Nuclear Posture Review Released, Stresses Flexible Force Planning

Philipp C. Bleek

A Bush administration review of nuclear weapons policy wrapped up in early January, emphasizing flexibility in the U.S. force posture but providing few details on the implementation of planned reductions in the deployed U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal.

Administration representatives briefed Congress January 8 on the results of the classified nuclear posture review, and J. D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, publicly laid out some elements of the review in a January 9 press briefing. Mandated by the fiscal year 2001 defense authorization act, the Bush administration’s review is the first such analysis conducted since 1994.

Crouch said that the review’s findings were based on two key assumptions about the current global security environment. First, the United States has a more positive relationship with Russia, and the Bush administration hopes to end “the relationship with Russia that is based on mutual assured destruction,” which Crouch termed “inappropriate.” Second, Crouch said that future threats to the United States were uncertain, consisting of “multiple…potential sources of conflict.”

Crouch indicated that, because of these changes, the administration planned to move away from a “threat based” approach, which sized U.S. nuclear forces in relation to the Soviet and Russian arsenals, and toward a “capability based” approach that would provide the broadest possible range of options for responding to a variety of security challenges.

Under this new approach, Crouch indicated the administration hoped to shift emphasis away from offensive nuclear forces and augment the U.S. strategic posture with enhanced conventional capabilities and missile defenses, an arrangement he termed a “new triad.”

According to Crouch, the United States will maintain its current nuclear force structure but will substantially reduce the number of operationally deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, as President George W. Bush had announced November 13. (See ACT, December 2001.) Crouch said that deployed strategic forces would be reduced to 3,800 warheads by fiscal year 2007, at which time the administration would assess how to implement the remaining reductions.

The planned reductions will also be subject to periodic reassessment, and the administration “may decide” that reductions should be halted, that deployed forces must be increased, or that they can be reduced further or faster than currently planned, Crouch indicated. Such shifts would be driven by changes in the security environment or by changes in the U.S. ability to field “new elements of the triad.”

Crouch also indicated that the key weapons systems—ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and bombers—that constitute the current U.S. strategic nuclear force would be maintained through “2020 and beyond,” although he did note that potential “follow-on systems” would be studied. The briefing made no reference to tactical nuclear weapons, of which the United States currently deploys several hundred and stockpiles in operational condition more than 1,000.

Crouch indicated that some of the warheads removed from service as part of the administration’s reductions would be destroyed. But he said that the administration also plans to allocate some of the warheads to a “responsive force” of operationally maintained warheads that could be used to augment deployed nuclear forces within weeks, months, or years should the need arise. Crouch indicated that there had been “no final decisions” on how many weapons would be stockpiled.

The United States currently stockpiles an estimated 2,500 warheads in operational condition in an “active reserve” and another 2,500, whose limited-life components, such as batteries, have been removed, in an “inactive reserve.” Crouch said that the new “responsive force” would be part of, but distinct from, the active reserve, although he did not specify how the two would differ.

It remains unclear whether the missiles and bombs that carry the warheads will also be stockpiled. Crouch did not broach the issue during his briefing, and Pentagon officials declined to provide clarification.

Crouch also indicated that a “responsive infrastructure,” which would allow new nuclear weapons to be developed “in much shorter time frames,” would be established to “augment” deployed forces. At the same time, Crouch emphasized that, “at this point, there are no recommendations in the report about developing new nuclear weapons.” Crouch subsequently qualified that statement, saying, “We are trying to look at a number of initiatives,” including modifying existing nuclear weapons to give them “greater capability against…hard targets and deeply buried targets.”

The administration’s decision to pursue deep reductions in operationally deployed strategic forces while maintaining substantial reserves mirrors the “lead and hedge” policy established by the 1994 nuclear posture review. The Bush administration’s target of 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic warheads is also similar to the START III target of 2,000-2,500 Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to in 1997.

But the START III framework had also aimed to make further cuts to the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals irreversible by requiring the destruction of warheads. The Bush administration’s decision to maintain warheads, and possibly their delivery vehicles, for the foreseeable future represents a significant break with that goal.

Russia objected to the nuclear posture review’s call for maintaining downloaded warheads, issuing a formal statement January 9 only hours after the briefing that repeated its longstanding position that reductions should be deep, verifiable, irreversible, and should not take place solely “on paper.”

Russia has said that it will reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,500-2,200 deployed warheads, and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton is reportedly scheduled to meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov January 26 in Washington to begin discussions on formalizing each side’s reductions. (See U.S., Russia to Discuss Strategic Reductions.)

But Crouch reiterated the administration’s reluctance to negotiate an agreement with Moscow that would limit its ability to redeploy forces, saying “We are trying to achieve these reductions without having to wait for Cold War arms control treaties.”

The briefing also provided a few details on how the administration intends to implement its planned strategic reductions. According to the Pentagon, by 2004 the administration intends to retire the Peacekeeper missile, retire four Trident missile submarines from their nuclear role, and eliminate the B-1B bomber’s nuclear capability.

However, the decisions on the Peacekeeper and the Tridents had been made previously, and these moves will account for only a fraction of the thousands of warheads the United States will have to download to meet its 1,700-2,200 goal. The retirement of 50 10-warhead Peacekeeper missiles was announced last summer, although 2004 is one year ahead of the previously announced deadline. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) While the decision to remove four of the current 18 Trident submarines from deployment was made by the 1994 posture review, the Bush administration has indicated it will convert them to serve as conventional cruise-missile platforms. And although the B1-B bomber is currently only deployed with conventional weapons, Crouch said the administration will be “taking away” the current requirement that the bomber be able to return to a nuclear role within six months. (See ACT, December 2001.)

Crouch indicated that “additional operationally deployed warheads” would be removed from “existing ICBMs and SLBMs” to meet the fiscal year 2007 target of 3,800 deployed strategic warheads. Decisions on how to proceed to lower levels have apparently not been made yet and, according to Crouch, will depend in part on the strategic environment and the ability to deploy other elements of the administration’s strategic plan, notably missile defenses and enhanced conventional capabilities.