Nuclear Posture Review Leaks; Outlines Targets, Contingencies

Philipp C. Bleek

A leaked version of the Bush administration’s classified nuclear posture review lists seven countries against which the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons and outlines a broad range of circumstances under which it could do so. The document also calls for a large-scale revitalization of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure and discusses the development of new or modified nuclear weapons.

Mandated by Congress to clarify U.S. “nuclear deterrence policy and strategy…for the next 5 to 10 years,” the nuclear posture review, produced by the Defense Department in consultation with the Energy Department, was publicly summarized at a January 9 Pentagon briefing. (See ACT, January/February 2002.) The review remains classified but was obtained by The Los Angeles Times, which first reported on it March 9, and The New York Times. Substantial excerpts of the review were subsequently posted on the Web site of, a policy organization.

The review states that “greater flexibility” in nuclear forces and planning is needed to maintain a “credible deterrent” against adversaries “whose values and calculations of risk and of gain and loss may be very different from and more difficult to discern than those of past adversaries.”

Despite press reports characterizing the Bush review as a break with past policy on nuclear weapons use, former Clinton administration officials said in March interviews that the review appears to represent only a modest shift in emphasis compared with the previous posture review, conducted in 1994.

Secretary of State Colin Powell rebutted criticism that the Bush review had lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in March 12 testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, saying, “There is no way to read that document and come to the conclusion that the United States will be more likely or will more quickly go to the use of nuclear weapons.”

Discussing “requirements for nuclear strike capabilities,” the report lists Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria as “among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies.” Two former Clinton officials indicated that, although the 1994 nuclear posture review addressed the problem of “rogue states,” it concluded that the threat they posed did not warrant significant changes in U.S. nuclear forces or policies.

The Bush review also indicates that the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, citing “the combination of China’s still developing strategic objectives and its ongoing modernization of its nuclear and non-nuclear forces.”

Finally, although the review repeats Bush administration assertions that Russia is no longer an enemy, it says the United States must be prepared for nuclear contingencies with Russia and notes that, if “U.S. relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the U.S. may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture.” Ultimately, the review concludes that nuclear conflict with Russia is “plausible” but “not expected.”

The nuclear posture set forth by the 1994 review was based on Russia’s large nuclear arsenal. But despite Bush administration statements that a threat from Moscow is no longer driving U.S. strategy, Russia still appears to be the key driver of U.S. nuclear forces and policies, as demonstrated by the administration’s decision to maintain a large strategic arsenal and substantial reserve forces.

President George W. Bush has said that the United States will reduce its operationally deployed forces to 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads within 10 years. A Defense Department official indicated in early March that the administration has decided that by 2012 the United States should deploy the upper limit of that range and maintain an additional 2,400 reserve strategic warheads in operational condition, all of which could be deployed within three years. The administration also intends to stockpile additional strategic warheads in nonoperational condition.

The policy of maintaining substantial warhead reserves while reducing the deployed arsenal was established by the 1994 review.

The new review says nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force.” The review also says “nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities).” Three specific “nuclear strike” contingencies the review discusses are “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation [with China] over the status of Taiwan.”

An official involved with the 1994 review indicated that the inclusion of such contingencies in the review is not novel, saying the 1994 review specifically discussed nuclear contingency plans involving North Korea and also China as a result of a crisis over Taiwan. But the official also speculated that the administration appeared to be seeking to “enhance deterrence” by adopting a less veiled retaliatory stance toward possible attacks by non-nuclear-weapon states.

President Bush buttressed that argument when he said March 23, “The reason one has a nuclear arsenal is to serve as a deterrence…. We’ve got all options on the table because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends.”

But using nuclear weapons against any of the five “rogue states” identified in the review would violate a longstanding U.S. pledge, termed “negative security assurances,” not to use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess such weapons and are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A senior official called the administration’s adherence to that policy into doubt last month, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher subsequently reiterated the policy in a February 22 briefing. (See ACT, March 2002.)

However, consistent with statements by officials from previous administrations, Boucher qualified the pledge, saying that, if a weapon of mass destruction—typically defined as a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon—were used against the United States, “We will not rule out any specific type of military response.” Still, a pre-emptive nuclear attack against any of the five states, all of which are members of the NPT, would violate the declaration.

But appearing to broaden the range of scenarios in which the administration might contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a March 10 television interview that the posture review “preserves for the president all the options that a president would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, biological, chemical, or for that matter high explosives.” Pentagon officials declined to comment on whether Myers’ categorization of conventional explosives as weapons of mass destruction represented a policy shift.

Consistent with its recommendation to give the president a broader range of options, the posture review suggests 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 review also specifically cites the need to improve “earth-penetrating weapons,” designed to threaten hard and deeply buried targets, such as command-and-control and weapons storage bunkers.

An existing weapon designed to threaten such targets, the air-dropped B61-11 bomb, is described in the review has having only a “very limited ground-penetration capability.” That weapon was developed as a result of a similar call for new capabilities in the 1994 review and was deployed in late 1996. (See ACT, March 1997.)

Asked at the January 9 briefing on the posture review if the Bush administration planned to develop new nuclear weapons, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy J. D. Crouch said, “At this point, there are no recommendations in the report about developing new nuclear weapons.” But 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.” (See Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons.)

The review highlights the need to establish a “responsive defense infrastructure.” The ability to “upgrade existing weapons systems, surge production of weapons, or develop and field entirely new systems…can discourage other countries from competing militarily with the United States,” the review says. Suggesting a need for new weapons systems, the review states that “it is unlikely that a reduced version of the Cold War nuclear arsenal will be precisely the nuclear force that the United States will require in 2012 and beyond.”

Highlighting past “underinvestment in the infrastructure,” the review calls for “a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will…be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements” as well as “maintain readiness to resume underground nuclear testing if required.” The review says the administration is already restoring the ability to produce nuclear weapon components, including both primary plutonium “pits” and thermonuclear secondaries.

The review also details plans for the long-term maintenance and modernization of U.S. delivery vehicles, citing the need for a new ICBM by 2018, a new ballistic missile submarine and submarine-launched ballistic missile by 2029, and new strategic bombers by 2040. According to the review, possible new systems to meet these needs are already under study.

The leaks generated little reaction from key U.S. allies but strong critiques from nations listed as potential targets by the review. “There is a feeling that the document was written during the Cold War,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said March 13. “We think this does not agree with the spirit of our relations”

But after talks with senior U.S. officials, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said March 15 that Washington’s explanations “satisfy us,” the Associated Press reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said March 11, “Like many other countries, China is deeply shocked by this report” and called on the United States to explain its policies, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key centrist figure in Iranian politics, accused the United States of intimidation, saying, “America thinks that if a military threat looms large over the heads of these seven countries, they will give up their logical demands,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency carried a March 13 statement from a foreign ministry spokesman saying, “Now that nuclear lunatics are in office in the White House, we are compelled to examine all agreements with the U.S.,” an apparent reference to the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea committed to dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

In the United States, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) voiced support for the policies in a March 10 television appearance, saying they would cause “renegade nations” such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea to “think twice about the willingness of the United States to take action to defend our people and our values and our allies.” Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, said March 12 that the report represented a “profound shift…in our thinking about arms control” and suggested that it might expand the potential uses of nuclear weapons.