Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
United States

U.S., Russia Must Elevate Action on Arms Control in Strategic Stability Dialogue



Volume 14, Issue 1, Jan. 13, 2022

As U.S. and Russian diplomats engage in a high-stakes negotiation on a broad range of challenging European security and nuclear arms control issues, it is in the interest of both sides to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences over NATO’s relationship with Russia and the delays on the implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which was designed to avoid further conflict over Ukraine.

It has been nearly a year since U.S President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the only remaining treaty limiting their massive nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery platforms.

It has been more than six months since Biden and Putin agreed in June 2021 to restart a Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) in order “to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

Since then, too little progress has been achieved to negotiate a new agreement or agreements before New START expires in early 2026.

On Monday, Washington and Moscow concluded the third round of the bilateral strategic stability dialogue, which was focused on Russia’s new and broader package of proposals on mutual security guarantees. The initial two rounds of the SSD were held in July and September 2021.

Russia’s decision to inject additional demands on “security guarantees” has, unfortunately, further complicated the equation. As we and other U.S., Russian and European experts have suggested, the two sides can and need to develop new understandings on four sets of nuclear arms control issues through this process:

  • deeper verifiable cuts in the bloated U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals,
  • achieving new understandings designed to limit and account for Russian and U.S. non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons,
  • new measures to prohibit or limit the reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and
  • new understandings on how to limit strategic missile defense capabilities.

On Jan. 10, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman noted, correctly, that “these kinds of arms control negotiations – as President Putin himself has said – don’t happen in just a day or even a week. They’re generally quite complex, very technical, and take some time. But we’re certainly ready to move as expeditiously as one possibly can in these circumstances.”

Concluding durable, new arrangements to supersede New START will ensure there are verifiable limits on the massive and deadly U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, which are critical to U.S. and Russian national, as well as for international, peace and security. Without such guardrails, U.S.-Russian relations will become even more dangerous.

We call on the two sides to redouble their efforts to keep their nuclear disarmament discussions moving forward so new, follow-on nuclear disarmament agreements can be concluded no later than 2025, and preferably sooner.

INF Missile Restriction Options

While some Kremlin demands, including Putin’s call for legally-binding assurances regarding NATO expansion, may reflect serious Russian concerns, they are non-starters. On the other hand, some other Russian proposals on arms control challenges are quite serious and deserve a substantive response from the United States.

For instance, Russia has reiterated its concept for a moratorium on U.S. and Russian deployment of missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Putin first proposed in 2019 and expanded in 2020 to include mutual verification measures.

Russia’s INF missile proposal needs further work, but it can serve as a starting point for negotiations on a deal with the United States that can help avert a new Euromissile race.

It is incumbent upon the Biden administration, in coordination with NATO, to put forward a constructive counterproposal regarding an INF-range missile moratorium.

One approach would be for U.S./NATO leaders to pledge not to field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.

Other options that might be considered include agreeing to a verifiable ban on all nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles of intermediate range (500-5,500 km) or a prohibition on ground-launched ballistic missiles of intermediate range. This would require a return to an INF Treaty-like verification system and would require Russia to move or destroy its currently deployed 9M729 missiles, which violated the terms of the original INF Treaty.

The U.S. and Russian presidents could codify these INF missile restrictions through an executive agreement. Progress on this issue could build momentum in other areas of nuclear arms control and improve the climate for talks broader security matters.

On Jan. 3, the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom issued a rare joint statement reiterating the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Now, the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals can start to put these words into action by empowering their negotiators to reach new agreements that sharply reduce nuclear risks and the number of nuclear weapons. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst, and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director


It is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences. 

Country Resources:

On Nuclear Weapons, Actions Belie Reassuring Words

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

(Photo by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament/Henry Kenyon)The U.S., Chinese, French, Russian, and UK effort was designed in part to create a positive atmosphere for the 10th NPT review conference, which has been delayed again by the pandemic. It also clearly aims to address global concerns about the rising danger of nuclear conflict among states and signals a potential for further cooperation to address this existential threat.

The question now is, do they have the will and the skill to translate their laudable intentions into action before it is too late?

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price hailed the statement as “extraordinary.” A more sober reading shows that it falls woefully short of committing the five to the policies and actions necessary to prevent nuclear war. In fact, the statement illustrates how their blind faith in deterrence theories, which hinge on a credible threat of using nuclear weapons, perpetuates conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.

The statement asserts that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet, such broad language suggests they might use nuclear weapons to “defend” themselves against a wide range of threats, including non-nuclear threats. Given the indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use, such policies are dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable.

At the very least, if the leaders of these states are serious about averting nuclear war, they should formally adopt no-first-use policies or, as U.S. President Joe Biden promised in 2020, declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or possibly respond to a nuclear attack.

