Striking a prudent balance: Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review

By Barry M. Blechman | April 25, 2010

This month, the Obama administration has greatly accelerated its efforts to reduce nuclear dangers and move all nations toward “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” as President Barack Obama phrased it during his now famous Prague speech. The recent signing of the New START agreement with Russia and the raft of specific commitments made by various nations at the Nuclear Security Summit are tangible steps toward achieving the president’s nuclear goals. But the most critical moment of Obama’s disarmament revival so far has been the April 6 release of the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a statement of the policies that govern the administration’s nuclear strategy.

In considering the NPR, the administration had to walk a narrow path. On one hand, it was committed to both reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal and to reducing their role in U.S. security policies. But on the other hand, acknowledging that the elimination of nuclear weapons will take time, it recognized that steps must be taken to maintain the viability of the U.S. deterrent. There were, of course, also political considerations: An NPR that ignored the real-world security conditions and suggested that Washington was moving unilaterally toward a radically reduced nuclear posture would have doomed ratification of both New START and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Striking the right balance was tricky–the NPR’s release was delayed several months–but in the end, the administration managed to find it.

An updated perspective. Most importantly, the NPR finally moves official thinking about nuclear weapons away from the outdated threats of the Cold War and toward the immediate dangers of the twenty-first century. It clearly states that the top U.S. priority is preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. The document goes further by stating that the second goal is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. This is an essential element of any credible nonproliferation policy.

Moreover, the new posture explicitly states that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons and that are compliant with their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In other words, Washington will only use nuclear weapons against the nine countries that are declared or undeclared nuclear weapon states and the one NPT member whose compliance has been compromised (i.e., Iran). The NPR thus provides reassurances to NPT-compliant non-nuclear weapon states, erasing past policies that had threatened nuclear responses in retaliation for conventional, chemical, or biological attacks. At the same time, the new posture also makes clear to nations that are violating their NPT commitments (such as Iran) that they do so at their own peril.

No unilateral reductions. The new NPR clarifies that while the United States aims to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, it doesn’t plan to do so unilaterally. Other nations must also reduce their arsenals, starting with Russia, whose arsenal is comparable to the United States and whose armed forces still stress the potential use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks.

The posture review calls for talks with Moscow that extend beyond the operational long-range weapons covered by the recent START agreement. New talks would cover all nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, including the short-range, or tactical, weapons that worry U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, as well as the nuclear warheads that both sides maintain in reserve–a particular concern in Moscow because Washington has the capacity to double the size of its operational long-range force if it “uploads” its missiles with reserve warheads. One issue in the drafting of the NPR was whether the United States should unilaterally reduce its reserve warheads. The decision not to do so seems prudent: Washington needs bargaining chips, and the trade-off between Russian warheads for short-range forces and U.S. reserve warheads seems obvious.

Then there’s China. While the NPR implicitly recognizes that it’s unrealistic to call for negotiations on reductions to the Chinese stockpile because it’s so much smaller than the U.S. arsenal, the posture review nonetheless makes clear that as an emerging world power with growing conventional and nuclear capabilities, Beijing must become more transparent about its nuclear plans. So far, China has been reluctant to engage in such official discussions, although some “Track II” dialogues have seemed to make progress. Both Russia and the United States will be reluctant to reduce their nuclear forces to levels much lower than those required by New START unless they’re confident that China wouldn’t take advantage of deeper bilateral reductions to seek superiority.

Force maintenance. In combination with the budget Obama submitted to Congress in February, the new nuclear posture makes clear that the United States will maintain the laboratories and facilities necessary to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear stockpile until the other nuclear powers are willing to reduce, and eventually eliminate, their nuclear arsenals. The president’s budget requests a considerable increase in funds for this purpose. The NPR states that Washington won’t develop new kinds of nuclear weapons and that the Obama administration perceives no need for new types of weapons; yet it won’t permit existing weapons to become unreliable. A vigorous program of inspections is planned to ensure warhead reliability, and the United States might take steps to improve the mechanisms that ensure the safety and security of nuclear warheads.

Given the expectation that it will take decades to move all the nuclear weapon states toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons, the NPR also states that the United States will begin or continue programs to eventually replace nuclear-capable missiles and bombers. The budget includes funds to continue existing programs that would eventually replace Trident submarines and missiles, and also includes a request to study the possibility of developing a new long-range bomber and air-launched cruise missile, which may or may not have a nuclear-delivery capability.

Interestingly, Obama didn’t request funding for studies on a replacement missile for the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the effective lifetime of which is expected to end in the 2020s. This may presage a shift in the U.S. force structure that would reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear strikes. The NPR states that the United States will continue efforts to “diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the president to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.”

ICBMs are generally believed to be the riskiest element of the force structure in this regard, as their fixed locations make them vulnerable and they would need to be launched within minutes of any detection of an attack if they aren’t to be destroyed. In many past incidents in both Russia and the United States, technical failures led to false warnings of attack and the serious risk of ICBM launches. It also should be noted that New START counts bombers as carrying only one warhead, even though they potentially can carry many more, making it advantageous to shift a larger share of U.S. warheads to bombers if future agreements call for deeper force cuts. Bombers are far less likely to spark accidental or inadvertent nuclear wars, as they can be kept airborne during crises (and therefore, they’re virtually invulnerable to attack), take a relatively long time to reach their targets, and can return to base at any point prior to delivering their weapons.

The Obama administration’s decisions on maintaining the viability of U.S. nuclear forces should make two things clear. First, allies depending on U.S. nuclear guarantees should be reassured that Washington will do whatever is necessary to maintain the credibility of its commitments. Second, adversaries who may have mistaken Obama’s ambitious disarmament goals as a weakening of the U.S. nuclear deterrent should now understand their mistake. Obama will not permit U.S. capabilities to atrophy; therefore, it’s in other states’ interest to move toward nuclear disarmament with Washington.

Many readers, including myself, most likely wish that disarmament could be achieved more easily and quickly. Unfortunately, not all leaders share President Obama’s disarmament vision. China, India, and Pakistan continue to increase the size of their nuclear arsenals. Russian strategists continue to stress the importance of nuclear weapons in their defense planning. Iran and North Korea continue to defy their obligations under the NPT. So given the world in which we live, Washington needs leverage to persuade these nations to move with it toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. But here’s the good news: The Nuclear Posture Review establishes the policies that will enable the United States to pursue disarmament safely, no matter how long it takes.

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