For several decades, each new President has seen fit to conduct a wide-ranging review of U.S. nuclear policies, posture, and programs early in his first term. Mr. Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) commenced in July. In setting the context for Biden’s upcoming decisions, I raise, and subsequently offer answers to, four questions bearing on this review:
- Which aspects of U.S. nuclear strategy and force posture will come under review?
- What did Obama and Trump decide in their nuclear reviews?
- What are the handful of key issues that will drive the Biden NPR, and what might we expect from that review once completed?
- What are the prospects for continued bipartisan support for nuclear modernization?
On this last question, a fundamental goal, shared by many, is continued bipartisan support within Congress, and between the administration and Congress, for the nuclear modernization program advanced initially in Mr. Obama’s 2010 NPR and carried forward in Trump’s 2018 review. I conclude with an assessment of four issues that could arise in the upcoming debate, three addressing modernization and one on nuclear declaratory policy.
Those carrying out the Biden NPR should take note of past lessons learned. Some will recall the program to replace an aging plutonium facility at Los Alamos, the more ambitious effort to recapitalize plutonium pit manufacture via a Modern Pit Facility, the program to explore nuclear weapons advanced concepts, the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, and the design and development program for a Reliable Replacement Warhead—mostly solid programs, all killed by Congress. The end of the Cold War was followed by nearly two decades of confusion and divisive debate over the post-Cold War role and mission of nuclear weapons. Modernization, long overdue, was further stalled as a result. At least one member of Congress had enough; the late Rep. Ellen Tauscher told us what was needed:
Our strategic posture should place the stewardship of our nuclear arsenal, nonproliferation programs, missile defenses, and the international arms control regime into one comprehensive strategy [emphasis added] that protects the American people.[i]
At her initiative, near the end of George W. Bush’s second term, Congress established the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States—the so-called Perry-Schlesinger Commission—to seek a path out of the mess we were in. Despite a spectrum of commissioner views bracketed by Johnny Foster on the right and Mort Halperin on the left, Bill Perry and Jim Schlesinger, with timely interventions from Ellen, were able to establish overall consensus. Their work was exploited extensively by Mr. Obama’s team, many of whom advised the Commission and, as Ellen did, entered his administration to help craft that comprehensive strategy.
Elements of U.S. nuclear posture and strategy
Notwithstanding Ellen’s advice that it is more than simply the nuclear forces piece, let’s turn to the nuclear forces piece; that is, overall U.S. nuclear strategy and the force posture that supports it. Over decades, as reflected in the policies of at least the last five presidents, there has been a great degree of continuity in U.S. nuclear strategy even as nuclear forces and force posture have evolved significantly over that period. As the Biden team begins its review and considers potential changes, it is worthwhile to recall the key elements of that strategy and force posture.
For decades, deterring nuclear attack against the U.S. and its allies and, if deterrence fails, responding to such attack with the prospect of a certain and devastating response has been the primary but not sole purpose of U.S. nuclear forces. Nuclear forces also are intended to deter global conventional war with Russia and China, discourage catastrophic non-nuclear strikes on population involving chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from other sources, and help promote strategic stability. Very importantly, deterrence is based not simply on having nuclear forces but on their ability to hold at risk assets most valued by an enemy. Force size and capabilities thus matter and will be adjusted as deterrence needs evolve.
Force Size, Capabilities, Alert Posture and the Strategic Triad
Determining force size and needed capabilities follows a long-established process in which the President first issues broad guidance on deterrence objectives, including guidance for planning and targeting. Based on it, the Secretary of Defense issues more specific guidance regarding, for example, which generic target sets must be held at risk with what level of confidence. Guidance may include constraints on the force and force operations in achieving deterrence objectives. The military, led by Strategic Command, then identifies specific targets, folds them into operational plans that take into account various conditions of warning and force alert posture, and develops pre-planned employment options for the President. This process, among other things, helped establish the importance of a strategic Triad of nuclear forces both to achieve deterrence objectives and complicate enemy attack planning. The job of Pentagon civilians in the Secretary’s Policy shop is to oversee this entire process and ensure that the military’s detailed plans are fully consistent with broad Presidential guidance. Thus, adhering to longstanding U.S. policy, it is strategy that drives force posture and numbers, not the other way around.
The President, as Mr. Obama did, may also issue additional guidance addressing the employment of U.S. nuclear weapons in peacetime and war. Other aspects of force alert posture, plans, training, exercises, signaling and strike operations may be derived from it. Three fundamental principles have guided the potential use of U.S. nuclear weapons in conflict over decades: (1) only the President can authorize use of U.S. nuclear weapons, (2) technical and administrative controls are to assure strict positive and negative control of nuclear weapons—that is, assured execution if the President so authorizes and never otherwise, and (3) achieve political and military objectives with minimum damage and destruction to innocent civilians.
