The Nuclear Posture Review and the US nuclear arsenal

February 2, 2018

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.