The experts on the new Nuclear Posture Review

By John Mecklin | February 2, 2018

The Trump administration has officially rolled out its new Nuclear Posture Review after weeks of commentary and analysis of a leaked version of the review. Much of this pre-release comment focused on the NPR’s call for increased spending on the nuclear arsenal, including on programs that would create new kinds of small nuclear weapons, and on its suggestion that nuclear weapons might be used in response to attacks of a non-nuclear nature, including, specifically, cyber attacks against critical US infrastructure. Administration officials have portrayed the NPR as a required response to changed world security conditions, particularly Russia’s supposed increased reliance on nuclear options in its military doctrine. Many experts outside government have criticized the new NPR as a return to Cold War thinking and budgeting that makes the United States less rather than more secure.

Over the next several weeks, the Bulletin will be publishing a package of expert commentary on the NPR. The commentaries will include analysis of the NPR document itself and informed speculation on how it might or might not be implemented, frustrated, or altered through congressional and executive branch processes in coming years. It is my hope that these commentaries will become a reference point for the policy makers and citizens who will deal with the real-world consequences of a document that proposes major changes in how the United States deals with its nuclear arsenal.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.


Anna Péczeli, and research fellow, Center for Strategic and Defense Studies, National University of Public Service, Budapest, Hungary, affiliate, Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, EXPERT COMMENTARY

So far, each post-Cold War US administration has prepared its own Nuclear Posture Review, but the framework and the scope has been different in all cases. In terms of content, however, there are many continuities, and the Trump administration’s strategy did not make a significant departure from the former nuclear reviews. What primarily divides the 2018 NPR from previous such documents is the much “darker” evaluation of the security environment and the future steps the administration is planning to take in response.

Like the Obama administration’s 2010 NPR, the Trump strategy decided to (among other things) maintain the nuclear triad, continue investments in the modernization of US nuclear forces and supporting infrastructure, maintain high alert levels for prompt response to an attack on the US or its allies and partners, continue the forward deployment of US nuclear forces on the territory of allies, preserve the nuclear testing moratorium, maintain the negative security assurance for non-nuclear weapon states, decide against a no-first use policy, try to better integrate conventional and nuclear forces, adhere to the laws of armed conflict in nuclear operations, and finally, recognize that arms control as a principle serves the national interests of the United States. The Trump administration also followed the (positive) example of President Obama in terms of transparency. The 49-page 2010 report on the Obama Nuclear Posture Review was the most substantive write-up that any administration had published. The Trump team issued an even longer (75-page) report on its NPR.

Despite these similarities, the tone of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is very different from the 2010 document, and there are important changes in both the details and in main focus areas. One of the primary reasons the Obama posture received strong bipartisan support was its delicate balance between working towards the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the meantime maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. But the 2018 NPR is mostly focused on the second element, and it puts arms control measures in the back seat.

It is true that the international security environment has changed for the worse since 2010. But the new NPR seems to use this as an excuse to boost modernization efforts (including the intention to bring back formerly deployed “new” nuclear weapons to the stockpile) and to sideline arms control. The report gives an exhaustive review on the status of global security, and it details a number of threats that affect US nuclear posture: tensions with Russia and China, the North Korean nuclear program, Iran, and nuclear terrorism. Some of these threats, however, seem to be slightly exaggerated—the NPR, for example, claims that Russia is actively planning and exercising so called “escalate to de-escalate” strikes against NATO. This, however, is still actively debated in academic circles, and many scholars argue that this concept is a Western invention that is not integrated in Russian operational planning. They claim that since the 1999 Zapad Exercise Russia has not planned for the small-scale use of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conventional conflict; in fact, its most recent exercises and modernization efforts are primarily focused on the strategic nuclear systems.

