US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Implement the Nuclear Posture Review!

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The Challenge

In April 2010, the Obama Administration completed an inter-agency study of the nation’s policies governing nuclear weapons.  The key decision resulting from this “Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)” was to narrow the declared roles of nuclear weapons in US strategy. Policy statements alone, although important to convey signals to domestic and foreign audiences, do not result in concrete changes to the nation’s nuclear forces.  Real changes can only be accomplished when new, detailed guidance is provided to the government agencies and individuals that, among other things, plan for nuclear contingencies, make decisions on budgets for nuclear weapons and the infrastructure that supports them, and conduct negotiations with other nations about limits on nuclear forces.  The Administration has not yet accomplished this; the challenge is to bring about real and lasting positive changes in the country’s nuclear posture.


In the summer of 2011, the Administration launched what was supposed to be a 90-day “NPR Implementation Study (NPRIS).”  The key question to be answered was how many nuclear weapons of what types are required to ensure that the primary purpose of these weapons — to deter nuclear attacks on the US, its forces abroad, and its allies — could be carried out successfully.  Given that only Russia has a nuclear arsenal of a size comparable to that of the US, in effect, the question is what is required to deter a Russian nuclear attack.

The answer to this question is not obvious, and can never be certain, given that, fortunately, there is no empirical evidence — nor anyway to acquire it.  So-called “requirements” for effective nuclear deterrence are based strictly on theories and speculation.  During the latter stages of the Cold War, US policy hypothesized that to deter the Soviet Union, US nuclear forces should be able, with high confidence, to survive an attack and retaliate with devastating consequences against the Soviet military and civilian leadership, remaining nuclear forces, conventional military forces, and supporting war industries.   In fact, the US planned to strike while under attack or even upon warning of an imminent attack.  Still, the wide range of targets and the insistence on high confidence in their destruction (meaning multiple strikes were required on high value targets) led to “requirements” for high numbers of weapons ready to be launched, and even larger numbers in the US arsenal to support those on alert.  When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia reduced the size of its strategic forces, these “requirements” were reduced, but still remained fairly high as the basic target set and criteria for their destruction was not changed very much.

The NPRIS was tasked to re-examine these assumptions, asking whether changes in the relationship between Russia and the United States, as well as changes in the nature of Russia’s governance, economy, and domestic social relations, meant that deterrence might be achieved with different or fewer targets and reduced confidence levels.  (Some joked that contemporary Russian elites could be deterred by targeting the Swiss banks where they keep their money some neighborhoods in London, New York, and Tel Aviv where their families spend much of their time, and the Croatian coast where they often vacation.)  Relaxing the requirement to retaliate promptly or even on warning of attack also would have implications for the size of forces required. 

The US Navy, for example, maintain two ballistic submarines on patrol in the Atlantic and two more in the Pacific, because of the “requirements” provided to it by Strategic Command for prompt attack capabilities.  Fourteen ballistic submarines must be maintained in the force to support these four “on-station.”  Reducing these requirements for warheads ready to be fired would permit a reduction in the size of the submarine force, as well as a slower paced, and therefore less expensive, modernization program for them. 

The NPT implementation study was asked to look at the likely effectiveness of a range of operational warhead levels, starting with 300 (a number suggested by a study at the Air University) and rising to 1,550, the maximum number of warheads permitted by the NEW START agreement with Russia. 

As had also been the case during the George W. Bush Administration, the implementation study proved more difficult than the NPR itself, testifying to its more significant stakes.  The planned end of the NPRIS in the fall of 2011 stretched into the spring and summer of 2012.  And, then, regrettably, just as the Administration was preparing for cabinet-level and, eventually, Presidential consideration of the NPRIS, the study was leaked.  As the leaker was opposed to further reductions, the press accounts misleadingly suggested that the Administration was planning to cut US nuclear forces unilaterally, perhaps to as few as 300 warheads.  Given that the presidential campaign was heating up, and Democrats traditionally are seen to be vulnerable politically to charges of being “weak on defense,” the White House decided to put the NPRIS on the shelf.

As a result, “requirements” for nuclear weapons have not yet been altered.  Nuclear contingency plans are still based on Cold War planning factors, budgetary decisions on forces and modernization programs continue to assume we require forces large enough to promptly launch large numbers of warheads, and when arms control talks resume, US negotiators will be able to have only modest goals, as the “requirement” for nuclear warheads will remain relatively high.

Pragmatic Steps

This is one problem that is easy to solve and need not wait for the start of the President’s second term.  President Obama has changed the tenor of the debate on nuclear forces by his embrace of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from all nations and by his Nuclear Posture Review.  It’s time to make real changes in the nuclear posture by transforming this rhetoric into concrete guidance to nuclear planners through the NPRIS.  The Administration should:

1. Take the NPRIS off the shelf and hold a cabinet-level meeting to discuss its findings and make a recommendation for the President’s consideration.

2. Draw up a plan for release of a summary unclassified version of the results that will minimize any adverse political consequences at home and abroad.

3. Brief key sympathetic Members of Congress on the results and enlist their support. 

4. Brief key allies on the results and planned release.

5. Direct relevant agencies to begin implementing the course of action decided upon by the President.

6. Release an unclassified summary of the study to the public as part of a broader educational campaign about the issues.


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