Declaratory policy is what is said (or not said!) about the circumstances under which the U.S. would or would not employ nuclear weapons. For decades, a foundation of U.S. declaratory policy is that deterrence is strengthened when an adversary is unsure of the precise conditions under which the United States would employ nuclear weapons—essentially, that uncertainty breeds caution. Exceptions have been made, in certain cases, to advance concrete U.S. security interests. For example, the United States provides security assurances that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states in good standing with the Nonproliferation Treaty. Potential adjustments to U.S. declaratory policy via statements of “sole purpose” or “no nuclear first use” have been rejected in previous administrations—more on that later.
Signaling involves options, and not just words, for conveying to an adversary that certain actions jeopardize vital U.S. national security interests in ways that could provoke a nuclear response. As such, signaling complements deterrence. As laid out in military planning documents:
The ability to communicate U.S. intent, resolve, and associated military capabilities in ways that are understood by adversary decision-makers is vital. Direct military means include: forward presence, force projection, active and passive defense, strategic communications and messaging, and nuclear forces.[ii]
Signaling may indeed involve statements, at times of high tensions, that convey a direct threat if some adversary action is taken. Or it may be more nuanced, such as flying nuclear-capable bombers into certain regions to suggest to potential adversaries the types of capabilities available were a crisis to escalate.
Hedging is the ability to adapt the force and maintain deterrence in light of unanticipated technical problems with a warhead or delivery system or to geopolitical reversal. A robust nuclear R&D and industrial base have, for years, been the desired approach to providing a timely response to technical or political developments that could undermine deterrence. Today, there are shortfalls in the warhead manufacturing base. Until they can be restored and funded programs are in place to do so, additional warheads will be retained in the stockpile, for example, to replace a deployed warhead experiencing unanticipated aging problems.
Capable and credible U.S. nuclear forces bolster alliances by assuring European and Asian allies or U.S. commitments to their defense. In practice, the full suite of U.S. military capabilities—both nuclear and conventional—is extended to allies in assuring their security. The strategic Triad, and European basing of U.S. nuclear bombs carried by NATO dual-capable aircraft (DCA), provide the nuclear component of extended deterrence. In addition, the set of exquisite capabilities—the people who design, develop, secure, plan, operate and maintain nuclear forces and the R&D, manufacturing and operational infrastructure that supports this effort—is no less a factor in assuring allies as well as deterring adversaries.
Very importantly, assurance of NATO and Asian allies involves extensive nuclear-related consultations, including visits to U.S. nuclear bases, where allies can engage the United States in a nuclear dialog. For example, which specific U.S. capabilities are most relevant to assuring a specific ally? Are there potential new roles for allies to share the burden associated with overseas deployments of U.S. nuclear forces? Regarding assurance, it is prudent policy to engage allies ahead of time on potential adjustments to the U.S. nuclear posture that could come about, for example, in the NPR process. No one likes to be surprised.
Allies’ confidence in U.S. extended deterrence advances U.S. nonproliferation goals; many who have capabilities to develop and field nuclear weapons have, so far, no incentive to do so.
Nuclear Test Moratorium
Despite the U.S. not ratifying CTBT, recent Presidents have continued a test moratorium based on the annual assessment by the nuclear weapons laboratories—now for over two decades—that the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains safe and reliable without such tests. A test readiness posture is maintained in Nevada in the event, in some future year, such assurances cannot be made for a warhead critical to the nation’s deterrent.
Each of these elements of U.S. nuclear strategy may come under review in the Biden NPR.
What has changed since the end of the Cold War?
Despite significant continuity in nuclear strategy and policy over decades, U.S. nuclear forces and associated force posture necessary to meet deterrence objectives have evolved markedly:
- Arms control treaties between the U.S. and Russia have led to substantial reductions in nuclear forces, both long-range and intermediate-range forces.
- The Moscow Treaty and New START have reduced "accountable" strategic nuclear weapons from over 10,000 deployed at the end of the Cold War to about 1500 today.
- The U.S. nuclear stockpile today is less than one-quarter its size at the Cold War’s end.
- The most dramatic transformation is the elimination of many thousands of U.S. short-range tactical nuclear warheads—reductions to less than one-tenth of Cold War levels.
- The highly-MIRVed U.S. Peacekeeper ICBM was retired, and the Minuteman III ICBM downloaded to a single warhead. Both actions helped strengthen strategic stability.
- Today's only nuclear weapons that remain in the U.S. stockpile are those carried by the nuclear triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, heavy bombers, and dual-capable fighter aircraft.
- The alert/readiness posture of U.S. bombers and DCA has been eased in ways that make these forces safer and more secure to accidental or unauthorized use.
These steps were taken in anticipation of a continued easing in tensions with Russia. In light of current developments in the international security environment involving both Russia and China, it remains to be seen whether such progress can be sustained.
After eight years of Mr. Obama
In eight years in office, Mr. Obama reaffirmed key elements of U.S. nuclear posture and achieved significant pieces of Ellen’s comprehensive nuclear strategy:
- Nuclear triad reaffirmed at reduced force levels.
- New START concluded with Russia and ratified (1500 “weapons”).
- Follow-on analysis, based on then-current threat assessments, suggested that a force level of about 1000 weapons would be sufficient if such reductions were agreed with Russia.
- Initiated work to find ways to reduce the need for “launch under attack,” providing future Presidents with additional time (beyond a few minutes!) to make employment decisions.
- Six-party JPCOA concluded with Iran to constrain its uranium enrichment.
- Worked extensively to reduce lingering nuclear dangers from the Cold War's legacy via robustly funded cooperative threat reduction programs with Russia and others.
- Nuclear Security Summit process has incentivized global action on residual nuclear risks.
- Vigorous internal debate on "sole purpose" and "no first use," but both were rejected.
- Increased cabinet-level focus on the U.S. nuclear forces, particularly in light of Russia’s emergence as a renewed threat to global security.
- Initiated a 30-year, $1.2 trillion nuclear modernization program involving the near-simultaneous replacement of every leg of the aging triad, a major upgrade to nuclear command and control, and recapitalization of aging warhead production infrastructure.[iii]
Early in his second term, in part due to Mr. Putin's reckless behavior, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Obama’s team moved out aggressively on nuclear modernization. The stage was set for this in the 2010 NPR. Obama had packaged modernization, important to the right, with items important to the left, including his giving voice to a long-term aspiration for eliminating nuclear weapons (if not in his lifetime!), a commitment to avoid, if possible, fielding new warheads or warheads with fundamentally new military capabilities, moving forward to conclude a New START treaty with Russia, exploring opportunities for further reductions below New START levels, expanded cooperative threat reduction and, very importantly, his willingness to engage Senate Republicans on the specifics of funding modernization. This placed him in a strong position to advance an extensive nuclear modernization program and receive strong bipartisan support for it from Congress.
Extensive modernization activities being carried out at DoD include:
- A new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine to replace the Ohio-class submarines deployed since the 1980s.
- A follow-on ICBM—the so-called GBSD—to replace the aging Minuteman III.
- A new B-21 strategic bomber.
- A Long-Range Standoff missile to replace the current air-launched cruise missile.
- A nuclear-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter deployed with the life-extended B61-12 bomb to meet deterrence commitments to allies.
- A nuclear-armed SLCM to be developed and fielded in the next decade.
- A “next-gen” nuclear command and control (NC2) system that is responsive to both advancing threats and the evolving vision for modern conflict.
For NNSA, a no-less important set of activities is also underway:
- Five warhead life extension programs (LEPs)—for the B61-12 bomb, the W76-1 (now completed) and W88 Alt 370 SLBM warheads, the W80-4 warhead for LRSO, and the W78 ICBM warhead (called the W87-1 LEP)—to be completed on time and cost.
- A low-yield warhead for the Trident D-5 SLBM (also completed).
- Plans to retain the B83 bomb in the nuclear stockpile.
- Concept and feasibility studies for the next Navy SLBM warhead—the Mk7/W93.
- Similar studies for a modern nuclear SLCM warhead.
- Activities to sustain the personnel, computational, experimental, and test capabilities needed to assess the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile as well as to design, develop, and produce modern nuclear warheads as needed in the future.
- Continued transformation of NNSA itself and its culture to become an efficient, cost-effective, organizationally coherent entity for working cooperatively with the Department of Defense to oversee the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Not to be overlooked, nine large capital construction projects overseen by the NNSA are in various stages of execution to provide:
- Capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030.
- Safe, environmentally sound manufacture of highly enriched uranium (HEU) parts at the Y-12 plant.
- Reactor and enrichment capacity, and availability of sufficient unobligated low enriched uranium (LEU), to produce an adequate supply of tritium for nuclear warheads.
- Continued capability to develop and manufacture secure, trusted rad-hard microelectronic systems beyond 2025.
U.S. modernization to replace aging forces and command and control is essential whether or not Russia and China modernize. That being said, Russia and China are both carrying out very aggressive research, development and production efforts to add new nuclear systems and capabilities to their forces. In Russia’s case, some of its exotic modernization includes strategic systems that are unconstrained by the New Start Treaty.[iv]
After four years of Mr. Trump
The nuclear landscape after four years of Trump might well be cast as “Obama continued” but with some important refinements:
- Triad reaffirmed at New START force levels.
- Some increased focus on the role of nuclear forces in U.S. security.
- The declaratory policy further elaborated by clarifying the term “non-nuclear strategic attack”; that is, the circumstances other than nuclear attack that could warrant a potential U.S. nuclear response.
- Rejected, as Obama did, U.S. adoption of “sole purpose” and “no first use” policies.
