The Nuclear Posture Review: Setting US nuclear weapons policy for the next decade
Currently, the Obama administration is conducting a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). It will serve to “to establish U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and posture for the next five to 10 years and to provide a basis for the negotiation of a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). ” The new review is a major opportunity to put an end to outdated Cold War thinking, roll back the disastrous policies put in place by the Bush administration, and institutionalize the steps forward from President Obama’s Prague speech, where he stated “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Although the Cold War ended 20 years ago, nuclear weapons policy has not caught up. Today, the world’s 20,000 nuclear weapons (most in Russian and American stockpiles) are an increasing liability. The Clinton administration’s NPR missed an opportunity to reduce and eliminate the role nuclear weapons play in US security strategy. The Nuclear Threat Initiative details the policy in the Bush administration’s NPR that took us on an even more dangerous path:
First, although it acknowledges the much improved U.S.-Russian relationship, this review recognizes that U.S. nuclear planning must account for the fact that Russia is the only nuclear weapon state that could conceivably destroy the United States. Second, the NPR lists six other states as potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons. Third, the NPR emphasizes the objective of maintaining and enhancing U.S. military flexibility. Fourth, it outlines a new triad consisting of offensive strike systems (which partly include the old strategic nuclear triad), defensive systems, and a responsive defense infrastructure. Fifth, the NPR emphasizes U.S. concerns about hardened and deeply buried bunkers that could contain weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Sixth, it supports maintaining a large reserve stockpile of nuclear weapons. The new NPR mainly differs from the previous administration’s nuclear policy by rejecting arms control agreements, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It also calls for significantly shortening the time required to prepare for renewed nuclear testing.
The Washington Post had more on the poor policy in Bush’s NPR:
The policy would give U.S. presidents the option of conducting a preemptive strike with precision-guided conventional bombs or nuclear weapons.
This system, which Pentagon planners call “offensive deterrence,” would put an official end to the practice of assigning a set of fixed targets for the U.S. nuclear force, the vast majority of them in the former Soviet Union. It would replace it with a more flexible targeting scheme in which weapons could be aimed at states that threaten or use chemical, nuclear or biological arms against the United States or its allies.
The article goes on to list China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya, in addition to Russia, as the other countries the US would consider pre-emptively using nuclear weapons against. The Bush administration’s NPR led to their proposals to revamp the entire nuclear weapons complex, known as Complex Transformation, as well as develop new nuclear weapons, like the nuclear bunker buster and Reliable Replacement Warhead. While we were able to block their new nuclear weapons work, the policy is still there.
That’s why the Obama administration’s NPR will be so important. Congress required a new NPR by the incoming administration. The final NPR report to Congress will be due in early 2010. Negotiations with Russia to replace the START treaty on nuclear weapons reductions are already underway and the START talks are said to be “tightly interwoven” with the NPR process. Decisions are therefore likely being made already on nuclear weapons policy, and the fast pace of the review could mean it gets short shrift. The Department of Defense is in charge of the NPR, but it will be conducted in consultation with the Departments of Energy and State. In a briefing by the Department of Defense, several key quotes illustrated that the NPR may not be as bold and affirming of a path toward disarmament as we need:
Q So would that sort of make it a place-holder on the way to eventual Global Zero?
SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, I think that we are certainly looking to, in the post-START negotiations, go towards further reductions.
SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: But I don’t know that I would speculate to say that that would be a goal. Right? I mean, it’s — this NPR, from our perspective, is one about deterrence, how should we deter. And deterrence involves more than just nuclear weapons. So there are other aspects of what the department does that need to be brought to bear to deter, you know, a potential adversary from using nuclear capability.
Q On the Nuclear Posture Review — this question is for both of you — do you anticipate that it will have as a stated goal elimination of nuclear weapons, Global Zero, do you think? And do you think that that goal is achievable?
SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: In the president’s Prague speech, he referenced that as an ultimate goal. He also said that until that time, as long as adversaries possess nuclear weapons, we will maintain a robust and credible nuclear deterrent. And so I think, you know, this NPR is being taken in the context that he lays out in that speech, which is a desire to really strengthen non-proliferation progress, if you will; explore the possibility of further reductions in our own arsenal; while also ensuring that we take the steps necessary, both in terms of the infrastructure and the forces, to ensure that we have a safe and secure and reliable deterrent. And so that — that sort of three-pronged approach is really the conceptual frame, the starting point for the NPR.
Here are some more telling quotes from the same briefing:
SR. DEFENSE OFFICAL: Let me say a couple words about the Nuclear Posture Review. I think this is slightly narrower in focus. It is really the first comprehensive review of our nuclear posture since 2002. It will address the U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy and policy, looking at the role of nuclear weapons, international security strategy, the size and composition of our nuclear forces necessary to support the strategy, and the steps necessary to maintain a safe, reliable and credible nuclear deterrence posture.
As President Obama said in Prague, which — and his speech there was really a sort of — a great strategic framework for this review — we are placing a high priority on reducing nuclear proliferation. So in the NPR we’ll be seeking to ensure that our nuclear policies help deter our enemies, reassure our allies and also further our nonproliferation agenda.
We’ll also be conducting the NPR in close coordination with negotiations with Russia to reach a follow-on agreement to START, and those two processes will be tightly interwoven.
It is disappointing that the Obama administration and Department of Defense are missing a major opportunity to put a path toward disarmament into US nuclear weapons policy. The continued emphasis on deterrence will help encourage the nuclear status quo, which is unsustainable and poses real threats to the world. President Obama has repeatedly emphasized the need to work toward a nuclear weapons free world, and there’s a bipartisan consensus from policy heavyweights like Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, and Nunn supporting him. Other world leaders, like Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown have stated they support a nuclear weapons free world.Without a path toward a nuclear weapons free world guiding the review, it will be much harder to achieve deeper reductions below 1500 or 1000 nuclear weapons and shrink the US nuclear weapons complex.