In this regard, both the 2014 Wales Summit and the 2016 Warsaw Summit of NATO concluded that the alliance has the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities, and there is no need to rush to parity with Russia in the non-strategic nuclear domain. The summit declarations actually reaffirmed the commitment of the alliance to global zero, and called for reciprocal reductions in nuclear arsenals once the circumstances are favorable to such negotiations. Therefore, the NPR’s conclusion that new limited nuclear options (i.e. the restoration of the submarine-launched cruise missile capability and low-explosive-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads) are needed to address these threats seems to go against the summit declarations, and instead of pressuring Russia to reduce its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, US pursuit of low-yield options might justify further Russian investments and increases in this capability.

In response to the abovementioned threats, the 2018 NPR declared, “The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks. Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” The first part of the doctrine is the same as in 2010; the second half, however, is an important change. The Obama administration also maintained the tradition of calculated ambiguity by leaving on the table a narrow range of contingencies in which nuclear weapons would serve a deterrence role in non-nuclear scenarios (mostly because of the security concerns of allies). But they also emphasized that shifting towards a sole-purpose posture—in which nuclear weapons have a role only in nuclear scenarios—is the long-term goal, and the administration committed to invest in conventional and ballistic missile defense capabilities to facilitate this transition. The Trump NPR, on the other hand, failed to reaffirm this commitment, instead detailing a wider range of non-nuclear scenarios in which the United States would consider the first use of nuclear weapons. The 2018 report did not even mention the issue of a no-first use declaration, which was heavily debated in the Obama administration during the 2009-2010 NPR drafting period, and during the 2016 Prague legacy review as well.

Despite the differences with the Obama posture, the 2018 NPR shows some similarities with the Bush posture, when it says that “nuclear weapons have and will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear-armed states for the foreseeable future.” It was the 2001 NPR that also referred to nuclear weapons as “critical” tools in national defense. Altogether, despite the same notion of deciding against sole purpose and no-first use, this formulation of declaratory policy sends a more aggressive message to US adversaries and does not point toward dialogue or cooperation.

The 2018 NPR maintains the Obama administration’s negative security assurance, declaring, “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This is exactly the same wording as in 2010 but unlike the Obama administration (which maintained the right to revisit this assurance if the threat of biological weapons would increase), the Trump team added other factors (i.e. “the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies”) that might lead to the reconsideration of this guarantee. Besides widening the number of cases where the negative security assurance might not apply, the administration also did not really explain what it means by compliance: Who makes that judgement call—the State Department or the International Atomic Energy Agency? Is compliance decided at a certain point of time, or as a continuous act in a certain period? And what is the connection between Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or Iran nuclear deal) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? Does compliance with the JCPOA mean that Iran falls under the negative security assurance? Without clarity on these details, it is difficult to know if nuclear options are still on the table against Iran (the answer is most likely yes), and if so, what would be required to take them off the table.

While President Obama pledged not to build new nuclear weapons, President Trump reinstated a nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile capability and asked for lower-explosive-yield options for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as a response to the (perceived) threat of de-escalatory strikes by Russia, Moscow’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the increasing nuclear capabilities of China and North Korea. Although these measures are compliant with the INF, there is no assurance that they will help to resolve the crisis of the Treaty. The Russian violation of the INF Treaty started long before the United states retired its nuclear-capable sub-launched cruise missiles (the last such weapons – the TLAM-N – were retired in 2011). Reintroduction of submarine cruise missiles is therefore not guaranteed to bring Russia back into INF compliance. Besides, the United States’ new air-launched nuclear cruise missile (the LRSO, or long-range stand off weapon) will provide very similar non-strategic nuclear capabilities, which Russia might also use to justify its own ground-launched cruise missile developments.

With regard to Russia and China, the 2018 NPR made no mention of strategic stability, which was the organizing concept with both of these states in 2010. Instead, the new principle is competition and confrontation. Even if both Moscow and Beijing are more aggressive today than they were in 2010, giving up on the strategic-stability dialogue because the circumstances are not right is a strategic mistake. The United States has mutual interests with both countries, and the United States and its allies would benefit from reviving these dialogues, particularly if Washington wants to preserve the few remaining arms control mechanisms.

