“[My time at ACA] prepared me very well for the position that I took following that with the State Department, where I then implemented and helped to implement many of the policies that we tried to promote.”
– Peter Crail
Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
Pentagon to Revise Nuclear Guidance
Share this

Tom Z. Collina

Implementing a key recommendation from the April 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report,” the Obama administration announced in May that it has started the process of revising guidance issued by the Bush administration for nuclear weapons operations and deterrence policy.

In May 4 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said that the review will assess “deterrence requirements, including analyzing potential changes in targeting requirements and force postures.” Miller said the review would inform the administration’s goals for future nuclear reductions below the levels of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). According to senior administration officials, the Pentagon review will provide options to President Barack Obama by late summer or early fall, but final decisions may not be public until the United States reaches agreements with Russia for comparable policy changes.

The Obama administration has been operating under a 2008 guidance document. After Obama’s inauguration, administration officials determined they did not need to revise the Bush guidance in advance of the negotiation of New START, as the treaty’s modest reductions in weapons levels to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles were consistent with existing plans. The 2010 NPR report, however, found that an “updated assessment of deterrent requirements” would be needed for reductions below New START levels.

The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is determined in large part by the missions assigned to U.S. nuclear forces and the number of targets against which they must be aimed. For example, since the 1960s, the primary mission for U.S. strategic weapons has been to attack “counterforce” targets, that is, an adversary’s leadership and nuclear and other military targets, to be able to degrade their ability to inflict further damage through a second or third strike. The operational requirements for a counterforce mission are reflected in current U.S. nuclear policy, which calls for more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, with hundreds kept at high levels of alert, ready to launch upon warning of an enemy attack.

In addition, a “hedging” policy requires the military to keep about 2,000 warheads in reserve, which could be “uploaded” onto deployed delivery systems, to guard against strategic surprises or unforeseeable technical failure. To reduce the U.S. arsenal below New START levels and to change the alert posture, officials say, the core missions assigned to the nuclear arsenal, such as counterforce, may need to change. “To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence,” national security adviser Tom Donilon told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference March 29.

This has already become a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are seeking to limit the Obama administration’s ability to change the current guidance. For example, the House version of the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act would prohibit the president from reducing the hedge force until new weapons production facilities are completed. The bill also would prohibit any shift from counterforce targeting unless the president submits a report to Congress on the proposed changes.

Another reason for revising the nuclear guidance, according to the officials, is that the Obama administration’s NPR set new nuclear policy that is not reflected in existing Pentagon plans. For example, the Bush administration policy was to “use” nuclear weapons to deter an adversary’s use of weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons, an approach that is presumably reflected in the targeting guidance, which is classified. Obama’s NPR narrowed the nuclear mission somewhat to the “fundamental” role of deterring nuclear attack with a limited range of other contingencies, but the Bush-era guidance has not been changed to reflect this new policy.

New Nuclear Options for the President

According to administration officials, as of mid-May, Obama was preparing to send a memo to the Pentagon with his directions for conducting the guidance review. Then, by late summer or early fall, the Pentagon is to submit a set of options for Obama to consider; he could accept them or send them back for further review. Ultimately, Obama will issue a revised presidential policy directive, to be followed by more detailed directives from the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Once we have that review in place, then we’ll be able to actually start a real negotiation with the Russians in terms of providing them with a position,” White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore told Arms Control Today in an April interview.

However, according to the administration officials, any significant changes to U.S. nuclear policy and posture are not likely to be announced before the end of the year because the United States would take such steps only in tandem with Russia. For its part, Russia has been reluctant to discuss future arms reductions until related issues, such as possible U.S.-Russian cooperation on ballistic missile defense in Europe, are resolved. (See ACT, April 2011.) Given upcoming presidential elections in Russia and the United States, significant progress on bilateral nuclear reductions may be unlikely before 2013.

The NPR report noted that due to improved relations, strict numerical parity between the United States and Russia is “no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War.” However, Miller told the Senate, the NPR also said large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and “may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced.” It is therefore important, he said, “that Russia joins us in moving towards lower levels.”

From Triad to Dyad?

According to Miller’s testimony, the Pentagon analysis will look at “possible changes to force posture that would be associated with different types of reductions.” These changes could include, for example, ending counterforce targeting or moving from a nuclear force based on a triad of delivery vehicles—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers—to a dyad that might eliminate nuclear-armed bombers. Under New START, the Pentagon plans to keep only 60 nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers. By comparison, the Pentagon currently plans to keep up to 420 ICBMs and 240 SLBMs.

In the April interview, Samore said that “we’ve reached the level in our forces where further reductions will raise questions about whether we retain the triad or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad. Those are important considerations.”

Another issue to be explored for the next nuclear arms treaty, according to the administration officials, is the possibility of setting one overall limit for strategic, tactical, and nondeployed weapons. Up to now, bilateral arms control treaties have dealt with deployed strategic (long-range) and intermediate-range weapons, but have not covered tactical (short-range) weapons or weapons in storage. “One approach to take,” according to Samore, “which is our inclination at this point, is to have a single ceiling that would include both deployed and nondeployed, strategic and nonstrategic [weapons].”

The review also is expected to consider options for changing the alert posture of nuclear weapons to increase the amount of time the president would have after a nuclear attack to decide on a response. During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama said that the capability for prompt launch “increases the risk of catastrophic accident or miscalculation.” Obama’s NPR report, however, concluded that the current alert posture—U.S. heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a “significant number” of submarines on alert deployed at sea—should not be changed. Reducing alert rates, the report found, “could reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before ‘re-alerting’ was complete.” Samore said, “We’re expecting that options will be presented to the president that will look at the implications of changing the alert status and postures and what impact that would have on force size and structure.”

Others issues expected to be in the review include bilateral monitoring of nuclear warhead storage and dismantlement facilities, which have not been covered by a treaty before; whether the United States should continue counterforce targeting of Russian ICBM silos, which presumably would be empty when a U.S. response arrived if the United States did not launch first; the need to plan for fighting two nuclear wars, with China and Russia, simultaneously; and the potential contributions to deterrence of non-nuclear strategic systems, such as a conventional prompt global-strike capability (see ACT, April 2011).

Proponents of nuclear reductions say that they could be a source of significant budgetary savings, particularly as the Department of Defense prepares to replace or modernize each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Current administration plans call for spending $125 billion over the next 10 years on new strategic ballistic missile submarines and maintaining the Trident D-5 SLBM, a new ICBM to replace the current Minuteman III, new long-range nuclear-capable bombers, and a “long-range standoff” missile to replace the current air-launched cruise missile. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a May 18 press conference that if Obama’s goal of reducing defense spending by $400 billion over the next 12 years is to be achieved, “then I don’t think we can afford to have anything that’s off the table.”

New START Inspections Begin

Meanwhile, under New START, the United States and Russia exchanged initial databases of nuclear weapons inventories and their locations in March, Miller testified. Those databases will be updated every six months, he said.

New START, which entered into force Feb. 5, does not count hundreds of U.S. strategic delivery vehicles that were previously counted under the original START, which was in force from 1994 to 2009. Under New START, the United States is required to show Russia that these formerly nuclear systems, including converted cruise missile-carrying submarines and the B-1B bomber, are now only conventional weapons systems and that a number of ICBM silos and heavy bombers are no longer in use. The U.S. exhibition of the converted B-1B occurred on March 18, Miller said.

Russia exhibited the RS-24 road-mobile ICBM and its associated launcher in March, and the United States exhibited the B-2 bomber in early April, he said. The treaty allows each party to conduct up to 18 on-site inspections each year. The United States completed the first of these inspections in Russia on April 16, and Russia conducted its first inspections in mid-May.