- Fully adopts Obama’s modernization program.
- Adds two modest supplements to that program: A low-yield Trident warhead and a program to field a nuclear SLCM. The major driver for these additions is to bolster deterrence in light of Russia’s seeming adoption of a strategy of limited nuclear first use as means to deescalate a conventional conflict in ways that benefit Russia.
On Ellen’s "comprehensive strategy," it’s more of a mixed bag:
- Skepticism regarding Obama’s long-term goal of a nuclear-free world.
- New START continued but not extended.
- New trilateral approach to Russia/China on arms control—so far unproductive.
- Spectacular engagement with North Korea’s leader on nukes—also unproductive.
- U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
- Seeming reduced emphasis on countering nuclear terrorism.
- Some innovative approaches on non-proliferation.
- Continued moratorium on nuclear testing.
As a result of some of his policies, and despite others, Mr. Trump retained strong bipartisan support for his nuclear posture, including the approach to ongoing modernization.
Where is Mr. Biden’s NPR headed?
What might we expect from the nuclear review to be conducted by the Biden team? At this stage, we can only speculate, but not unreasonable speculation suggests that Mr. Biden will:
- Affirm a worsened security environment—that threats from Russia and China have evolved significantly since 2010—and this could drive adjustments to U.S. forces.
- Affirm key elements of U.S. long-term nuclear policy and posture.
- Carry forward the bulk—but possibly not every piece—of the Obama-Trump modernization program with increased focus on NC2.
- Engage with Russia and China, each bilaterally, on arms control and strategic stability.
- Renew nuclear security summits to address post-Cold War nuclear risks.
- Identify/advance elements of what might be called “CTR 3.0.”
- Seek to reinstate the JCPOA.
- Press for strengthened non-proliferation. [v]
As part of Mr. Biden's review, we should anticipate internal studies and vigorous debate on several issues, including:
- Whether to change employment guidance and the impact of changes on the size and composition of the force.
- Whether to adjust force size and missile defense activities to take into account China’s rapid buildup of, and quantitative improvements in, its strategic nuclear forces.
- Whether and how to adjust war plans and force posture to address growing concerns about a crisis or armed conventional conflict with a nuclear-armed peer, including the potential for its limited, first use of nuclear weapons to deescalate a conflict.
- Whether to slow down both GBSD and recapitalization of plutonium pit manufacturing infrastructure.
- Whether to reverse the decision to begin a program to field a nuclear-armed SLCM.
- Whether to adopt a declaratory policy of “sole purpose” or “no first use” or both, or some other option.
- Whether prudent and sensible approaches exist for engaging Russia and China in productive nuclear dialog.[vi]
Regarding arms control: Mr. Biden, in his first week in office, agreed with Mr. Putin to extend New START. This was a “no brainer.” Not necessarily for its purported benefits for strategic stability (of which there are some), or for its role advancing U.S. nonproliferation goals (highly arguable), or to assure allies (valuable), or for the transparency it provides into each other’s nuclear weapons programs (highly useful). Rather, extending New START will foster continued bipartisan support for the modernization program. More generally, Mr. Biden will likely exceed Mr. Trump’s efforts in advancing Ellen’s comprehensive strategy so necessary, many believe, to ensure such continued support.
Another indication of Mr. Biden’s approach to nuclear weapons is revealed in his adjusted FY22 budget request that stated an intention to “maintain a strong, credible nuclear deterrent for the security of the nation and U.S. allies.” The details of his request, including funding levels for specific programs, were rolled out in late May. Nuclear modernization programs were fully funded, essentially at the Trump-proposed levels. This, of course, does not preclude possible adjustments to those programs in the next budget cycle once the Biden NPR is completed.
Continued bipartisan support for modernization?
Can continued bipartisan support be assured as the Biden team and the Democrat-controlled Congress ramp up activities on the FY23 and out-year budgets? The Biden NPR is much more likely to “tweak” the modernization program than dismantle major pieces of it. Several factors lead to this conclusion:
- Defense Secretary Austin and his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, have stated strong support for the triad and reiterated words from the past two presidential administrations along the lines that nuclear deterrence is DoD’s highest priority.
- Colin Kahl, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and the senior DoD official stewarding the Biden nuclear review, spoke at the Carnegie Nuke Fest 2021 conference in late June. He articulated a clear vision of the evolving threats posed by Russia and China, calling out their increased reliance on nuclear weapons. Regarding the U.S. deterrent, he noted that “the triad is a tried and true bedrock of our deterrence going back many, many decades and . . . remains as valuable today as it ever has been.”[vii]
- Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the SASC’s chair and ranking member are likely to continue their bipartisan approach to modernization in lockstep.
- Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Sen. Deb Fisher (R-NE), both advocates for modernization, are chair and ranking members of the Strategic Subcommittee of the SASC and are likely to be guided by the Reed-Inhofe approach.
- Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), chair of HASC, has stated a strong commitment to deterrence and expressed a realist view that Congress supports vigorous modernization and that he has more to gain by seeking to shape rather than disrupt it.
- The HASC ranking member, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), is quite knowledgeable about nuclear and space issues, is an apt replacement for Mac Thornberry, and will work effectively with Rep. Smith on modernization.
- Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Mike Turner (R-OH), also advocates for modernization, are chair and ranking members, respectively, on the HASC strategic forces subcommittee,
- Sen. John Tester (D-MT), a backer of GBSD, chairs the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
Even so, we should expect significant debate in Congress on nuclear policy and modernization programs, including in connection with potential Biden NPR issues identified earlier. In the run-up to passage of the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), there were a handful of contentious issues both within the Democrat caucus and between the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.[viii] The FY21 authorization and appropriations bills had fewer differences. In the FY20 and FY21 final bills, passed by both Houses, all issues were resolved, and nearly all associated funding was appropriated consistent with the initial budget requests.
Issues for debate
Several critical nuclear issues may be revisited in the Biden NPR. I turn to four arguments that will be raised by those seeking to change longstanding U.S. policy.
Argument #1: Modernization cost too much.
In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office said it would cost $1.2T, over three decades, to sustain the existing nuclear arsenal deterrent and modernize it. Sustainment is critical because today’s nuclear triad, dual-capable aircraft and NC2 must remain operational until they are replaced. Indeed, even if we were somehow able to cease all modernization, two-third of the $1.2T, about $800B, would be spent anyway to secure, maintain and operate existing forces for the next 30 years. But there is little to no flexibility to absorb further modernization delay without degrading deterrence in future years. As former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter suggested, either we replace aging platforms and systems or remove them from service—there is no other choice.[ix]
Modernization will be attacked as unaffordable and, yes, $1.2T over 30 years is not cheap. That said, the cost argument has not received much traction so far. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have made clear that nuclear forces are America’s #1 national security priority.[x] Moreover, nuclear sustainment and modernization will consume less than 7% of the annual defense budget, declining to 3% as modernization winds down. Given its high priority as expressed by two very different Presidents from two very different administrations and the relatively small fraction of the defense budget consumed, most see modernization as both essential and affordable.
Argument #2: We can delay GBSD.
Some opponents argue to cancel the GBSD program (and not sustain the Minuteman III ICBM) because deterrence can be assured with only the SLBM and bomber legs of the triad. We can get rid of ICBMs, they argue. Others do not necessarily oppose a triad, rather they claim that GBSD can be delayed because alternatives exist to extend the life of Minuteman III.
A triad of forces has been a bedrock of U.S. nuclear policy for over 60 years and twelve presidents. Arguments in support are legion and will not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that Minuteman III life-extension has been studied by competent entities, including some outside the Air Force. They conclude that life-extension would cost at least as much and likely more than GBSD.[xi] The solid rocket motors stages, which in previous Minuteman III life extensions have been washed out and repoured with new propellant, are not sturdy enough for additional processing. New motor stages are needed as well as numerous other modernization upgrades that will, among other things, update command and control capabilities and strengthen physical security by reducing the exposure of nuclear warheads in maintenance and logistics operations. Further studies are not going to change this conclusion. Either we move forward apace with GBSD or plan to get out of the ICBM business.
Today, there is strong support on both sides of the aisle in Congress for GBSD. As an example, only two other senators joined Sen. Markey on his proposed legislation to kill GBSD and have the National Academy of Sciences commission a new study on life-extension alternatives. Nor are those opposing GBSD drawing much support from other quarters. Arguments along the lines of—“because U.S. ICBMs are simply a ‘sponge’ to soak up Russian warheads, existing (age-degraded) Minuteman IIIs can fill that role without having to spend the dollars on GBSD”—are not serious and don’t help their case.
Argument #3: If we delay GBSD, we don’t need 80 pits per year.
During the Cold War, the U.S. produced up to 2000 warhead pits per year.[xii] Today we can hardly produce any. Recapitalizing pit production infrastructure, and increasing production capacity, is essential for the U.S. deterrent. The current plan is to establish 30 pits per year production capacity at Los Alamos by 2026 and, second, to field at a facility in South Carolina, an additional capacity of 50 per year, for a total of no less than 80 per year by the mid-2030s.
Opponents of expanded production capacity pose a reasonable question: Why no less than 80 pits per year? There are three reasons. Today, with a smaller stockpile, known requirements for warhead pit production 10-20 years out can be assessed and used to help size needed facilities. ICBM and SLBM modernization call attention to two warheads—the W87-1 warhead for GBSD and the W93 warhead for the Trident D-5 and its follow-on. Each requires newly manufactured plutonium pits—one can’t get around that. Second, pits in our stockpile are aging, will soon approach their estimated minimum lifetime, and will need to be replaced. Third, known production needs cannot be the sole sizing criteria for pit capacity. Some excess capacity is necessary to hedge unknown contingencies, including unanticipated technical problems (e.g., pits age out faster than we thought) or adverse geopolitical changes (e.g., Russian breakout requiring additional U.S. warheads in response).[xiii] Thus, 80 pits per year is a judgment call and not tied to locked-in requirements. Eighty per year, by the way, accepts considerable risk and is at the lower limit of my comfort level.