Both the U.S. and Russia accuse each other of violating the INF Treaty, but the NPR only talks about the Russian violation, and it does not offer any diplomatic solution to revive the dialogue and address the Russian complaints about potential US violations. Without the INF Treaty, Russia could openly redeploy its land-based intermediate range systems, which would be devastating for the security of European allies. And with the loss of the INF Treaty, it is very unlikely that Congress would approve a new round of strategic arms control. The 2018 NPR expressed its support to the New START Treaty, but it did not offer any practical steps to continue the process or to extend the treaty beyond 2021. When tensions are so high between the United States and Russia, losing the verification and transparency measures of New START would be a fundamental mistake.

In the domain of nonproliferation, the 2018 NPR reaffirms the US commitment to a world without nuclear weapons and its support of the NPT. But it also expressed that current circumstances are not appropriate to reductions in nuclear arsenals, and global zero remains a distant goal. Besides, failing to make any mention of the treaty’s Article VI, which is a legally binding commitment to reduce nuclear stockpiles, will probably make it even harder to achieve any meaningful outcome at the next NPT Review Conference. The Trump NPR implies an attitude toward arms control that differs markedly from the Obama administration’s, and that could affect the future of the NPT in a very negative way.

As with the Obama administration, the new Trump NPR names nuclear terrorism as an imminent threat and expresses support for securing weapons-usable materials all over the world. But the new strategy did not offer any practical steps to show how the administration is going to incentivize this process and what mechanisms will be used to address this goal.

For the main tenets of US nuclear strategy, the new Nuclear Posture Review did not bring radical change. There are, however, many important changes in details that suggest the administration has shifted the balance between arms control, and maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal to emphasize the latter aim. The tone of the new report is alarming about the security environment, arms control efforts are sidelined, and modernizations and new weapons systems have been brought to the forefront. The administration has also slightly widened the scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used. Although the administration may have intended to convince other countries not to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons, the new NPR might achieve exactly the opposite end, triggering reciprocal modernization efforts in Russia and China, and making North Korea and Iran even more confrontative.

Sharon Squassoni, George Washington University, research professor, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The Trump administration spent the last year conducting a nuclear posture review, an unclassified version of which was released to the public on February 2, 2018. It is significantly different from all previous reviews published since 1994. In part, those reviews all sought to make sense of a very uncertain environment in which nuclear weapons might play a role, but in which the United States did not face potential extinction because the Soviet Union no longer posed an existential threat. Their solution was to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Trump’s solution in today’s uncertain environment is to increase the role of nuclear weapons and discount the role of arms control.

Experts guessed this review would be vastly different from the one conducted in 2010 by the Obama administration. That one stopped short of declaring that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons would be to deter nuclear attack. (The officials who refused to step over that line may be regretting their caution now.) However, while this review shares some similarities with the Bush Administration’s review of 2002, it goes a few steps further.

The 2018 NPR states that nuclear weapons can’t prevent all conflicts but lists four things they will do: deter nuclear and non-nuclear attack; assure allies and partners; achieve US objectives if deterrence fails; and hedge against “an uncertain future.”

It’s worth looking more closely at the description of those nuclear roles to see just how big a job nuclear weapons will have. For example, the NPR seems to suggest nuclear weapons should deter all attacks (nuclear and non-nuclear), but it then specifies just strategic attacks, regardless of the weapons used. On the other hand, it also says that the US will hold potential adversaries accountable for acts of aggression, including new forms of aggression. It’s not clear how the US will hold those states (and non-states?) accountable. All throughout the document, sloppy language and thinking may inject more uncertainty than clarity for US adversaries and allies alike.

With respect to US nuclear weapons assuring allies, the 2018 NPR assumes that it is US extended nuclear deterrence (not plain old conventional weapons) that gives allies and partners their confidence. The 2010 NPR, by contrast, emphasized that extended deterrence did not necessarily have to be nuclear to be effective. In fact, history shows that the US reduction of troops in South Korea in the 1970s sparked a covert nuclear weapons program by the military dictatorship then, while the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s did not provoke a similar response.

