Nuclear Posture Review: more is less

February 2, 2018

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.