"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Change U.S. Nuclear Policy? Yes, We Can.

Daryl G. Kimball

As the administration of President Barack Obama works to complete the congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by early 2010, it is clear to most that yesterday’s nuclear doctrines are no longer appropriate for today’s realities.

In an April address in Prague, Obama made clear that he wants “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged that “we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

The forces of nuclear policy inertia are, however, difficult to overcome. Even after two post-Cold War NPRs, the United States retains thousands of nuclear warheads to deter a Russian nuclear attack, defend U.S. forces or allies against conventional attack, and counter chemical and biological threats.

Once again, entrenched interests inside the Pentagon and elsewhere threaten to undermine long-overdue, transformational changes in U.S. nuclear policy. The White House must now step in to ensure the review advances today’s highest security priorities: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists or additional states and moving toward a world without nuclear weapons.

To start, Obama should clarify that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal dedicated to performing a wide range of missions is unnecessary and contrary to U.S. security interests. Instead, the president should direct the NPR to reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons to 1,000 or fewer and restrict their role solely to deterring nuclear attack by others.

Given the United States’ conventional military edge, no plausible circumstance requires or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. They are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism.

Gen. Colin Powell put it well in his 1995 autobiography: “No matter how small these nuclear payloads were, we would be crossing a threshold. Using nukes at this point would mark one of the most significant political decisions since Hiroshima.”

As an eminent National Academy of Sciences panel concluded more than a decade ago, “[T]he only remaining, defensible function of U.S. nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era is ‘core deterrence’: using the threat of retaliation to deter other countries that possess nuclear weapons from using them to attack or coerce the United States or its allies.”

Without significant reductions in the role and number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and without U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the United States’ ability to harness the international support necessary to prevent nuclear terrorism and strengthen the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be greatly diminished.

A core deterrence approach would also reinforce existing U.S. negative security assurances vis-à-vis non-nuclear-weapon states and support our positive security assurances to allies in the event of nuclear attack on them, which would further strengthen support for the NPT.

Some suggest that deep U.S. nuclear weapons reductions would lead certain U.S. allies, namely Japan and Turkey, to consider building their own nuclear arsenals. Such assertions exaggerate the role of “extended nuclear deterrence,” underestimate the role of U.S. conventional forces, and ignore the risks and costs of going nuclear. According to a May 2009 NPT working paper, Turkey, which hosts a handful of U.S. tactical nuclear bombs, officially supports “the inclusion of all non-strategic nuclear weapons” in the disarmament process “with a view to their reduction and elimination.”

A core deterrence approach would be consistent with current U.S. policy not to design or test new-design warheads, yet would allow the United States to maintain its existing arsenal in a safe, secure, and reliable fashion. Contrary to the suggestions of some, the United States is not on the brink of losing that capability and has never depended on a program of nuclear test explosions to check for stockpile reliability.

In fact, the nuclear weapons laboratories have more information on and higher confidence in the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal than ever before. Since the United States halted nuclear test explosions in 1992, new tools and programs have enabled the nuclear labs to discover and fix stockpile issues without test blasts. Independent experts confirm that a conservative program of warhead refurbishment that minimizes alterations can maintain the U.S. stockpile with high confidence into the indefinite future.

Rather than reverse his January 2009 pledge to “stop the development of new nuclear warheads,” as some NPR participants are advocating, Obama should make it clear in the NPR and elsewhere that the United States will not develop or produce new-design warheads or modified warheads for the purpose of creating new military capabilities.

Unless the United States reduces its reliance and emphasis on nuclear weapons, other states will have a cynical excuse to pursue or to improve the capabilities and size of their nuclear forces. As Obama himself noted in July, “A balance of terror cannot hold. In the 21st century a strong and global regime is the only basis for security from the world’s deadliest weapons.”