Why Congress should refuse to fund the NPR’s new nuclear weapons

February 7, 2018

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.