Biden’s nuclear posture review maintains nuclear status quo

By Emma Claire Foley | October 28, 2022

Illustration by Thomas Gaulkin

The Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was released Thursday, after nearly a year of anticipation. Lacking the direct aggression of the Trump NPR, the focus on new weapons systems and the blunt instrument of “capability matching” have been swapped out for the more diffuse approach of “integrated deterrence” and “campaigning.”

On its face, the review might encourage anyone looking for progress on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation—all of which receive repeated explicit commitments in the text. It eliminates two outstanding artifacts of the Trump administration’s nuclear overkill—the sea-launched cruise missile, and the B-83 gravity bomb. It affirms the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, the necessity of diplomacy to achieve that goal against the challenges of the moment, and the desirability of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy.

Yet in ways that count, it digs in its heels and sets a course for a long future for the US nuclear arsenal. Take its treatment of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, a focal point for advocates in recent years as the United States embarked upon a $300 billion modernization effort despite expert consensus that the force is a strategic vulnerability. The review affirms that the Sentinel program (earlier known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program) is the lowest-risk and -cost option for the force, despite the lack of credible cost assessments for modernization and profound concerns about the force’s destabilizing effects. It presents keeping the missiles on “day-to-day” alert as a stable, acceptable state of affairs and waves away concerns rooted in documented historical cases of false alarms with assertions of “extensive protections.” Concerns about short decision times in the event of a report of an incoming attack are met with equally vague reassurances: “In the most plausible scenarios that concern public policy leaders today, there would be time for full deliberation.”

Leaving aside the lack of substantive detail that might render these arguments more convincing, the fact is that objections to the ongoing existence of US land-based nuclear missiles was never rooted in a conviction that there were no measures in place to prevent an accidental first strike. Once an ICBM is launched, it cannot be recalled. The argument that limited decision time is not an issue with the ICBM force is based on the assertion that the force and its supporting command, control, and communications infrastructure could survive a nuclear attack. But it’s not at all clear that such an assertion would reflect reality in the event of a report of an actual incoming attack. What is clear, however, is the administration’s decisive resistance to meaningful changes in the status quo—whether or not they make good security sense.

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Still more worrisome, while the review cites the renewed affirmation of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” it seems to be operating on quite the opposite expectation.

Much ink is spilled on the need for “resilience” in the event of a “limited” nuclear strike on a battlefield—and when possibility of uncontrolled escalation from such an event is mentioned, it is only as part of a justification for maintaining the ICBM force. Along with the ongoing use of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats, the review maintains a potentially disastrous misalignment of implicit and explicit commitments.

Written and rewritten in a year of upheaval, the review forgoes detailed analysis of the geopolitical landscape in favor a general focus on Russia and China as threats—Russia acute, China the “pacing challenge”—and repeated affirmations of the US commitment to its allies and partners. The news this week that the United States sped up its timeline for delivering the upgraded B61-12 gravity bomb to NATO bases in Europe underscores the central role of US nuclear weapons in backing up those assurances. With no end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in sight, the review suggests the foreseeable future will closely resemble recent reality: a potentially escalatory status quo punctuated by moments of acute crisis, during which nuclear use veers into the realm of the immediately possible.

The overall message to the nuclear arms control and disarmament field seems to be: Trust us. It’s not clear the rest of us have a choice, either way. But after years of low public awareness of nuclear weapons issues, the rude awakening we’re seeing now is based in the realization that the status quo—where one person, the US President, can choose at any moment to launch a nuclear attack killing many millions and ending human civilization as we know it—is fundamentally unacceptable. That responsibility is far too great for any one person. There are credible paths forward to reducing nuclear risk, setting a course toward disarmament, and addressing the profoundly unjust order nuclear weapons have held in place. Let the Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review be an opportunity to push for a better nuclear status quo.

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