The inclusion of the last two roles of nuclear weapons—achieving US objectives should deterrence fail (aka warfighting) and hedging against an uncertain future (aka insurance policy)—may not be objectionable in principle, but their descriptions again leave the reader wondering about how coherent this policy actually is. The document reiterates the long-standing policy that United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances, but goes further. This NPR defines extreme circumstances to include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks and those are further defined as including attacks on US, allied, or partner civilian populations or infrastructure, US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities. In theory, a country (say, Yemen) could attack a Saudi airport (say, in Riyadh) and the United States could consider that an extreme circumstance.

As with the phrase regarding extreme circumstances, much of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review attempts to reassure readers that it is not so different from past documents. For example, it reiterates the long-standing position that the US won’t use or threaten use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their obligations. Unfortunately, its inclusion of non-nuclear strategic attacks in the previous paragraph pretty much issues a nuclear threat against any state unfortunate enough to find itself in that situation, including those that have signed the NPT.

Experts hoping that seasoned bureaucrats would inject some certainty and clarity into the nuclear posture of the United States under the Trump administration are certain to be disappointed in this review. The only thing it is consistent with is Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for keeping everyone guessing.

Lawrence J. Korb, Center for American Progress, senior fellow, EXPERT COMMENTARY

When the Huffington Post first published a pre-decisional draft of President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on January 11, many nuclear experts from across the political spectrum and from inside and outside government expressed concerns. They felt that the NPR would reverse almost a half century of progress toward lowering the prospects of a nuclear conflict and actually provoke a new arms race. These experts hoped that by speaking out against the draft, the grownups on the Trump national security team would modify the actual NPR. For example, in late January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set its clock to two minutes before midnight. Unfortunately, when the document was publicly released on February 2, 2018, it still contained all of these troubling elements.

Moreover, the timing of and the manner in which the Trump NPR was released demonstrated how little support it has from the men and women charged with the responsibility for developing and possibly employing nuclear weapons, and also made it difficult for the informed public to have a debate about its contents. The NPR was not only publicly released late on a Friday afternoon when most Republican members of Congress were in West Virginia at their annual retreat, and when many other members of the Washington establishment were on their way out of town. On the same day, President Trump absorbed much of the media attention by declassifying and releasing the Nunes memo, which he claimed would undermine the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible ties between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign.

When the National Security Strategy (NSS) was released in December, it was the president himself who briefed reporters on its contents. When the National Defense Strategy (NDS) was made public in January, it was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who unveiled it. But when the NPR was released, it was the deputy secretary of defense and deputy energy secretary, neither of whom is exactly a household name, who briefed the press.

Given the fact that if fully implemented, this document could actually increase the probability of nuclear war, it should have received at least as much attention as the NSS, the NDS, or the Nunes memo. Close analysis of the Trump Nuclear Posture Review makes it clear why so many experts spoke out against it when the draft was released and continue to speak out now. Their concerns fall into several areas.

First, the Trump NPR lowers the threshold for the actual use of nuclear weapons. Instead of saying that the United States will use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack, the NPR argues that we would use them in response to attacks in other areas, for example, in response to a nonnuclear attack against civilian populations and infrastructure, including cyber attacks.

Second, rather than analyzing whether the United States needs to continue to modernize all three legs of the current triad—former Defense Secretary William Perry, among others, has said US land-based ballistic missiles are unnecessary and could be retired with no negative impact on national security—it proposes not only to refurbish all those legs, but to actually build two new types of nuclear weapons: a submarine-based nuclear cruise missile and a tactical or low-yield submarine launched ballistic missile.

The NPR claims that these smaller weapons will enhance deterrence. Our adversaries do not believe we will actually use the current weapons in our arsenal, the NPR suggests, because they are so powerful, and smaller weapons will be seen as more likely to be used and, hence, more credible deterrents. But as George Schultz, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, pointed out to Congress in late January, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, and using any size nuclear weapon could lead to escalation and catastrophe.

There are a host of reasons that new mini-nukes are a bad idea. In an article by Mark Perry in the American Conservative, many US military officials contend that by pushing to deploy these so called low yield weapons, the drafters of the NPR were actually providing Trump with a kind of gateway drug for nuclear war. Also, such new programs undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article VI of which obligates its signatories to take steps to nuclear disarmament. Because the United States already has a sub launched conventional cruise missile, adding a nuclear cruise missile to the inventory means that the Russians would have to assume any cruise missile is in fact a nuclear weapon. And finally, producing new small-yield nuclear weapons could provoke an arms race in that realm—even though the United States already possesses 1,000 low-yield nuclear weapons, including the B-61 bomb and an air-launched cruise missile that can deliver yields between 0.3 to 170 kilotons.

A third major concern about Trump’s NPR: It breaks with 40 years of a bipartisan effort to reduce the size of the US nuclear arsenal. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, American presidents have reduced the inventory of US nuclear weapons from more than 30,000 to about 4,000, of which 1,550 are operable. Ironically, the greatest reductions were made by Trump’s Republican predecessors. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush slashed the inventory by 50 percent, and George W. Bush approved another 50 percent cut. Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama each made reductions of about 20 percent. It was George H.W. Bush who took the nuclear armed cruise missiles off Navy ships in 1991.

Fourth, the new NPR increases the cost of the current nuclear modernization programs. Fully implementing the modernization program proposed by President Obama will cost between $1.2 and $1.7 trillion. The additions that Trump proposes could bring the cost to about $2 trillion and could double the percentage of the defense budget allocated to nuclear weapons. This will make it impossible for the Army, Marines, the Navy and the Air Force to grow in the ways service leaders have requested. 

Fifth, the new NPR overestimates the extent to which our geopolitical rivals are expanding their arsenals. Under the New START treaty, the Russians will have to reduce their strategic arsenal to 1,550 deployed weapons. Moreover, the Russians have already made clear that they will be willing to maintain the New START levels, which expire in 2021, for an additional five years. Unfortunately, President Trump turned down President Putin’s offer to extend the treaty, an agreement that would not need to be ratified by the Senate or the Russian Duma. And the entire strategic arsenal of China amounts to only some 60 intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of carrying some 300 warheads—hardly a justification for the United States to expand its nuclear capabilities.

Sixth among many concerns expressed about the NPR: It proposes to integrate nuclear and conventional weapons in military planning, to facilitate nuclear war fighting. Such integration actually lowers the sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons—a distinction that has existed since the Eisenhower Administration. Not only is this a dangerous policy that invites use of nuclear weapons, it is also unnecessary: The United States has massive superiority in conventional military capability.

While the grownups in the Trump administration were apparently not able to eliminate all of the dangerous elements of the new Nuclear Posture Review, there are several steps that the Congress can take to limit its danger.

Congress can and should refuse to fund the two new low-yield nuclear weapons the NPR proposes and stop the production of the LRSO, a new air-launched cruise missile that was part of the Obama modernization plan. Congress can and should appoint a bipartisan commission to review the NPR, just as it did to review the last Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014. It can make funding for any of the current nuclear modernization programs contingent upon our accepting Putin’s offer to extend New START for another five years. And finally, it can request that the US deploy offensive and defensive conventional weapons as a way to encourage Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty and eliminate any rationale for the United States to introduce more low-yield nuclear weaponry in Europe.

Rachel Bronson, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, president and CEO, EXPERT COMMENTARY

There is a rich irony in the administration releasing its Nuclear Posture Review on Groundhog Day. We’ve seen this movie before. Much of the security landscape described in the pages of the review and, more dishearteningly, the investments it puts forward to address growing challenges are strikingly familiar to the bygone days of the Cold War, days that many of us hoped we had left behind.

When the Bulletin released its 2018 Doomsday Clock time and statement, some critics on the right howled that it overstated today’s geopolitical dangers. But today’s NPR, which follows on the heels of the National Defense Strategy the Defense Department issued late last month, lays out a similarly grim picture. Like the Bulletin’s Clock statement, the National Defense Strategy argues that “we are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory” and that “this increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, challenges from adversaries in every operating domain.”

