By Kingston Reif
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, unveiled Feb. 2, puts deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks at the top of the U.S. nuclear agenda and pivots away from a number of key Obama administration policy priorities and commitments that sought to lower reliance on nuclear weapons.
“[G]lobal threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries,” states the review, citing Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. “The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before.”
The review, the fourth since the end of the Cold War, makes a case for what it presents as a more flexible, resilient, and adaptable U.S. nuclear posture to meet current and future challenges. But critics warn that the Trump administration is moving in ways that will be costly and potentially destabilizing.
Most controversially, the review addresses the circumstances under which the United States would consider the first use of nuclear weapons to include cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities; calls for the development of two sea-based, low-yield nuclear options that do not currently exist in the arsenal; and gives relatively short shrift to arms control and nonproliferation.
Whether the NPR has the impact the administration intends is far from certain in light of questions in Congress about the need, effectiveness, and affordability of the strategy; opposition from rival powers Russia and China; and concerns about President Donald Trump’s intemperate and bellicose rhetoric on nuclear weapons.
The United States is “creating a brand-new nuclear force,” Trump said on Feb. 12. “[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.”
Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy. These strategy documents outline the president’s views on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, maintenance of and upgrades to nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.
The Obama administration’s review, completed in April 2010, concluded that the top priority of the U.S. nuclear agenda should be nonproliferation and prevention of nuclear terrorism. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report stated that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. (See ACT, May 2010.)
In a January 2017 executive order, Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, an NPR, and a ballistic missile defense review. Mattis initiated the NPR in April 2017. (See ACT, May 2017.) A draft of the document was leaked to the Huffington Post on Jan. 11, nearly a month before the planned release date. The final draft largely mirrored the leaked version.
The NPR report contains elements of continuity with long-standing U.S. nuclear policy, such as affirming the strategic triad of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, continuing the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and stating that deterrence of nuclear attack is not the sole purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons.
“This review is consistent with U.S. nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at a Feb. 2 press briefing. “It reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence and continues our clear commitment to nonproliferation and arms control.”
But several of the proposed changes in the review have sparked controversy. Critics fear that the changes reverse decades of efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, increase the risk of nuclear conflict, and add to the crushing financial burden to sustain and upgrade the arsenal in the coming decades.
In a Jan. 29 letter to Trump based on the leaked version of the document, 16 Democratic senators wrote that “creating new nuclear capabilities and widening their possible use constitute an increase in America’s nuclear warfighting capacity that will pressure other nuclear weapons states to follow suit.” The senators criticized the document for failing to address how the administration plans to pay for new nuclear capabilities “on top of the already-unsustainable costs of modernizing our existing U.S. nuclear forces.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans Trump inherited from Obama to maintain and upgrade the arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in current dollars. (See ACT, December 2017.)
The NPR report acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial,” but claims that they are affordable and, at their projected peak in the late 2020s, will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the Pentagon budget. This estimate does not include the additional costs that must be borne by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.
Republican lawmakers have generally expressed support for the recommendations in the NPR report. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Feb. 2 statement that the review “takes a number of steps in the right direction.”
“[S]ince the end of the Cold War, we have let our nuclear capabilities atrophy under the false belief that the era of great power competition was over,” McCain added.
As with Congress, the reception to the NPR report among allies has also been mixed.
“Japan highly appreciates the latest NPR which clearly articulates the U.S. resolve to ensure the effectiveness of its deterrence and its commitment to providing extended deterrence to its allies including Japan,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a Feb. 3 statement.
But German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel blasted the NPR report. “The U.S. administration’s decision to develop new tactical nuclear weapons shows that the spiral of a new nuclear arms race has already been set in motion,” he said Feb. 4. “We need new disarmament initiatives rather than new arms systems.”
Meanwhile, Russia and China reacted harshly. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Feb. 3 that “the document is focused on confrontation and is anti-Russian” and the claim that Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons has no “connection with reality.” The following day, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated China’s commitment that it will not use nuclear weapons first and said that Beijing hopes “the U.S. side will discard its ‘cold-war mentality’ [and] shoulder its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament.”
The NPR report says that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It also includes a so-called negative security assurance that Washington “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”
The 2010 NPR report used identical language. Yet, unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration defines “extreme circumstances” to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”
The document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological weapons attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The report references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks more than 30 times.
The 2010 NPR report, in contrast, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, or biological weapons attack and called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities were not cited as grounds for a nuclear response.
The 2018 NPR report also caveats the negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.”
The Trump administration argues that the new revised language on declaratory policy does not signal an expansion of the circumstances under which the president would consider nuclear first use but rather makes explicit threats that have always been implicit.
“The Obama policy didn’t rule out anything as a potential extreme circumstance,” Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon before the release of the NPR report. “Our intent is to clarify the kinds of things that might constitute extreme circumstance so adversaries don’t miscalculate and cross that threshold unwittingly.”
But some analysts warn that the language of the NPR report could have the effect of lowering the bar for first use of nuclear weapons and that threatening such use in response to cyberattacks or attacks on U.S. command and control capabilities would lack credibility.
The review “opens questions about whether the United States would consider using [nuclear] weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic,” Rebecca Hersman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a Feb. 6 commentary.
Using nuclear weapons in response to attacks on command and control capabilities would “violate any notion of proportionality,” argued James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Feb. 5 article for the War on the Rocks website. “Russian or Chinese non-nuclear strikes on U.S. satellites would almost certainly cause no human casualties.”
New Nuclear Capabilities
The NPR report calls for the development of two additional low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis, a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.”
These “supplements,” as the report describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).
According to the report, the development of the two options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’”
“Rather,” the report argues, “expanding U.S. tailored response options will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”
Critics maintain that the report misconstrues Russian nuclear doctrine and that additional low-yield options are unnecessary. “Rather than lowering the threshold of nuclear use, the Russians are actively seeking to increase it,” wrote Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in a Feb. 13 article.
Other analysts have noted that the United States already possesses two types of low-yield warheads for delivery by strategic bombers, making redundant the NPR report’s proposed third and fourth low-yield options.
The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 released on Feb. 12 includes $22.6 million for developing a low-yield SLBM option. The request does not contain funding for a new SLCM. The NNSA budget request does not include additional funds to modify SLBM warheads or to begin development of a warhead for the SLCM.
The NPR also seeks to retain the B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile. The decision reverses the Obama administration’s proposal that the warhead be retired once confidence in the under-development B61-12 gravity bomb is achieved.
The plan to keep the B83-1 bomb is part of a larger proposed expansion of NNSA nuclear weapons work that the NPR report says would provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the estimated 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The administration requested $11.2 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019, an increase of $780 million over last year’s request and $1.8 billion over the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.
Arms Control Takes a Back Seat
The NPR report states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and if such accords “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” It adds that the administration “will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions.”
But the report does not offer any proposals to advance U.S.-Russian arms control or address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. It also does not commit to an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is slated to expire in 2021. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)
In addition, the report says, without offering a reason, that the administration will not pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Jan. 18 interview with WNYC New York Public Radio. “How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons?”
Nuclear Posture Reviews, Then and Now
The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review is the fourth since the end of the Cold War. It differs from the Obama administration's 2010 review in some key areas.