The Nuclear Posture Review: Fiction and Fact

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Based on the spate of recent articles and op-eds criticizing the 2018 Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), many Americans have been led to believe the NPR:

  • Represents a dangerous departure from traditional U.S. nuclear deterrence policy;
  • Initiates a new nuclear arms race;
  • Proposes a plan to modernize U.S. forces which is unaffordable;
  • Creates a new class of “usable” nuclear weapons;
  • Threatens nuclear retaliation for cyber-attacks; and
  • Abandons arms control efforts.

Each of these arguments is fallible. In fact, the 2018 “NPR” presents a sound and reasoned policy in the mainstream of traditional U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, which the document makes clear.  It does, however, represent one change from the ambitious policy of the Obama Administration whereby the United States hoped that by reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in defense policy would encourage other nuclear-armed states to do the same.  That policy failed, since Russia, China and North Korea continue to increase their reliance on more nuclear systems.  Beginning in 2010, Russia and China began fielding a wide variety of new nuclear systems, to include new land-based strategic missiles, new strategic missile submarines, new sea-based strategic missiles, improved bomber weapons and multiple ground, sea, and air-launched tactical nuclear weapons.  The U.S., for its part, has not fielded any new systems in this millennium. 

The NPR does call for the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces, essentially endorsing the previous Administration’s reluctant embrace of the need to do so.  That said, no new U.S. systems will be fielded until the mid-to-late 2020’s, which will be, as the commander of U.S. strategic forces, Gen. John Hyten, often remarks “just in time.”  By the mid-2020’s our bombers, strategic submarines, and land-based missiles will have been deployed well past their anticipated end of life dates and will have to be retired, with or without replacement.  Critics of modernization like to throw around a 30-year life cycle cost to produce a sticker shock reaction.  However, this obscures two points: 30-year program costs look large, regardless of the program. In addition, the cost of the modernization program, even when in full swing by the 2020’s is not expected to exceed 3% of the defense budget. Current operating costs combined with implementing new systems to replace old, the total cost of protecting America against nuclear attack is between 6-7% of the defense budget (and less than 1% of the entire federal budget),  not too much to pay in preventing an existential threat.

The NPR does call for two initiatives: in the near term, the first being to modify a small number of existing submarine-launched warheads to have significantly reduced yield.  This adjustment in our deterrent capability is necessitated by serious concerns about developments in Russian military thinking over the past ten years.  The Russian military has devised a doctrine which envisions using a small number of very low-yield nuclear weapons to attack NATO forces defending Alliance territory. They have retained former Soviet systems they pledged to eliminate and have deployed new tactical nuclear systems, making the doctrine credible. All of this has occurred in the face of our (and NATO’s) existing force structure, leading to the very real concern that the Russian High Command may have come to believe we lack a credible deterrent to such a low yield threat.  Modifying a small number of U.S. Trident II warheads will enhance our deterrent capability and will, therefore, be important in dissuading the Kremlin’s belief in tactical victories by using of low-yield nuclear weapons.  The NPR’s critics counter this strategy by saying that the DoD is seeking to create “more usable” nuclear weapons.  However, the NPR explicitly states the opposite: 

“Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression.  To be clear, this is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear warfighting.’  Nor will it lower the nuclear threshold. Rather, expanding U.S. tailored 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.”

For the long term, the NPR, responding to Russian duplicity on the long-standing treaty which bans intermediate-range nuclear weapons, calls for exploring the possibility of building a new class of cruise missiles for general purpose submarines to offset any gains Moscow seeks to achieve by deploying prohibited missiles.  If Russia were to return to compliance with the treaty, however, the U.S. would re-examine the need for the proposed naval cruise missile.

Critics also charge that the NPR calls for using nuclear weapons to respond to enemy cyberattacks.  That thought does not appear in the NPR. It is a baseless charge designed to stir up opposition despite what’s actually in the NPR.  Finally, the critics charge that the NPR calls for an end to seeking arms control agreements with Russia.  This charge, also, is palpably false.  The NPR does not rule out future arms agreements.  It does point out, however, that Russia is currently violating at least seven such agreements Moscow has signed with the U.S. and NATO partners.  As a result, it indicates that unresolved Russian violations make the prospect of any new treaties improbable as doing so will suggest that the U.S. does not care that Russia is already in violation of existing treaties.

Informed public debate is vital to any functioning democracy.  But for that debate to be informed, Americans need to read and understand the proposal and judge based on its merits. Forming judgments based on biased critics who distort what is being proposed is not conducive to constructive debates.  The NPR is a prudent, reasoned, and affordable approach to preserving deterrence and avoiding war.  It’s available to the public.  Read it.  It deserves broad support.

Franklin C. Miller is a retired senior civil servant. He spent two years at the State Department, twenty-two years in the Defense Department and four years on the White House staff.

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