Argument #4: The U.S. should adopt a “no first use” policy
President Biden, as presidents before him, has sought a laudable goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. There has been discussion about precisely what that means. At a recent Carnegie Conference, Undersecretary of Defense Kahl cleared that up:
(W)hat that [i.e., reducing the role] means is to narrow the scope of the role of nuclear weapons around those threats that nuclear weapons actually address. Because there are a huge number of threats that nuclear weapons do not address.[xiv]
A reduced role can be achieved with a military-technical approach, advanced in the 2001 NPR under George W. Bush[xv], or via changes in declaratory policy which is the focus here.
Over decades, the United States has weighed the risks and benefits to both its nuclear deterrence posture and non-proliferation policy goals of renouncing first-use of nuclear weapons in conflict.[xvi] Well-meaning supporters are taken with the simplicity of the idea and its potential for bolstering U.S. moral leadership in the world. After all, they argue, the United States has no intention of starting a nuclear war so why not just say so?
On the other hand, in President Obama’s 2010 NPR and, later, near the end of his second term as part of a mini-nuclear review, a “no-first-use” pledge was considered. Both times, Obama, as did the three presidents before him, rejected this policy. The 2018 NPR carried out by the Trump team again reviewed this policy and reaffirmed the earlier decisions.
So why not no-first-use? There are three main risks to adopting such a declaratory policy. The first is deterrence: Absent fear of reprisal, the adversary could be emboldened to act against U.S. interests by pursuing a catastrophic non-nuclear strategic attack. Second, if America adopts no-first-use, allies could lose confidence in America's extended deterrence commitments. Such lost confidence presents a third risk—a risk to nonproliferation. Allies could be spurred to develop their own nuclear weapons. Substantial dialog over the past decade and more with allied governments, both in Europe and Asia, confirms this view.
What are the purported benefits of a U.S. no-first-use policy that could offset these risks?
When Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced their bill endorsing no-first-use, they claimed that such a policy would “[reduce] the risk of a nuclear miscalculation by an adversary in a crisis.”[xvii] If an adversary launches a nuclear weapon because it has misinterpreted America’s actions or intentions, or even if it launches one by accident, the consequences would, of course, be tragic. Such actions must be assiduously avoided with clear crisis communications, transparency, and strong negative control of nuclear weapons. But would a U.S. no-first-use pledge, in itself, help prevent such a launch? Are we to believe, after a spurious detection of a launch in the midst of a crisis, that an adversary will pause and say: “Wait, it can’t be an attack from the U.S. since it promised not to use nukes first?” Not likely.
Would the adoption of no-first-use cause other countries to be more inclined to cooperate with the United States in working toward a strengthened nonproliferation regime and less likely to acquire their own nuclear weapons? No evidence exists to support this contention, and, as noted above, allied perceptions of weakened extended deterrence could actually spur proliferation. Along these lines, in Scott Sagan’s 2009 paper supporting a U.S. no-first-use policy, the only concrete example provided regarding the benefits of the U.S. adopting no-first-use was a negative one.[xviii] Specifically, in 1999, India rejected such a policy, in part arguing that the United States had not done so, so why should India. Sagan claimed, arguably, that this increased the likelihood of nuclear use in a South Asian conflict. But was it the U.S. not setting an example? Or was it that India was not inclined to implement no-first-use in any case and simply used the U.S. position as an excuse? My strong hunch is the latter.
Will adopting no-first-use silence criticism from non-aligned movement officials who arrive in New York every five years for the NPT Review Conference and berate the United States for not having disarmed unilaterally? Not likely. Many see no-first-use as an element of nuclear deterrence, that is, supporting a continuing role for nuclear weapons in the world, contrary to what they seek, which is nuclear elimination. The enormous progress made in the decades leading up to the end of the Cold War and beyond in ending the nuclear arms race, reducing nuclear stockpiles, and eliminating other global nuclear threats has done little to mute such rhetoric. Moreover, a U.S. no-first-use policy could have the opposite effect, further inciting non-aligned who support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.[xix]
One benefit of no-first-use is as a "starter kit" for those who want to get rid of U.S. ICBMs. The late Bruce Blair viewed no-first-use as means to delegitimize nuclear weapons in general and, more specifically, as a first step to removing from alert and eventually eliminating the ICBM force.[xx] This claim misstates the role of U.S. ICBMs and the obligations that America would be under as part of a no-first-use pledge. After all, if ICBMs are not survivable unless used first, and if America adopts no-first-use, then why does the United States need them at all, much less on alert? Moreover, such arguments are unlikely to sway any president who views a nuclear Triad as an essential element of U.S. security for managing risk in a still dangerous world.
