Obama’s NPR: Transitional, Not Transformational

Daryl G. Kimball and Greg Thielmann

On April 5, 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In pursuit of that objective, he called for “an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”[1] One year later, his administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which fleshes out policies to meet those aspirations.

The new NPR narrows the circumstances under which the United States might use nuclear weapons and formally establishes some commonsense constraints on U.S. nuclear warhead modernization. It does so in ways that should help reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, help curb proliferation, and open the way for further nuclear arms cuts.

Unfortunately, the new U.S. nuclear policy review is not as different from the two previous reviews as it could or should be, particularly with respect to U.S. nuclear weapons declaratory policy and the size and structure of U.S. forces.

Still, the policies articulated in the unclassified 65-page document do represent a positive shift in U.S. nuclear thinking and practice. Unlike earlier post-Cold War reviews in 1994 and 2001,[2] the new NPR finally recognizes that deploying thousands of strategic nuclear weapons organized to perform a wide range of missions, including defending U.S. forces or allies against massive conventional, chemical, and biological attacks, is neither appropriate nor necessary for security and stability in the 21st century.

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.”[3]

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”[4]—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 U.S. nuclear weapons…we can put ourselves in a much better position to persuade our NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the nonproliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”[5]

The document forthrightly states, “It is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever. As President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’”[6]

Declaratory Policy

The new NPR emphasizes that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack” on the United States and its allies and that the goal is to make deterring nuclear attack the “sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”[7] “Sole purpose” is thus identified as a goal rather than a reality of current U.S. nuclear force posture.

The NPR updates and strengthens U.S. pledges of nonuse toward non-nuclear-weapon states that are in good standing with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations, even in the unlikely event that one of those states attacks the United States or its allies with chemical or biological weapons.

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[8] 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.”

However, U.S. officials should be more careful not to imply, as Gates did when he cited Iran and North Korea in an April 6 press conference, that it is any more likely than before that the United States would use nuclear weapons against states not covered by the assurance. Gates said on that occasion, “If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is: If you are going to play by the rules, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that is covered in the NPR.” He added, “But if you are not going to play by the rules, if you are going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table.”[9]

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.”[10]

Unfortunately, the NPR contains some unnecessary qualifications in describing the narrowed role of nuclear weapons, preventing the United States “at the present time” from adopting a policy that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. It says that, in the case of “states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations—there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] attack.”[11]

This unhelpfully implies, for example, that there are circumstances in which the United States would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against an Iran without nuclear weapons. It draws no distinction in its nuclear posture toward Iran, which is still in partial compliance with its NPT obligations, disavowing an intention to develop nuclear weapons and declaring them “un-Islamic,” and North Korea, which has completely withdrawn from the NPT, has detonated nuclear devices, and threatens to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked.

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 South Korea using conventional weapons. Pyongyang’s large standing army deployed close to Seoul has long given it the ability to attack with little warning. Such an attack would start with a massive artillery bombardment of Seoul and an invasion of the South by North Korea’s conventional forces, the first elements of which could be on the outskirts of Seoul very quickly. As a result, any U.S. nuclear counterattack against the invading forces, even with nuclear forces stationed nearby, would come too late to prevent this invasion. Moreover, a nuclear response would result in massive collateral damage, killing millions of civilians, and still would not necessarily end the war. An effective nuclear defense protecting South Korea from a North Korean conventional strike is not possible. Only an adequate conventional defense can do that effectively.[12]Keeping open the option of nuclear first-use against an invading North Korean conventional force complicates the broader goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons everywhere. So long as U.S. doctrine argues that nuclear weapons are needed to counter conventional imbalances, it will be difficult to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the nuclear doctrines of Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, which posit that nuclear weapons are needed to deal with nonnuclear threats. There is no way to get the world on the road to zero nuclear weapons without giving up this doctrine.

“Deterrence,” as Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command recently noted, “is a combination of capability and credibility.”[13] 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 United States should adopt a sole-purpose policy now rather than later. Reserving the option to use nuclear force in nonnuclear situations provides little or no deterrent value at a high cost. It undermines the credibility of conventional deterrence, complicates U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy, and can be used by other countries to justify their pursuit or improvement of nuclear weapons.

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 United States beyond the position expressed by three previous presidents. Yet, even this advance is hobbled by the NPR’s exception concerning the “narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring” an attack by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons.

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.”[14]

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.”[15]

Although the NPR does not clearly define what a “new nuclear weapon” is,[16] 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 U.S. nuclear stockpile, given the success of ongoing U.S. warhead LEPs. The JASON independent technical review panel’s September 2009 report concluded that the “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.”[17] The JASON panel findings underscore the fact that new-design replacement warheads are not needed to maintain reliability for the foreseeable future, and they clearly influenced the outcome of the NPR on this point.

