The Trump Administration’s ‘Wrong Track’ Nuclear Policies

March 2018
By Lynn Rusten

Public opinion pollsters often ask, “Is America moving in the right direction, or is it on the wrong track?” When it comes to nuclear policy, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) decidedly puts the country on the wrong track in that it fails to lower the risk that nuclear weapons will be used, to increase strategic stability, to reduce the chances of miscalculation, and to ensure our national security at reasonable cost.

Further, it puts the country on the wrong track to maintain U.S. global leadership on nonproliferation and arms control. It also puts the United States on the wrong track by discounting the role of diplomatic and nonmilitary tools in countering nuclear threats and potential adversaries.

Increasing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

Four successive Republican and Democratic administrations since the end of the Cold War had sought to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. This NPR makes a dangerous and unjustified U-turn by expanding the role of nuclear weapons and the purposes for which they could be used, making a case for their enduring contribution to national security, failing to uphold reduced reliance as a desired goal, and elevating the contribution of U.S. forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe to the security of NATO.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (center), State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr. (left), and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette brief reporters on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon on February 2. (Photo: Kathryn E. Holm/DoD)Expanding the role of nuclear weapons. Like the 2010 Obama administration NPR report1, this one states that the United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners.”2 It redefines “extreme circumstances,” however, to include not only nuclear attacks but also significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, including but not limited to “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

This is a wrong-headed departure from the 2010 NPR. It dangerously lowers the threshold for nuclear use against a range of potential non-nuclear threats, including cyberattacks, and thereby raises the risk of miscalculation and the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used, particularly if other countries adopt the same policy. Under this policy, a cyberattack could lead to options for a nuclear response being presented to a president who would have to decide in a compressed time frame with potentially incomplete information who did it and for what purpose. Conversely, if Russia or China were to adopt a similar policy, the United States could be at risk of nuclear attack as a result of inaccurate attribution or miscalculation due to differing perceptions of what constitutes a strategically significant cyberattack meriting a nuclear response. There is also the question of whether the use of a nuclear weapon would ever be judged a proportionate response to a cyberattack under international law.

Further, the new NPR underscores that nuclear weapons will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear armed states for the foreseeable future because non-nuclear forces alone “do not provide comparable deterrence effects” and “do not adequately assure many allies and partners.”

In contrast, the 2010 NPR deemed that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” adding that the United States had already reduced and would continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Although noting “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring” a conventional, chemical or biological weapons attack, the previous NPR committed to working to establish conditions under which sole purpose—a policy to threaten nuclear use only in response to a nuclear attack—could be safely adopted. It affirmed the United States could provide deterrence and reassurance for allies at lower nuclear-force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, taking into account not only the security environment but also unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities and improvements in missile defenses. It committed to strengthening conventional capabilities and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

Diluting the negative security assurance. For non-nuclear-weapon states, the 2018 and 2010 NPR reports offer an identical negative security assurance: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The new NPR, however, adds a caveat so broad it risks undermining the very purpose of the assurance, which is to assure non-nuclear-weapon states that they will not be subject to nuclear attack and thus have no incentive to acquire nuclear weapons. It “reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat”; the 2010 NPR caveat was limited to adjustment warranted by “the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capabilities to counter it.”

Questionable declaratory policy on nuclear terrorism. The 2018 NPR breaks new ground with a threat to use nuclear weapons to deter or punish nuclear terrorism.

The United States will hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices. Although the role of nuclear weapons in countering nuclear terrorism is limited, for effective deterrence our adversaries must understand that a terrorist nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners would qualify as “an extreme circumstance” under which the United States could consider the ultimate form of retaliation.3

Implementation of this policy raises difficult questions of attribution and responsibility. If an insider in one of the U.S. national labs were to provide the Islamic State group with nuclear materials for a dirty bomb, would Russia be justified in attacking the United States at all, let alone with a nuclear weapon? The logic and value of this policy is not obvious.

Elevating the role of U.S. forward-based nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. The latest NPR reverses the decades-long movement by the United States and NATO to reduce the relevance and number of U.S. forward-based nuclear weapons in NATO’s deterrence and defense posture, in particular going significantly beyond current NATO policy to assert that these weapons contribute to the supreme guarantee of alliance security.4 The NPR report’s wording foreshadows a potentially divisive reopening of painstakingly negotiated NATO nuclear policy language in the run-up to the July 2018 summit in Brussels.

The 2010 NPR committed to retain the capability to forward-deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on tactical fighter bombers and heavy bombers, without presuming what NATO would decide about future deterrence requirements (e.g., maintaining U.S. weapons in Europe). These weapons are primarily political symbols of U.S. commitment to NATO. They have virtually no military utility, and the cost-benefit assessment of keeping them in multiple European locations is unpersuasive given threats from political instability and terrorism. Rather than instigate a fight in NATO to elevate their role, the United States should be removing nuclear weapons from harm’s way, particularly in Turkey, where political instability, deteriorating relations with the United States, terrorism, and war with the Syrian Kurds underscore the risks of keeping nuclear weapons reportedly based 70 miles from the Syrian border.

Calling for New Types of Nuclear Weapons Systems

The NPR goes in the wrong direction by seeking to add new “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons capabilities to the already formidable U.S. arsenal. Rejecting the 2010 NPR report pledge of “no new nuclear capabilities,” it identifies a “regional deterrence capabilities gap” that must be addressed by two new types of low-yield nuclear weapons—one to be deployed on a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the other a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., September 5, 2016. The NPR calls for replacement of all three legs of the nuclear triad, including fielding the Minuteman III replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, beginning in 2029.  (USSTRATCOM courtesy photo)Citing a “dramatic deterioration of the strategic environment,” the NPR asserts the need for these new weapons in order to enhance the flexibility and responsiveness of U.S. nuclear forces. The report posits that these new capabilities will make deterrence more credible against regional aggression and the threat of limited first use, for instance from Russia, by giving the president an expanding range of limited and graduated options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks. It claims these capabilities will “raise not lower” the threshold for nuclear use and are not intended to enable nuclear war-fighting.

To quote The New York Times editorial board, this argument is “insane.”5 First, the United States has a robust, flexible nuclear deterrent, including low-yield options. To suggest the current U.S. nuclear arsenal does not provide a sufficient deterrent to Russia or any other nation is preposterous.

Second, new low-yield nuclear weapons would not “raise the bar” for nuclear use; they would lower it because they increase the contingencies and planning for use and fuel the illusion that a use of nuclear weapons could remain limited and not escalate into a large-scale nuclear exchange. As former Secretary of State George Shultz recently testified, “A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there.”6

Third, it is disingenuous to deem a low-yield warhead on an SLBM a nonstrategic nuclear weapon. Nuclear warheads are neither strategic nor nonstrategic; that nomenclature refers to their delivery vehicle. A low-yield nuclear warhead on an SLBM is still a strategic nuclear weapon. To underscore the point, when an SLBM is launched from a submarine, how would an adversary know to expect one “small” low-yield weapon? Why would it not assume the attack was the leading edge of a full-scale strategic nuclear attack?

Fourth, resurrecting nuclear SLCMs reverses the 25-year trajectory set by President George H.W. Bush, who removed nuclear weapons from surface ships and nuclear-powered attack subs in 1991, and President Barack Obama’s 2010 NPR, which retired nuclear SLCMs and the capacity to redeploy them on attack subs. Co-mingling nuclear and conventional capabilities at sea is costly and operationally complex and introduces risks of miscalculation and likelihood of use. If a dual-capable SLCM were launched, how would an adversary know whether it was conventional or nuclear?

Rather than compelling positive changes in Russian behavior as the 2018 NPR report intimates, pursuit of nuclear SLCMs is more likely to stimulate Russia to deploy more nuclear weapons at sea and more missiles on land that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russian investments in new intermediate-range strike capabilities appear driven by perceptions of vulnerability to U.S. and NATO prompt-strike and missile defense capabilities. Compounding Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities will prompt more countermeasures, not submission. By what logic should the United States fuel an incipient arms race by pursuing nuclear weapons systems it does not need?

These “supplemental” capabilities add to the already unachievable $1.2 trillion Obama plan for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure over the next 30 years. As General Frank Klotz, recently retired administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, observed, the capacity of the nuclear weapons complex to refurbish and dismantle nuclear warheads and components is already overstretched.7 A more responsible NPR would have strived to rationalize and prioritize the program of record inherited from the Obama administration by considering what elements could be cancelled, postponed, or modified to put the nuclear modernization program on a more stable, affordable, and politically sustainable footing, with a focus on survivable forces intended primarily if not exclusively for deterrence of nuclear attacks.

Abdicating U.S. Global Leadership

In contrast to the 2010 NPR, the 2018 review puts almost exclusive emphasis on nuclear weapons and military means and insufficiently promotes diplomacy and nonmilitary instruments of national power to address national security threats. It overstates the degradation in the threat environment since 2010 and fails to explain why more types of and uses for nuclear weapons is an effective means to address threats that have legitimately worsened. These include increased Russian assertiveness, the growing North Korean threat, Chinese actions in South China Sea, and the spread of new technologies, including cyberabilities.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with General Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, at the 8th Army Operational Command Center at Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, on November 7, 2017. The Nuclear Posture Review makes no mention of the role diplomacy could play in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)The new NPR report fails to make a convincing case that the United States is slipping from a position of nuclear parity with Russia and facing a regional deterrence gap necessitating new nuclear capabilities, or that the United States is newly threatened by China’s still significantly smaller nuclear arsenal. It fails to explain why all other nuclear-armed countries except Russia will not be deterred by a nuclear force that is primarily sized and postured to deter Russia, whose arsenal is orders of magnitude larger than any other potential adversary, including China. It undersells what the 2010 NPR report termed the “unrivaled conventional capabilities” of the United States—capabilities that are still unrivaled and contribute immensely to deterrence and the defense of our nation, allies, and partners.

Against that backdrop, the 2018 NPR heralds a retreat from U.S. global leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. Although it reaffirms commitment to the NPT and supports the International Atomic Energy Agency and mechanisms to constrain, deny, and sanction proliferators, it falls short in advancing a positive strategy for addressing proliferation threats through diplomacy and pursuing steps related to the disarmament pillar of the NPT. This is a stark contrast with the 2010 NPR, which envisioned a comprehensive approach to reducing nuclear dangers and pursuing the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons, including through practical steps of further nuclear reductions with Russia, pursuit of a fissile material cutoff treaty, and ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The new NPR report is silent on multilateral nuclear arms control, other than to reject CTBT ratification while upholding, with caveats, the testing moratorium.8 On bilateral arms control with Russia, it notes fairly that the current environment makes bilateral progress extremely challenging, but offers no proposals to improve the environment, failing even to endorse a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

The latter is an easy call: As long as Russia is complying with New START, it is strongly in the U.S. interest to extend the treaty’s limits and most importantly its robust and intrusive verification regime, providing essential long-term predictability and insight into each other’s strategic nuclear forces. Russia’s violation of and mutual recriminations over the INF Treaty make this especially important. Extension is not a favor to Russia; it would be a mutually beneficial and stabilizing step as the United States and Russia seek to address bilateral problems and rebuild trust.

The policies in the NPR will further erode strategic stability, notwithstanding the report’s stated desire for stable relations with Russia and China. While calling for nuclear dialogue and transparency with China, it offers no strategy for what do to about the erosion of strategic stability with Russia other than to rev up the engine for an arms race. It is devoid of any consideration of how the nuclear policies and forces it prescribes will be perceived by other countries, particularly Russia and China; how they might react and thus affect strategic stability; and how U.S. national security will be affected if they and other countries adopt similar policies and postures.

The overarching problems with the nonproliferation and arms control element of the NPR are what it portends for U.S. policy and how it will be received internationally. Substantively, it offers no strategy and few proposals for reducing nuclear dangers, encouraging nuclear reductions, peacefully advancing nonproliferation, and sustaining international adherence to and support for the NPT regime. It fails to acknowledge the positive contribution of diplomacy in the Iran nuclear agreement and makes no mention of the role diplomacy could play in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. It fails to reaffirm, in contrast to the 2010 NPR, that it is in the interest of all nations to extend forever the now 73-year record of nuclear non-use.

The new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, criticized in the NPR, is largely an outgrowth of the frustration and disappointment that has grown among non-nuclear-weapon states with the pace of progress by the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom on their NPT Article VI disarmament commitment.9 With the international community increasingly polarized, this NPR adds fuel to the fire and offers little to work with for allies and partners who have joined the United States in advocating a practical step-by-step approach as the most viable path toward verifiable disarmament. Rather than leading and helping to unify the international community with a positive and actionable nonproliferation agenda, the United States will find itself on the defensive trying to explain a nuclear policy likely perceived as evidence of a failure to uphold its end of the NPT bargain.


The goal of U.S. nuclear policy should be to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by deliberate act, miscalculation, or accident and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials to states and terrorists. Achieving these goals requires the United States to marshal all instruments of national power and to cooperate effectively with the international community.

The Trump administration’s NPR takes the country in the wrong direction by increasing reliance on nuclear weapons and expanding the circumstances contemplated for their use; calling for new types of nuclear weapons systems that will provoke or exacerbate an arms race and will raise the risks of miscalculation and use; failing to set forth a realistic nuclear force posture and modernization plan that emphasizes stability and survivability and is affordable, executable, and politically sustainable; failing to articulate a positive strategy for U.S. leadership in nonproliferation and practical steps in furtherance of U.S. obligations under NPT Article VI; and failing to set forth a comprehensive strategy for addressing nuclear and regional threats through diplomacy and other nonmilitary tools, along with strengthening conventional defenses and ensuring a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent.

The American public and Congress have a responsibility to consider whether this new nuclear posture is taking the country in the right direction and, if not, to encourage a course correction. Lawmakers should advance an alternative vision for U.S. nuclear policy and global nonproliferation leadership, deny funding for the dangerous and unnecessary new types of nuclear weapons systems proposed, and reassess the $1.2 trillion cost, feasibility, and necessity of the full range of nuclear modernization programs proposed for the next three decades. The Department of State should be given the opportunity to put more meat on the bones of a nuclear policy and strategy largely devoid of diplomatic initiatives.

The damage to U.S. global leadership on nuclear nonproliferation as a result of the plans and policies in the NPR is real, and the stakes are far too high to allow these dangerous policies to go unchallenged. The time to start steering toward a better and safer track for U.S. nuclear policy and posture is now.


1 Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report," April 2010,

2 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, p. 21, (hereinafter 2018 NPR report).

3 Ibid, p. 68.

4 The 2018 NPR report states, “The United States will make available its strategic nuclear forces, and commit nuclear weapons forward-deployed to Europe, to the defense of NATO. These forces provide an essential political and military link between Europe and North America and are the supreme guarantee of Alliance security.” 2018 NPR report, p. 36. Current NATO policy as reflected in the July 2016 Warsaw summit communiqué states, “The strategic forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies…. NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture also relies, in part, on United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe.” “Warsaw Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw 8-9 July 2016,”
press release (2016) 100 (July 9, 2016), para. 53.

5 “False Alarm Adds to Real Alarm About Trump’s Nuclear Risk,” The New York Times, January 13, 2018.

6 Connor O’Brien, “Schultz Warns Congress Against Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons,” Politico, January 25, 2018,

7 Aaron Mehta, “As Trump Seeks New Nuke Options, Weapons Agency Head Warns of Capacity Overload,” Defense News, January 23, 2018,

8 The 2018 NPR report rejects Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratification; supports the International Monitoring System; commits to maintaining the testing moratorium, “unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal” or to meet “severe geopolitical challenges”; and encourages others to declare or maintain a moratorium.

9 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the five states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as nuclear-weapon states. NPT Article VI requires all parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Lynn Rusten is a senior adviser at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. From 2011 to 2014, she was senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the National Security Council staff.