What does the future hold for the US nuclear posture under President Trump? The last Nuclear Posture Review occurred in April 2009, when a 12-month review process was conducted to translate President Obama’s vision into a comprehensive nuclear strategy for the next five to 10 years. The review addressed several major areas: the role of nuclear forces, policy requirements, and objectives to maintain a safe, reliable, and credible deterrence posture; the relationship between deterrence policy, targeting strategy, and arms control objectives; the role of missile defense and conventional forces in determining the role and size of the nuclear arsenal; the size and composition of delivery capabilities; the nuclear weapons complex; and finally the necessary number of active and inactive nuclear weapons stockpiles to meet the requirements of national and military strategies.
Clearly, changes are afoot. On January 27, 2017, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum that mandated “a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”
Looking ahead, the new administration should conduct this review through a broad, inter-agency process, involving the State and Energy departments, and allies as well. This approach offers several valuable benefits by broadening the focus from deterrence to non-proliferation, reassurance, and nuclear security.
The main role of the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, is to assess the threat environment, outline nuclear deterrence policy and strategy for the next 5 to 10 years, and align the country’s nuclear forces accordingly. Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted its own NPR, but the process and the scope of the reviews were different in all three cases.
The first NPR was conducted by the Clinton administration in 1994, and even though important senior positions have still not been appointed by the Trump White House, Trump's mandate suggests that their review might use it as a template for 2017. It was a bottom-up review, initiated by the Department of Defense, mostly focusing on a set of force structure decisions—such as the right size and composition of US nuclear forces, including the size of the reserve or so-called “ hedge” force. That review lasted for 10 months, and the Pentagon was in charge of the entire process, mainly focusing on deterrence requirements.
In contrast, the 2001 NPR of the Bush administration was mandated by Congress, and it addressed a broader set of issues, including all components of the deterrence mix—nuclear and non-nuclear offensive strike systems, active and passive defenses, and the defense infrastructure. The Defense Department took the lead in this case just as before, but this time the Energy Department and the White House were also engaged in the process. As a result, the Bush NPR’s force structure requirements—how to size and sustain the country’s forces—were driven by four factors: assuring allies, deterring aggressors, dissuading competitors, and defeating enemies.
The Obama administration’s 2010 NPR was also mandated by Congress, but the Defense Department was specifically tasked to conduct an inter-agency review. Besides the unprecedented level of such cooperation, a bipartisan Congressional commission also laid out a number of recommendations for the review process, many of which became part of the final text of the Obama review. Officials from State, Energy, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were involved, as well as US allies who were regularly briefed during the different stages of the review.
In the final phase of the 2010 NPR, the White House leadership made the decisions on the actual content of the nuclear posture. While the Clinton and the Bush reviews were largely conducted behind the scenes and only short briefing materials were published on the outcome, the Obama administration released an unprecedentedly long report on its nuclear posture review.
These cases offer two models for a review process: It can be conducted by a small group of people in the most highly classified manner, or it can be a larger, relatively transparent inter-agency process. In the former approach, the final decisions are typically presented to the secretary of defense, the president, Congress, and allies. The problem is that this tends to be a one-sided approach, putting the main focus on deterrence and modernizations.
Though it is effective and fast, the implementation of a Nuclear Posture Review requires all stakeholders to be on board with the new strategy. One of the most painful lessons of the Bush review was that because the White House and Defense failed to explain their new approach to the public, the military, and Congress, there was effectively a loss of leadership—which made procurement extremely difficult and caused major problems in the implementation of their strategy.
On the other hand, involving all stakeholders and providing a balanced approach to nuclear strategy would support the goals of not just deterrence, but those of reassurance, non-proliferation, and nuclear security as well. Due to the involvement of the State Department, the 2010 NPR, for example, emphasized a number of policies which supported non-proliferation objectives and strengthened US negotiating positions at global arms control forums. One of these policies was the “negative security assurance” which stated that the United States would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.
The other policy that was advocated by senior State Department officials was the so called sole-purpose posture—which means that nuclear weapons only serve to deter or respond to a nuclear attack, and they no longer play a role in non-nuclear scenarios. Although the sole purpose posture was eventually dropped and it was set only as a long-term objective, the Obama administration still reduced the role of nuclear weapons with the new negative security assurance, and it signaled its intent to continue this process with the promise of sole purpose. These steps supported US leadership at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and they contributed to the adoption of a consensual final document at the conference.
This broader scope strengthens inter-agency cooperation, and ensures that all the departments that are affected by the NPR are on board with the strategy, which eases the implementation of the decisions. Besides, it also strengthens alliance relations by regular consultations. The Trump administration’s mandate did not include a specific timeline or format; consequently it will be mainly the responsibility of Defense Secretary James Mattis to decide on the framework. Though the presidential memorandum did not require an inter-agency process, it would be wise to conduct one.
Compared to 2010, the security environment has dramatically deteriorated: renewed tensions between NATO and Russia since the annexation of Crimea, China’s building of military bases in what had previously been international waters, significant military modernization efforts by both these states, and North Korea’s increasingly bellicose nuclear threats. All of these developments have created a serious deterrence and security challenge for the United States and its allies. Only a broader approach can address all relevant threats and create the necessary internal consensus for the funding and creation of a modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored nuclear arsenal.