A Presidential Policy Directive for a new nuclear path

By Robert S. Norris, Hans M. Kristensen | August 10, 2011

The implementation of President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review is now occurring, out of public view but with potentially enormous implications, depending on the outcome. The Nuclear Posture Review was mandated by Congress to establish US nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and forces for the next five to 10 years. In theory, it was intended to further President Obama’s Prague agenda of reducing nuclear dangers and to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, but with global security.

The implementation of President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review is now occurring, out of public view but with potentially enormous implications, depending on the outcome. The Nuclear Posture Review was mandated by Congress to establish US nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and forces for the next five to 10 years. In theory, it was intended to further President Obama's Prague agenda of reducing nuclear dangers and to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, but with global security. The document was made public in April 2010 (in a significant change from previous such reviews, there was no classified version) and had five key objectives:

1) Prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
2) Reduce the role of nuclear weapons.
3) Maintain strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels.
4) Strengthen regional deterrence and reassure US allies and partners.
5) Sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal.

The United States has developed a complex process of implementing policy that guides how the military should plan for the use of nuclear weapons. A series of documents, starting in the White House, directs the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Strategic Command to structure the nuclear forces and develop war plans to achieve a set of objectives against specific adversaries in support of national security policy. The more general policy concepts travel through the various departments, offices, and bureaucracies and are "translated" into highly detailed and carefully orchestrated strike plans that instruct the war fighter how and when to attack a specific target. The result is a fully articulated nuclear war plan.

There is concern over whether Obama's goals can be realized within the enduring bureaucracies that have a stake in the status quo. We wrote a detailed report suggesting that a radical break was necessary to set the US on a new path capable of realizing deep reductions in and possible elimination of nuclear weapons. That break, we argued, must be the abandonment of "counterforce," the ruling paradigm that focuses on eliminating an enemy's nuclear weapons, infrastructure and war-making abilities and that has been core of every war plan of the past five decades.

At the end of our report, we drafted a hypothetical Presidential Policy Directive that contained the kind of language that would be necessary to start the process of implementation. Over the more than 60 years of the nuclear age, few presidents have examined in any detail the nation's nuclear policy in general and the war plan in particular. As a result, those at the lower levels of the implementation process "translate" the guidance from above and put their stamp on it, often co-opting, diffusing, or altering what was received. One keen observer who has participated in the process, Admiral Gerald E. Miller, deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff during the early 1970s, points to what normally happens: "The United States is far more open [about its nuclear weapon strategy] than most, but the actual details remain privy to only a few, those involved in the implementation — the converting of the words into a plan of action. It is in the implementation that the true strategy evolves, regardless of what is generated in the political and policy-meeting rooms of any Administration." (Emphasis added)

It is possible, indeed likely, that this type of bureaucratic translation is happening to the President's stated nuclear policy. As one of our report's strongest recommendations, we suggested the president maintain keen oversight to ensure that the new guidance is carried out faithfully. We also offered an example of what a presidential directive that ended the days of counterforce planning might look like.

Presidential Policy Directive X
To: Secretary of Defense
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Secretary of State
Director National Intelligence
Subject: Presidential Guidance for Planning the Employment of Nuclear Weapons

Based upon a vastly altered geopolitical situation, in which the United States no longer faces thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons, I have reached a series of decisions about United States nuclear weapons employment policy. The decisions depart from current policy in major ways: by limiting the role of nuclear weapons in our security policy, by going to smaller and smaller numbers through a series of stages, and by truly supporting our pledge to honor Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

This PPD provides the criteria for how US nuclear weapons would be employed and establishes the process by which to implement the changes.

The reason for possessing nuclear weapons. The sole reason for possessing nuclear weapons, I have determined, is to deter the use of a nuclear weapon against the United States and our allies, thus keeping intact prior security commitments. In years past much more expansive reasons were given for the utility of nuclear weapons. Their many roles led to enormous stockpiles and elaborate war plans. The new plans I am ordering to be implemented will focus on ensuring that there are assured retaliation options available to the president if anyone were so unwise as to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

Abandoning counterforce nuclear targeting. The most dramatic shift that I intend to implement is to abandon "counterforce," the ruling paradigm for US war plans and forces for more than four decades. We are no longer going to demand that "US nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a postwar world" as the former administration stated in 2004. The purpose of nuclear strike planning is no longer to achieve an advantage over an adversary's nuclear forces or limit damage to the United States, but entirely to provide a secure retaliatory strike capability to deter nuclear attack. Dramatic reductions of the stockpile, limiting the role of nuclear weapons and relaxing the requirements for such weapons, cannot take place unless the current targeting policy changes. The essential steps are to withdraw target coverage of an adversary's nuclear forces and relax the alert status that currently keeps US forces poised to strike.

New targets for minimal deterrence. The shift I am ordering is not from counterforce to "countervalue" (the targeting of population centers) but rather to a new set of targets characterized as "infrastructure" targets. Infrastructure targets are facilities such as oil refineries, iron and steel works, aluminum plants, nickel plants, thermal electric power plants, and transportation hubs that can be destroyed while minimizing collateral civilian casualties. In short they are the essential components that constitute the sinews of modern societies. Their destruction would decimate the economic and industrial foundation of any country.

Knowing that such a devastating attack on infrastructure would follow if any nation were unwise enough to attack the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons should be enough of a deterrent — to the extent anything is — to prevent a nuclear attack in the first place.

Upon signing I will make this Directive public to ensure that our declaratory and employment policies are in concert and to warn anyone harboring any thoughts of attack to understand what would happen.

Next steps and reviews. Based upon this PPD, the Secretary of Defense shall prepare the Guidance for the Employment of the Force to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their preparation of the Nuclear Supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. I am to be kept informed of the preparation of these documents through my National Security Adviser and must approve the final versions.

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