To those who see no-first-use as a way to signal to the world a reduced role for nuclear weapons in U.S. national security, leading potentially to a lower likelihood of any nuclear use either by accident or intent, we must pose the following question. Would no-first-use actually reduce that risk, or is it simply meant to make some of us feel good about ourselves that the U.S. is making the world a safer place in some abstract but not demonstrable way? To date, the concrete security benefits that could offset the risks of no-first-use are not understood and thus not quantifiable, and so far have not tipped the scales to adoption. Before it can, proponents of no-first-use must at a minimum address the following questions:
- Has the U.S. adjusted its nuclear posture in regard to China by one iota in light of China’s existing no-first-use pledge? If not, why not?
- What has changed for the better in the international security environment since 2010 that would cause this President, or this Congress, to change course on no-first-use?
In summary, if the United States were to adopt a policy of no-first-use, it would present clear risks for deterrence, for regional security more broadly, and to the non-proliferation regime, while the supposed benefits of such a policy that could offset such risks are largely illusory. It is thus not a surprise that presidents across party lines have rejected no-first-use since the dawn of the nuclear age. The United States should continue to do so.
If not no-first-use, then what?
Is there any adjustment to U.S. declaratory policy other than no-first-use or “sole purpose,” a closely related but not identical concept that would make sense for the Biden team to consider in its NPR? In a recent paper, Perkovich and Vaddi, while also rejecting no-first-use and sole purpose as undesirable, offered an alternative they call “existential threat policy.”[xxi] They propose that the United States adopt the following statement as part of declaratory policy:
The United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons “only when no viable alternative exists to stop an existential attack against the United States, its allies, or partners.”
This policy would seem not to rule out a nuclear response to catastrophic non-nuclear attacks, which makes sense, but the formulation raises several questions. What does it mean "to stop an existential attack?" Is it the ability to shoot down incoming warheads from a massive Russian strike on the United States or to blunt such an attack via preemption before it can be launched? In this light, "respond to" is perhaps a better choice of words than “stop.” More importantly, their formulation would preclude a U.S. nuclear response to limited nuclear first use by an adversary unless that first use constituted an “existential” threat. An alternative formulation could mitigate some of these concerns. For example:
The United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons only when no viable alternative exists to respond to limited nuclear first use by an adversary or to an attack that poses an existential threat to the United States, its allies, or partners.
Alternative formulations will depend on what precisely is meant by an existential threat. The authors cite examples: a nuclear attack on population, a massive, effective biological weapons attack, or possibly even a cyberattack that killed as many as the COVID-19 pandemic. A non-nuclear attack on the NC2 system seeking “to render the U.S. nuclear deterrent blind, deaf and dumb could be an existential threat” but would depend on an attacker’s intention and capability to follow up such an attack, for example, with a disarming nuclear strike. The authors suggest that a cyberattack on the electrical grid that did not cause death and destruction comparable to a nuclear attack or a conventional attack on national leadership might not cross the "existential threat" threshold. However, what is clear from the discussion is that the policy applies to threats that fall below what some would characterize as “existential,” that is, calling into question the continued existence of the state under attack as a viable entity. In any further consideration of such a policy, the Biden team would benefit from answers to the following questions:
- Would limited nuclear first use in a regional conflict involving the U.S. and one or more allies be necessarily seen as an existential threat to the ally experiencing the attack?
- Would detonation of one or two enemy warheads on U.S. territory be seen as "not existential" and therefore as not crossing the threshold for a potential nuclear response?
- Or, in light of its potential to escalate to a cataclysmic exchange, could any “limited use” by a major nuclear power be reasonably cast as an “existential” threat?
Arms Control is a critical piece of Ellen’s comprehensive strategy. In this light, the U.S. should renew efforts to engage Russia to reduce the large disparity in non-strategic nuclear weapons, rein in certain of Russia’s exotic modernization programs not covered by New START, and advance a more productive dialog on strategic stability.[xxii] As Mr. Obama learned, this may turn out to be another dead end with Russia. Still, such efforts, even if unrealized, demonstrate good faith and thus can strengthen bipartisan support for our overall nuclear posture.
It is unclear what is to be achieved by pressing China to join an arms control dialog with the U.S. and Russia as proposed in the previous administration. The U.S. interest is to discourage a Chinese nuclear buildup—a so-called “sprint to parity.” It is simply incredible that by engaging China in tri-lateral arms control dialog, the United States could somehow "lock-in" the current disparity in forces. Much more likely, China would press for equal limits on forces, which of course, would be opposed by the United States. The end result—likely deadlock—in itself could incentivize China’s sprint that may already be underway according to recent news reports.[xxiii] It makes much more sense to advance a dialog with China on strategic stability, transparency, and qualitative arms control rather than focusing on forces' numerical limits.