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.”[18] 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” U.S. nuclear arsenal and the quaint but dangerous notion that the United States might need to resume nuclear testing. As Gates wrote in his preface to the NPR, “These investments, and the NPR’s strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation’s deterrent.”[19] Now, with more than enough resources available for stockpile management, the administration should move the Senate to reconsider and approve the CTBT.

Further Reductions?

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 Russia and China, which are aimed at fostering more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships.”[20]

Coupled with Obama’s April 8 call for continued discussions between Moscow and Washington on further reductions involving all warheads, including deployed and nondeployed, strategic and nonstrategic, it is clear the United States wants to pursue deeper and broader bilateral nuclear limits with Russia in the years ahead and move beyond to engage other nuclear states as well.

Although the NPR acknowledges that the United States and Russia “each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence,”[21] 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 “Russia’s nuclear forces will remain a significant factor in determining how much and how fast we are prepared to reduce U.S. forces.” The failure to state a desired range of reductions represents a missed opportunity to challenge other nuclear-weapon states and to demonstrate further the seriousness of U.S. intentions to carry out the obligations of the NPT’s Article VI.

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 United States and Russia must make good on their professed goal of cooperating on regional missile defense and avoiding strategic missile defense deployments that could affect offensive strategic capabilities and hamper progress on nuclear disarmament.

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 United States will retain options for forward deployment of bombers with bombs or cruise missiles, as well as forward deployment of dual-capable fighters, and that U.S. intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles “are capable of striking any potential adversary.” The NPR says, “The deterrence and assurance roles of TLAM-N can be adequately substituted by these other means.”[22]

On the other hand, the NPR is neutral on whether the United States should continue to station the residual arsenal of 200 forward-deployed nuclear gravity bombs at six bases in five European NATO countries. Those weapons are a subject of the ongoing Strategic Concept review by the alliance that is due in November. The NPR repeats the stale NATO refrain that “the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons…contribute[s] to Alliance cohesion and provide[s] reassurance to allies and partners who feel exposed to regional threats.”[23]

Yet, two successive German governments have made clear that Berlin favors the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany. One NATO ally that sometimes expresses concerns about regional threats is Poland, but Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski wrote in February, “We still face security challenges in the Europe of today and tomorrow, but from whichever angle you look, there is no role for the use of nuclear weapons in resolving these challenges.”[24] Maxime Verhagen, foreign minister of the Netherlands, another NATO member hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, suggests there are other means for constructively maintaining alliance cohesion: “A more modest option would be for NATO to retain a nuclear task without U.S. nuclear weapons being stationed in Europe.”[25]

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 Europe.


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 Prague speech one year ago: conclusion of a new strategic arms treaty, accelerated action to secure nuclear weapons-usable material, entry into force of the CTBT, and the strengthening of the NPT.

Obama’s Prague speech aimed for the mountaintop, but the NPR leaves U.S. nuclear policy in the foothills. Cautious rather than bold, the policy has won strong backing from the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and the military, but at a cost. The 2010 NPR ends up being a transitional, rather than transformational, document. In order to realize fully the promise of a world without nuclear weapons, Obama and his team must do more to change outdated Cold War thinking and reduce the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons that are more of a liability than a useful military asset in the 21st century.

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.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradčany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

2. The 2001 NPR reportedly argued that U.S. 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 said that “nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities).” See Philip Bleek, “Nuclear Posture Review Leaks, Outlines Targets, Contingencies,” Arms Control Today, April 2002, www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_04/nprapril02.

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).

4. Ibid., p. v.

5. Ibid., p. vi.

6. Ibid., p. 16.

7. Ibid., p. viii.

8. The 2010 NPR eliminates the so-called Warsaw Pact caveat from the previous U.S. negative security assurance and removes ambiguity about the potential use of nuclear weapons in response to the threat of chemical or biological attack from non-nuclear-weapon states. On February 22, 2002, Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the 1995 version of a U.S. negative security pledge first outlined in 1978. He stated, “The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a state toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.” Boucher subsequently qualified the pledge, saying, “We will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

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.

10. NPR, p. 16.

11. Ibid.

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.

13. Kevin P. Chilton, Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2010.

14. NPR, p. 16.

15. NPR, p. 39.

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.

17. JASON Program Office, “Lifetime Extension Program (LEP) Executive Summary,” JSR-09-334E, September 9, 2009.

18. NPR, p. 46.

19. Ibid., p. i.

20. Ibid., p. 46.

21. Ibid., p. 5.

22. NPR, p. 28.

23. NPR, p. 32.

24. Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, “Next, the Tactical Nukes,” The New York Times, February 1, 2010.

25. “Nederlands initiatief voor kernontwapening,” Nieuwsbericht, February 26, 2010 (translation provided by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry).