U.S. Nuclear Review Shifts Threat Focus

Tom Z. Collina

Flagging nuclear terrorism and proliferation as the top U.S. national security priorities for the first time, the White House released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) April 6. The congressionally mandated report provides a comprehensive description of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strategy for the next five to 10 years. The 2010 NPR is the third post-Cold War review—the others were in 1994 and 2001—and is the first to be published in an unclassified form.

President Barack Obama, who reportedly played a major role in crafting the final language of the report, said in an April 6 statement that the NPR “recognizes that the greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states.”

In language similar to that of the 2001 NPR, the new one states that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.

The review indicates that global security can be “increasingly defended” by the United States’ “unsurpassed conventional military capabilities and strong missile defenses,” Obama said. The NPR’s reduced emphasis on large-scale nuclear forces as a guarantor of U.S. security allows the United States to take “specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons,” Obama said.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and other senior officials said in briefings that, in response to the risks posed by nuclear proliferation and terrorism, the 2010 NPR emphasizes the central importance of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), initiatives to strengthen and update the treaty, and programs designed to better secure vulnerable nuclear materials.

Updated Assurances

Administration officials highlighted the shift in U.S. nuclear weapons negative security assurances described in the NPR, which states that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This covers the vast majority of states in the world today.

This policy updates earlier versions of U.S. negative security assurances first enunciated in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1995, which had left open the option to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are “in association or alliance with” a nuclear-weapon state—generally understood to be a reference to the Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union.

In his April 6 statement, Obama said the United States was updating its negative security assurance policy to emphasize “the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

In an April 14 article, CQ Today Online News quoted several Republicans questioning the new policy. According to the article, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Republican Conference, said, “I prefer the ambiguity of our [previous] nuclear policy,” under which the United States would not specifically rule out the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in any scenario, including the use of chemical or biological weapons.

However, Gates said at the April 6 Pentagon press conference that “[i]f any state eligible for this assurance were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners, it would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response.” The NPR notes that the United States also reserves the right to adjust its policy if the threat from biological weapons grows.

For recognized nuclear powers, such as Russia and China, and states not compliant with the NPT and other nonproliferation obligations, such as Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Syria, the new NPR makes clear that the United States will reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first or in response to an attack even if that attack does not involve nuclear weapons. The NPR notes, however, that the United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” As Gates put it in his April 6 remarks, nuclear weapons are “obviously a weapon of last resort.”

For these states, the NPR foresees “a narrow range of contingencies” in which the United States might still use nuclear weapons to deter an attack with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons.

In contrast, the 2001 NPR reportedly said that 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.”

Although the new NPR states that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to “deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” other roles remain. This falls short of the policy declaration that some experts were advocating, that the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. The NPR says that the United States will continue to strengthen its conventional capabilities “with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or its allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Obama and other administration officials highlighted another shift in policy spelled out in the 2010 NPR. Obama said the United States is “fulfilling our responsibilities as a nuclear power committed to the NPT” by not conducting nuclear testing and by seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

No New Nuclear Weapons

Obama said “the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons.” Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright stated in an April 6 press briefing at the Pentagon, “[N]o new testing, no new warheads…no new missions or capabilities.”

The “no new nuclear weapons” policy in the 2010 NPR is a significant change from the 2001 NPR, which emphasized the need for new types of “[nuclear] warheads that reduce collateral damage” as well as “possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility.” The earlier 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. (See ACT, April 2002.)

One of the central questions going into the Obama NPR was how far down the road to new nuclear warheads the Obama administration would go to maintain the nuclear stockpile and how the administration would define “new” in this context. (See ACT, April 2010.) The NPR says that the United States will extend the life of warheads currently in the nuclear arsenal as an alternative to the development of new nuclear warheads, “which we reject.” The NPR lays out several principles that will guide this effort. For example, Life Extension Programs (LEPs) for U.S. weapons “will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

In the document, the administration pledges that, “[i]n any decision to proceed to engineering development for warhead LEPs, the Administration will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. Replacement of nuclear components would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”

These principles suggest that the door to new warheads is well guarded but not completely closed. Senior White House Coordinator for WMD Counterterrorism and Arms Control Gary Samore told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 21 that a new nuclear weapon is one “based on a design that’s not previously tested,” referring to the “physics package,” or the nuclear components. Using the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program canceled by Congress as an example, Samore said that “some of the RRW warheads were based on designs that were not previously tested, that would be a new nuclear weapon.”

