Obama’s NPR: Transitional, Not Transformational
On April 5, 2009, in
The new NPR narrows the circumstances under which the
Unfortunately, the new
Still, the policies articulated in the unclassified 65-page document do represent a positive shift in
Instead, it correctly posits that, “[b]y working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and moving step-by-step toward eliminating them, we can reverse the growing expectation that we are destined to live in a world with more nuclear-armed states, and decrease incentives for additional countries to hedge against an uncertain future by pursuing nuclear options of their own.”
Obama’s NPR identifies preventing the use of nuclear weapons, preventing nuclear proliferation, and reducing the potential for nuclear terrorism as “our most urgent priorities”—not defending against a large-scale attack from Russia, which, the new NPR notes, is no longer an adversary.
A major and important theme throughout the NPR is that “by reducing the role and numbers of
The document forthrightly states, “It is in the
The new NPR emphasizes that the “fundamental role of
The NPR updates and strengthens
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in an interview broadcast April 11 on CBS’s Face the Nation, “[T]he negative security assurance that we won’t use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, in conformity with or in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty, is not a new thing. The new part of this is saying that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that attacked us with chemical and biological weapons.”
This revised negative security assurance expands the security benefits for non-nuclear-weapon states of good-faith membership in the NPT regime. In addition, it makes it easier for these states to agree to updating and strengthening the treaty, as Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller explained at an April 14 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee: “A number of states party to the nonproliferation treaty have made clear in previous review conferences that the United States posture…makes it more difficult for them to agree to the types of steps that the United States has proposed to strengthen the treaty, steps that would include having the additional protocol applied to all states that have nuclear energy capability.”
Such statements are misleading and counterproductive. The text of the 2010 NPR explains clearly that withholding the negative security assurance from some countries “does not mean that our willingness to use nuclear weapons against countries not covered by the new assurance has in any way increased.”
Unfortunately, the NPR contains some unnecessary qualifications in describing the narrowed role of nuclear weapons, preventing the
This unhelpfully implies, for example, that there are circumstances in which the
Among the “narrow range of contingencies” that presumably prevents the NPR authors from adopting a sole-purpose policy is the possibility of a North Korean attack on
“Deterrence,” as Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command recently noted, “is a combination of capability and credibility.” This should have led the NPR team and Obama to recognize that the enormous destructive effects of today’s nuclear weapons make them an inappropriate and noncredible response to anything but a nuclear attack. The
The NPR unambiguously seeks to shrink the role of nuclear weapons with regard to responding to chemical weapons. During his Face the Nation interview, Gates said, “[T]ry as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.” This moves the
The administration came close to removing biological weapons from the list of threats potentially justifying a nuclear response. Ultimately, however, the NPR hedged by stating, “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”
The message here undermines the political impact of the NPR in two ways. It implies a future retreat from the goal of establishing nuclear deterrence and defense against nuclear attack as the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. Also, it provides encouragement to those who might seek to translate biological weapons capability into political power by inaccurately equating the potential destructiveness of such weapons with that of nuclear weapons.
No “New” Nuclear Weapons
One of the most dramatic turnarounds from President George W. Bush’s 2001 NPR is the Obama NPR’s support of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification and entry into force. Another is prohibiting new nuclear warhead development and forgoing the pursuit of new military missions or new military capabilities for the warheads.
The 2001 NPR sought to provide the president with a broader range of nuclear weapons employment options, reportedly calling for the development of new types of nuclear warheads that reduce collateral damage as well as possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility. The 2001 review specifically cited the need to improve earth-penetrating weapons, designed to threaten hardened and deeply buried targets, such as command and control and weapons storage bunkers. Like its 1994 predecessor, the 2001 NPR endorsed pursuit of a modified version of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. The Bush administration followed its NPR with a proposal for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which was eventually rejected by Congress as an unnecessary and provocative program.