Where the Bulletin and the administration differ is not so much in defining the problem, but in constructing the response. The NPR calls for a massive investment in rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal, at a price tag of $1.2 trillion. The Defense Department tried to soften the financial blow by pointing out that its proposals amount to a mere 6.4 percent of overall defense spending, less than the 13.4 percent spent during in 1984 and the 24.9 percent spent in 1964. What the NPR fails to highlight is that such spending is not only significantly higher than what the US has spent since the end of the Cold War, but considerably more than the Congressional Budget Office thinks the country can afford. In a report issued in October, the CBO was crystal clear that the current nuclear plans “would have to compete with other defense priorities for funding” and will require the Trump administration to make hard decisions about allocating defense dollars.

In fact, however, the NPR is written as if these choices will be made in an unconstrained resource environment. Given that fantasy, it’s surprising the Defense Department didn’t ask for even more unwarranted spending.

There are some real howlers in this document. The administration lowers the threshold for which nuclear weapons can be used and argues for fielding smaller- yield, more “usable” nuclear weapons. The triad remains at the center of the US force posture, even though strategic giants such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former US Sen. Sam Nunn have raised questions about its continued relevance. Nuclear testing is back on the table, if it’s necessary for the advancement of the US nuclear arsenal. The document makes no commitment to the kinds of investments needed in our science and technology labs that are needed to reduce the likelihood that the US will need to test new nuclear weapons

Perhaps worst of all, this NPR seems to argue that the United States should dump huge resources into its nuclear stockpile because other countries are doing the same. But there’s a reason that the North Koreans and Russians are investing in their nuclear arsenals. It’s precisely because the United States is dominant in the conventional realm, including cyber security, that others are seeking to compensate in other sectors. The United States should be channeling more resources into sectors it dominates, so it continues to outpace its adversaries, rather meet them tit-for-tat in the domain of their choosing. The CBO report means we will need to make a choice.

In short, this Nuclear Posture Review is a spruced-up Cold War document, responding in dated ways to current threats. It represents very little in the way of thinking about how to meet strategic competitors in a way of our choosing, and at a cost that we can bear. Instead it goes back to the simple “more is better” nuclear approach that did not serve the United States particularly well in the past.

The NPR identifies the weakening of the international order, the rapid technological advancements of our age, and the changing character of war in the 21st century. A better NPR would acknowledge these challenges and address them head on. Rather, the current posture throws up its hands, throws money at the problem, and throws the US into a spiraling arms race that will be expensive and counterproductive.

Punxsutawney Phil is right to go back to his hole and hope that the current season passes soon. Wish we could do the same.

Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, director, Nuclear Information Project, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The entering into effect of the New START treaty coincided with the completion of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), after a year of preparation. The review is the first opportunity for the Trump administration to make its mark on US nuclear policy and includes several important changes from the Obama administration’s NPR of 2010.

The most significant change is what appears to be a shift away from seeking to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in US military strategy. Instead, the Trump NPR has a more confrontational tone and presents an assertive posture that seeks to increase reliance on nuclear weapons. This includes plans to develop new nuclear weapons, modify others, and to back away from the goal of a “sole purpose” nuclear role of deterring only nuclear attacks to more forcefully emphasizing a role to also deter “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” even cyber attacks. To achieve that, the NPR declares that “the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options… Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression,” the NPR claims.

The new tailored capabilities include, in the short term, modifying “a small number” of W76-1 warheads on the Trident II D5LE submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) to “ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses.” This new capability, the NPR claims, is necessary to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” The authors of the NPR appear to be under the mistaken impression that Russia believes the United States would not use nuclear weapons if Russia did.

In the longer term, the NPR declares the United States will pursue a nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) to “provide a needed non-strategic regional presence, an assured response capability, and an INF Treaty-compliant response to Russia's continuing Treaty violation.” In pursuit of this new missile, the NPR says, “we will immediately begin efforts to restore this capability by initiating a requirements study leading to an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for the rapid development of a modern SLCM.” The authors believe that “US pursuit of a SLCM may provide the necessary incentive for Russia to negotiate seriously a reduction of its non-strategic nuclear weapons, just as the prior Western deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe led to the 1987 INF Treaty."

Combined, these “supplements” to the nuclear arsenal will, according to the authors of the NPR, “provide a more diverse set of characteristics greatly enhancing our ability to tailor deterrence and assurance; expand the range of credible US options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack; and, enhance deterrence by signaling to potential adversaries that their concepts of coercive, limited nuclear escalation offer no exploitable advantage."

Yet the NPR provides no evidence that existing capabilities are insufficient, but simply claims that the new capabilities are needed. The strategic situation in Europe today is very different than in 1987, as are the capabilities of the US military. The US Navy used to have a nuclear SLCM (TLAM/N) until 2011, when it was retired because it was redundant and no longer needed. All other non-strategic nuclear weapons—except gravity bombs for fighter-bombers—have also been retired because there was no longer any military need for them in regional scenarios. The idea that a US SLCM could now motivate Russia to return to INF compliance is flawed because Russia embarked upon its current INF violation when the TLAM/N was still in the US arsenal; why Russia would suddenly change it mind if the United States reintroduced a nuclear SLCM is unclear. Moreover, STRATCOM has already strengthened strategic bombers support of NATO in response to Russia’s more provocative and aggressive behavior; the bombers currently carry the air-launched cruise missile and will received the new LRSO that will have essentially the same capabilities as the SLCM. Russian decisions about the size and composition of its non-strategic arsenal appear to be fueled by superior US conventional forces, not its non-strategic nuclear arsenal or weapons yield. Instead, pursuit of a new SLCM to “provide a needed non-strategic regional presence” in Europe and Asia could potentially also strengthen Russia’s reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons and potentially even trigger Chinese interest in such a capability.

Moreover, a new SLCM would require installment of nuclear certified storage and launch control equipment on the attack submarines that receive the new mission. And sea- and land-based personnel would need to be trained and certified to maintain and handle the weapons. These are complex and expensive logistical requirements that would further strain financial and operational resources in the Navy. Moreover, during the Cold War, nuclear-capable vessels triggered frequent and serious political disputes when they visited foreign ports in countries that do not allow nuclear weapons on their territory; diplomatic relations are only now—30 years later—recovering from those battles. Reconstitution of a nuclear SLCM would reawaken this foreign relations irritant and needlessly complicate relations with key allies countries in Europe and Northeast Asia. These additional costs would need to be weighed against the benefits that the NPR authors claim a new SLCM will provide.

Beyond and above these “supplements” to the arsenal, the overwhelming focus of the NPR remains the same as the 2010 NPR: to continue the Obama administration’s massive modernization program (known as the program of record) to replace every weapon in the nuclear arsenal. Over the next decade, this modernization program envisions spending $400 billion (a 15 percent increase from the previous estimate in 2015) on modernizing and maintaining the nuclear arsenal and the facilities that support it. Costs required for maintaining and modernizing the nuclear forces continue well beyond the next decade, requiring more than $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years. Of this cost, modernization is substantial. CBO estimates that the planned nuclear modernization would boost the total costs of nuclear forces over 30 years by roughly 50 percent over what they would be to only operate and sustain fielded forces. The scope of the modernization effort is extraordinary and includes all aspects of the nuclear arsenal and the production complex that supports it.

Whether Congress agrees to fund these expensive programs instead of building simpler and cheaper life-extended versions of existing designs remains to be seen. Moreover, the significant redesign on interoperable warheads would challenge the pledge made in the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review Report, which stated that the United States “will not develop new nuclear warheads” but consider the “full range” of life-extension program options, including “refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components." This pledge was intended to prevent resumption of nuclear explosive testing and adhere to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The report also stated that any life-extension programs “will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support ... new military capabilities.” Of course, compliance depends on how “new” military capabilities are defined, since the addition of new or improved features outside the nuclear explosive package may increase a weapon’s military capabilities. It is anticipated that the United States will generally seek to increase the accuracy of its nuclear weapons in order to lower the yield of modified warheads with improved performance margins.

Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arms Control Association, research assistant, EXPERT COMMENTARY

I was born nearly five years after the Cold War ended. Until Donald Trump broke onto the political scene, the American population’s concern about nuclear war seemed to have died with it. We laughed in our high school history classes at the old tapes of instructional videos on “duck and cover,” at the absurdity of hiding under a desk to survive a nuclear blast. It certainly wasn’t an issue that my high school or college peers cared about. Why should we concern ourselves with relics older than us that we were told would never be used?

Over the course of the past year and half, our commander in chief's loose talk about nuclear weapons and taunts toward another unstable leader with nuclear weapons in North Korea answered that question for many young Americans. To make matters worse, President Trump is proposing to push full steam ahead with a reckless nuclear spending spree that will burden the millennial generation with more than a $1.2 trillion bill for an unnecessary Cold War-style arsenal and more usable nuclear weapons.

The plan, called the Nuclear Posture Review and leaked in early January, dictates the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces under the Trump administration. Like much of his policy agenda, Trump’s nuclear strategy is marked most by its absence of one.

In the plan, Trump orders the continuation of the Obama-era program to rebuild practically the entire U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. No one in the government can tell you how we will foot the $1.2 trillion bill for the 30-year project, short of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The nuclear upgrade will be at its most expensive in the late 2020s and early 2030s, just as other planned weapons programs’ costs peak, and as payouts from Social Security increase due to the baby boomer population retiring. Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut will only add to the budget pressure.

Let there be no mistake—this is our generation’s problem. The architects of this nuclear recapitalization will retire before it concludes. We will be the ones left to deal with the havoc it wreaks. We will be the ones forced to find a way to pay for our own priorities with billions of dollars already earmarked each year for weapons we didn’t approve. Over the next 30 years, it will be money from our paychecks that will build these weapons.

Think about it: Those of us in our twenties and thirties, still paying our college loans, or contemplating how to finance our young children’s education will instead be paying for a project that will conclude when we are almost at retirement age.

But that’s not all the plan calls for. Trump also wants brand-new, “more-useable” nuclear weapons and lowers the bar for using them. Trump not only doesn’t explain how he plans to pay for them, or even how much they will cost, but he also uses twisted logic to justify their development. The strategy argues that our adversaries believe that our current nuclear warheads are so immensely destructive that we would not actually use them in response to a strike, and so they would not prevent an enemy attack. It contends that possessing slightly smaller nuclear warheads would reduce the risk of nuclear war because we are more likely to detonate them.

So, the logic goes, in order to maintain international peace and stability, we need more nuclear weapons that we could more readily use to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Doesn’t make much sense to you? You’re not alone.

We have accepted for too long that older men in suits know better than we do. They told us that in the unlikely event the use of nuclear weapons was considered deliberative consultations would precede any use decision. Now, a president who repeatedly boasts about the size of his nuclear button on Twitter can use it at any time.

There’s a reason Trump’s nuclear strategy doesn’t size up for many millennials, and it’s not because we’re just too young to understand it. Our logic is not distorted by outdated Cold War thinking. We can advocate for a smart strategy that addresses real 21st century needs and concerns of the American people. We are the best authorities for our own future.

Do we want Congress to be ratcheting up spending on more outdated nuclear weapons just as we may entering graduate school, or begin saving for the future? Can we stomach being responsible for subjecting our children to the same fear of nuclear war that our parents faced as they “ducked and covered” as schoolchildren? Do we want to be the generation to blame for standing idly by as Donald Trump squandered our tax dollars on new and more usable nuclear weapons for himself?

My answer is a resounding no. We need to stand up and speak out in one voice against rebuilding archaic and unnecessary nuclear weapons and increasing the risk of nuclear war by developing new ones.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email