Reviews of U.S. nuclear strategy, posture and policies carried out since the end of the Cold War, and even before, have reflected much more continuity than change. President Biden's review may be expected to follow in that mold. At the same time, there will be debate on a few key issues and it is important that previous deliberations fully inform that debate on these same issues. If we are to change policies, there must be a strong and well-documented rationale for doing so.
Keeping U.S. nuclear modernization on track for the two decades that modernization will play out will remain a key technical and political challenge for the Biden team. There is no flexibility for further delay in replacing aging systems without affecting robust deterrence in future years. If successful, the U.S. nuclear arsenal in 2030 and beyond will not look much different from today's—there will be a Triad, but a modern one with life-extended warheads and enhanced NC2. In taking such steps, and with strong bipartisan support, the American people can be assured that U.S. nuclear forces will continue to meet future deterrence needs against any potential adversary.
As an appointee in the Department of Defense under two Presidents (Clinton and Obama), and as one who served in the National Nuclear Security Administration in George W. Bush’s administration, Dr. Harvey helped to develop policy and oversee nuclear weapons acquisition programs related to all four NPRs completed since the Cold War's end. He would like to thank Frank Miller for commenting on an earlier draft of this article.
[i] Rep. Ellen Tauscher, “Constructing a 21st Century Nuclear Posture”, Remarks at the Center for American Progress, 17 November 2008.
[ii] “Joint Nuclear Operations,” Joint Staff Publication 3-72, U.S. Department of Defense, 27 April 2020.
[iii] John R. Harvey, Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: The Road to 2030 and Beyond, in Fit for Purpose?—The U.S. Strategic Posture in 2030 and Beyond, Brad Roberts, Editor, Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2020.
[iv] See for example, Jill Hruby, Russia’s New Nuclear Weapon Delivery Systems—An Open-Source Technical Review, Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2019.
[v] For another perspective on the Biden NPR, see: Brad Roberts, Orienting the 2021 Nuclear Posture Review, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2021.
[vi] Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of House Armed Services, has proposed other areas for review by the Biden NPR. See letter to President Biden from Rep. Smith, 9 August 2021.
[vii] Remarks by Colin Kahl, Nuke Fest 2021 Conference, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 June 2021.
[viii] Issues included whether to slow down GBSD by cutting its funding, whether to cut funding for two NNSA programs—warhead pit production and the W87-1 LEP—that support GBSD, whether to field a low-yield warhead for Trident, whether to proceed on a study for a new nuclear SLCM, whether to adopt a “no first use” policy, and whether to retire the B83 bomb.
[ix] See remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at Minot AFB, 16 September 2016.
[x] Senior officials on the Biden team have made similar statements.
[xi] Gen. Ray, Global Strike Command commander, stated that it would cost an additional $38B to extend Minuteman III to 2075. Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, 12 May 2021.
[xii] A nuclear warhead’s pit contains the fissile material—generally plutonium—that produces the explosion.
[xiii] Work carried out in the early 2000s culminated in a 2006 assessment of minimum pit lifetime to be in the 80-100 year range for what were then seen to be the most important pit failure mechanisms. At that time, a comprehensive work program was recommended to nail down additional uncertainties from other potential failure modes. A recent study by an NNSA advisory board concluded that this work program has not yet reached fruition.
[xiv] Remarks by Colin Kahl, NukeFest 2021 Conference, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 June 2021.
[xv] See Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s cover letter to the 2001 NPR. Reducing the nuclear role could be achieved by providing a capability for precision global conventional strike—the ability to deliver ordnance to any point on the surface of the earth in 20-30 minutes and which now can be achieved only with nuclear weapons—and strengthened regional and national ballistic missile defenses—which not only help to deter limited nuclear strikes but provide additional time for a President to decide perhaps that a nuclear response to such attacks is unnecessary.
[xvi] For a fulsome discussion of the pros and cons of adopting a no-first-use policy, see: Policy Roundtable: Nuclear First Use and Presidential Authority, Texas National Security Review, 2 July 2019.
[xvii] “Senator Warren, Chairman Smith Unveil Legislation to Establish ‘No-First-Use’ Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Press release, Office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 30 January 2019.
[xviii] Scott D. Sagan, The Case for No First Use, Survival, 51:3, 163-182, 2009.
[xix] Heather Williams, private communication, 8 July 2021.
[xx] James Cartwright and Bruce Blair, “End the First-Use Policy for Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, 14 August 2016.
[xxi] George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi, Toward Just U.S. Nuclear Declaratory Policy, Arms Control Today, March 2021.
[xxiii] “Massive fields of new nuclear missile silos maybe China's answer to rivals with a lot more nukes,” BusinessInsider.com, 31 July 2021.