In contrast, the 2010 NPR explicitly states, “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs [LEPs] will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”
Although the NPR does not clearly define what a “new nuclear weapon” is, the policy is the right one from a number of perspectives. There is no technical need for new-design warheads and renewed nuclear testing to maintain the reliability of the existing
The NPR does, however, contain a potential loophole because it could allow for the replacement of certain nuclear components at some point in the future to improve reliability, safety, or surety, if they are based on previously tested designs and are expressly approved by the president. As noted by Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), at the April 14 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the NPR will allow the national nuclear weapons laboratories to “study all options for ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear warheads, and we’ll do so on a case-by-case basis.”
Nonetheless, Obama’s no-new-nuclear-weapons policy is a step forward, and it should be emulated by other nuclear-armed states to further reduce nuclear competition.
The NPR calls for the implementation of “well-funded stockpile management and infrastructure investment plans that can sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal at significantly reduced stockpile levels without nuclear testing or the development of new nuclear warheads.” In February, the Obama administration proposed a fiscal year 2011 budget of just more than $7 billion, 10 percent more than the current year’s level, for NNSA weapons activities.
The NPR should put to rest any lingering concerns about the “aging”
Prior to the release of the NPR, Obama stated on numerous occasions that it would “open the way for further nuclear weapons reductions,” presumably below the ceilings established by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. One of the NPR’s stated goals is to “pursue high-level, bilateral dialogues on strategic stability with both
Coupled with Obama’s April 8 call for continued discussions between
Although the NPR acknowledges that the United States and Russia “each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence,” the NPR unfortunately does not spell out how much further the Obama administration is prepared to reduce the U.S. arsenal. Instead, it calls for a “follow-on analysis of the goals for future arms reductions below the levels expected in New START,” noting that “
Given that the “fundamental role” of U.S. (and Russian) nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others and that China has no more than 300 nuclear weapons, Washington and Moscow could and should reduce their arsenals to 500 or fewer deployed warheads each, so long as other nuclear-armed states do not increase their arsenals.
To make further progress in nuclear disarmament, the
A positive feature is the NPR’s call for the long-overdue retirement of nuclear-equipped, sea-launched cruise missiles (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear [TLAM-N]). The NPR notes that the
On the other hand, the NPR is neutral on whether the
Yet, two successive German governments have made clear that
These weapons clearly can and should be retired because they serve no practical military role in the defense of NATO, are a greater security liability in the age of terrorism, and are an impediment to opening talks with Russia on accounting for and reducing the larger Russian stockpile of tactical nuclear bombs. For the same reasons that the NPR calls for retirement of forward-deployed sea-launched cruise missiles, the Obama administration should urge its NATO partners to support the withdrawal of obsolete tactical nuclear bombs from
Obama’s new nuclear policy narrows the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy and moves the United States and Russia toward a more stable strategic relationship at lower levels of nuclear arms. The policy is framed to support action for the immediate next steps toward a world without nuclear weapons that were outlined by Obama in his
Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association (ACA). Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the ACA, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the ACA’s directors or members.
2. The 2001 NPR reportedly argued that
3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.pdf, p. vi (hereinafter NPR).
8. The 2010 NPR eliminates the so-called Warsaw Pact caveat from the previous
9. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), U.S. Department of Defense, “DOD News Briefing With Secretary Gates, Navy Adm. Mullen, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Chu From the Pentagon,” April 6, 2010, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4599.
12. During the Korean War, when the United States had a massive nuclear advantage over North Korea’s Soviet ally and China had no nuclear weapons, neither President Harry Truman nor President Dwight Eisenhower seriously countenanced such an attack, even when China intervened on the side of North Korea.
16. In Section 3143 of the fiscal year 2003 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress defined a “new nuclear weapon” as one that “contains a pit or canned subassembly” not already in the active or inactive stockpile or in production. A pit is the plutonium component in a warhead’s primary stage, and a canned subassembly is the uranium and lithium-deuteride component in the secondary stage. Together, these parts are known as the warhead’s nuclear explosive package.
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