“Replacement,” Samore said, “would be to make a weapon with a physics package that had been previously tested but is not currently deployed.…I think refurbishment and reuse will be perfectly fine for the foreseeable future. But if I’m wrong and replacement becomes necessary, the president has the option to do that.”

Cartwright, in his April 6 comments, said, “I think we have more than enough capacity and capability for any threat that we see today or might emerge in the foreseeable future.”

The NPR sets the stage for additional reductions in U.S. nuclear forces beyond the force levels outlined in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), but it does not specify how much further the United States will reduce its nuclear stockpile. According to the NPR, the U.S. nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable heavy bombers will be maintained under New START, although the ICBMs eventually will carry only one warhead each. Trident submarines will likely be reduced from 14 to 12, and the bomber force will likely be cut, according to the NPR. The only specific system that the NPR says will be retired is the nuclear-tipped, submarine-launched cruise missile known as TLAM-N. The NPR notes that the future of the remaining forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in five NATO countries in Europe will be decided through the alliance’s Strategic Concept process, due to be completed at year’s end.

Future Cuts Envisioned

The NPR states that the United States will pursue post-New START arms control with Russia that addresses not only strategic weapons, but also nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons. The document also pledges the United States will pursue high-level bilateral dialogues with Russia and China aimed at promoting “more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships.”

The NPR calls for a presidentially directed review of post-New START arms control objectives and the launching of a national research and development program to support progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons, including work on verification technologies. According to the NPR, future efforts should “set a course for the verified elimination of all nuclear weapons” while minimizing the risk of cheating and breakout by focusing verification efforts on nuclear warheads rather than delivery vehicles.

The implementation of the Department of Energy’s Stockpile Stewardship Program and the modernization of the nuclear infrastructure will allow the United States to “shift away” from keeping thousands of nondeployed warheads as a “hedge” against geopolitical surprise, the NPR says. The policy of maintaining substantial warhead reserves while reducing the deployed arsenal was established by the 1994 NPR.

Principal Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said April 6 at the Pentagon that reducing the hedge force will depend “on our success in getting congressional approval for infrastructure investments” so that the United States can move from relying on spare warheads to the ability to build new ones if needed.

On nuclear weapons alert status, the NPR found that the current posture of U.S. nuclear forces—bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and “a significant number” of SLBMs at sea—should be “maintained for the present.” However, it said that efforts should continue to reduce the possibility of accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize presidential decision time by continuing “open-ocean targeting” (targeting nuclear missiles at the open ocean in peacetime), strengthening command and control, and exploring new ICBM basing modes that “enhance survivability” and reduce “incentives for prompt launch.”

The NPR concludes that “a nuclear force of thousands of weapons has little relevance” to preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation and that “more can and must be done” to reduce these forces.

Table 1: Nuclear Posture Reviews, Then and Now

The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is the third since the end of the Cold War. It differs from its predecessors in several key areas.


Obama, 2010

Bush, 2001

Clinton, 1994

Missions for nuclear weapons

"Fundamental" role is to deter nuclear attack; also to deter chemical, biological attack

Deter weapons of mass destruction and conventional forces; "all options on the table"

Deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies as well as deter and respond to chemical and biological threats

Negative security assurances

United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with NPT

Maintains the possibility that U.S. nuclear forces may be used to counter threats from non-nuclear-weapon adversaries

Maintains the possibility that U.S. nuclear forces may be used to counter threats from non-nuclear-weapon adversaries

Arms reductions

New START, 1,550 strategic deployed warheads; calls for future reductions to include nondeployed and tactical weapons

SORT, 2,200 strategic deployed warheads; rejected verifiable, binding arms control; rejected ABM Treaty

START II, 3,500 strategic warheads; creation of "hedge" force, warheads removed from delivery platforms would be kept in storage; calls for further reductions

New weapons and testing

Ratify CTBT, no nuclear testing, no new weapons development, no new missions for nuclear weapons

Called for new-design weapons and new missions (bunker busters); rejected CTBT

No nuclear testing, no new-design nuclear warhead production

ABM: Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
CTBT: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
NPT: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
SORT: Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty
START: Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty