not to use nuclear weapons to prevent or respond to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. The United States has many other options for addressing such threats. This commitment is intended to provide an incentive for nations not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the formulation makes clear it does not apply to Iran or North Korea.

However, the new policy does not go far enough to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Any role beyond deterrence of nuclear attack is both unnecessary and counterproductive, undermining U.S. efforts to stop other countries from getting the bomb. The United States should not wait to adopt a “sole purpose” policy.

2. Arsenal Size
What the NPR says:

  • The United States based its negotiation position on the New START arms control agreement with Russia on early parts of the review. (The treaty was signed by Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev on April 8.) Over the next seven years, New START will reduce deployed long-range delivery systems (bombers and ballistic missiles) to 700, and the deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 countable warheads (each bomber will count as carrying one warhead).
  • The next U.S.-Russian treaty should cover all nuclear weapons—long-range and short-range, deployed and non-deployed. The administration will conduct more analysis to set goals for such further reductions.

New START is a modest but essential step that improves relations with Russia, re-establishes effective verification measures to provide confidence that each country is reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal, and improves the administration’s ability to work with other countries to limit the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea. However, the treaty requires the approval of the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma, which is not a given.

The administration’s interest in a new treaty that covers all categories of nuclear weapons is very welcome. Rapid rearmament is possible if deployed weapons are simply transferred to storage rather than retired and dismantled, and tactical nuclear weapons are no less destructive than strategic weapons.

At the same time, there is no reason to link the size of U.S. nuclear forces to those of any other country. No current or conceivable threat to the United States requires it to maintain more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons. The delivery of fewer than a hundred warheads could destroy the society and economy of any country, and tens of detonations could kill more people than have ever been killed in any previous war. The only reason the United States would need to deploy more than a few hundred warheads is if it sought the capability to destroy Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a first strike, which is a dangerous and pointless policy. 

3. Maintaining the Arsenal
What the NPR says:

  • The United States will not produce new nuclear warheads, nor modify existing warheads to provide new military capabilities.
  • When extending the operational lifetime of U.S. warheads, it has a “strong preference” for refurbishing or reusing components from other warheads. However, it will allow replacing existing components with entirely new ones, if they are based on previously tested designs and are authorized by the president.

First, the prohibition on new military capabilities is important—this rules out weapons such as the nuclear earth penetrator or “nuclear bunker buster,” which the Bush administration promoted. However, there is less here than meets the eye when it comes to new warheads. Replacing existing components with new ones, even if based on previously tested designs, can lead to what is essentially a new warhead.

On technical and nonproliferation grounds, the policy should have ruled out replacement options. Building warhead with new components is politically undesirable because it could undermine U.S. efforts to discourage other countries from seeking nuclear weapons and build support for its wider nonproliferation goals. Such warheads are not technically necessary. Moreover, introducing new nuclear components also introduces new uncertainties in the weapon’s performance, whereas reducing that uncertainty is one of the rationales offered for this approach in the first place.

The current arsenal is certified to be reliable, safe from accidental detonation and plutonium dispersal, and secure against theft and unauthorized use. These weapons can be maintained for decades through refurbishment programs similar to previous life extension programs that replaced aging components with new ones manufactured to the original design specifications or with the same “form, fit, and function.” Such long-term maintenance is feasible in large part due to the success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which was established a few years after the United States halted nuclear explosive testing in 1992, and has helped weapons laboratory scientists better understand how weapon materials age.

The wording reflects a compromise of sorts between the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. After the election, President Obama declared that his administration would not pursue new nuclear weapons. His first budget eliminated the Bush administration’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program to design and produce a suite of new warheads, which Congress had consistently refused to fund. Even so, Secretary of Defense Gates publicly called for new warheads before and after the election.

4. U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons
What the NPR says:

  • The United States will maintain the capability to use the U.S. warheads deployed in NATO member countries in Europe. Any decisions about the future of those warheads (such as returning them to the United States) must be made by NATO.
  • The United States will retire one tactical nuclear weapons system, the Tomahawk nuclear-armed cruise missile, which can be deployed on submarines.

The United States currently deploys about 200 nuclear gravity bombs in five European countries. These weapons are a vestige of a Cold War policy that called for large numbers of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to deter a massive Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, and there is no threat of a Russian conventional attack against Europe. Moreover, these weapons are among the most vulnerable to theft, and returning them to the United States would increase security.

Several major NATO nations have expressed interest in removing these weapons from Europe. In February, the foreign ministers of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxemburg issued a joint letter asking that NATO’s foreign ministers reevaluate the organization’s nuclear policy at meeting later this month. To reduce the role of nuclear weapons, the United States should, in consultation with its NATO allies, remove these nuclear weapons from Europe.

President George H. W. Bush removed the Tomahawk cruise missile from deployment in 1992 after the Soviet Union dissolved, and since then it has remained in storage. It is scheduled for retirement in 2013, but some argued the United States should keep them to reassure our allies in Asia. The new government of Japan, however, made clear that it supported U.S. retirement of these weapons.

5. Alert Status
What the NPR says:

  • At present, the United States should maintain the current operational status of its nuclear weapons: the strategic bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and significant numbers of nuclear-armed submarines at sea.
  • To reduce the risk of accidents and unauthorized actions, the United States should take steps to maximize the time available to the president to make a launch decision.

During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama called attention to the dangers posed by maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons on high alert status, which allows them to be launched in a matter of minutes. The United States and Russia each still maintain approximately 1,000 nuclear weapons on high alert status. This situation carries with it the unacceptable risk of nuclear use due to a miscalculation, accident, or unauthorized action, putting millions of lives at risk. A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command and control systems would survive an attack.

The review took a significant step forward by recommending that the administration take measures to maximize the time the president would have to make a decision to use U.S. nuclear weapons.

The review should have further recommended that the United States commit to not launch its nuclear weapons upon warning of an attack or when under attack, and to no longer maintain options for launching its nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes. The president should have days to make such a momentous decision.

The review should also have recommended that the United States work with Russia to develop and negotiate verifiable measures to ensure that neither country could launch its missiles in a surprise attack. In general, the U.S. military (and likely its Russian counterpart) is strongly opposed to taking U.S. missiles off alert, in part because it prefers to maintain all the options.

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