Even this approach perpetuates circumstances that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is “to do away with them entirely,” as President Ronald Reagan argued in 1984, and sooner rather than later.

But on disarmament, the statement only expressed a “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” This vague, caveated promise rings hollow after years of stalled disarmament progress and an accelerating global nuclear arms race.

A year ago, Russia and the United States extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but they have not begun negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Meanwhile, both spend billions of dollars annually to maintain and upgrade their nuclear forces, which far exceed any rational concept of what it takes to deter a nuclear attack.

China is on pace to double or triple the size of its land-based strategic missile force in the coming years. Worse still, despite past promises “to engage in the process leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Chinese leaders are rebuffing calls to engage in arms control talks with the United States and others. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, announced last year it would increase its deployed strategic warhead ceiling.

Fresh statements by the five NPT nuclear-armed states reaffirming their “intention” to fulfill their NPT disarmament obligations are hardly credible in the absence of time-bound commitments to specific disarmament actions.

At the same time, the five, led by France, have criticized the good faith efforts by the majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to advance the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Contrary to claims by the nuclear-armed states, the TPNW reinforces the NPT and the norm against possessing, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

Rather than engage TPNW leaders on their substantive concerns, U.S. officials are pressuring influential states, including Sweden, Germany, and Japan, not to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers. Such bullying will only reinforce enthusiasm for the TPNW and undermine U.S. credibility on nuclear matters.

The leaders of the nuclear five, especially Biden, can and must do better. Before the NPT review conference later this year, Russia and the United States should commit to conclude by 2025 negotiations on further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces and on constraints on long-range missile defenses. China, France, and the UK should agree to join nuclear arms control talks no later than 2025 and to freeze their stockpiles as Washington and Moscow negotiate deeper cuts in theirs.

Instead of belittling the TPNW, the five states need to get their own houses in order. Concrete action on disarmament is overdue. It will help create a more stable and peaceful international security environment and facilitate the transformative move from unsustainable and dangerous deterrence doctrines toward a world free of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Obstacles to Reducing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

January/February 2022
By Adam Mount

President Joe Biden entered office with two objectives for nuclear weapons policy: declaring that “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack” and implementing the sole purpose policy as part of a broader effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Although Biden has not clearly defined either goal, his support for both has signaled an intention to produce a significant shift in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Public hints about the structure and the content of his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) suggest, however, that Biden will not achieve his goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. plans and posture.

During a January 11, 2017 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Joe Biden said that he and President Barack Obama “strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” (Photo by Chris Kleponis/AFP via Getty Images)If Biden’s NPR walks back these commitments, it would be only the latest example of a president trying and failing to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. This pattern is the result of concerted opposition from partisan opponents and Pentagon officials, structural impediments to the president’s ability to shift policy, and the failure of political appointees to learn the lessons of past attempts. Even more than in previous nuclear policy reviews, these trends have been publicly visible throughout the 2022 NPR process and represent a cautionary tale for future administrations.

The Past as Prologue

For Biden, the 2022 NPR process is a familiar story. With Biden at his side, President Barack Obama entered office in 2009 also determined to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Although this was the subject of his first major international address, Obama did not come equipped with a firm plan for how to do it. He left the issue up to the NPR process. For example, the Obama review explicitly did not adopt the concept of sole purpose as the role of nuclear weapons although it promised to “work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.”1 Instead, the review stated 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.”2 The administration reopened the question of the sole purpose concept in its last year in office, but Obama’s secretaries of defense, state, and energy all argued against it.3

In January 2017, nine days before he would leave office, Vice President Biden delivered a wistful speech to a Washington audience, reporting that “the President and I strongly believe we have made enough progress” toward creating the conditions for the sole purpose doctrine.4 Despite their conviction, they had not made the change. After eight years, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was still configured to deter the same threats for the same reasons.

The 2018 NPR reversed course and instead took steps to increase the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Worried that adversaries could conduct a limited nuclear strike for coercive purposes, the Trump administration argued that new nuclear weapons were the answer. The 2018 review proposed new low-yield warheads, a new sea-launched cruise missile, and a delay in retiring the last megaton-class gravity bomb. That review also produced new language warning that the United States would consider employing a nuclear weapon in response to a “non-nuclear strategic attack,” a vague phrase the administration never defined. After critics warned that the new policy could permit a nuclear response to a cyberattack, officials hastened to dispute the claim, but never really clarified it.5 To this day, it is not clear who wrote the document. In short, it was not the kind of process that the Biden team should want to emulate.

In the past year, former President Donald Trump’s allies and advisers have worked hard to prevent the Biden administration from revisiting these decisions. Instead, they apparently hoped the new team could be coerced or cajoled into abandoning Biden’s stated goals and reaffirming the Trump policy.6 In a series of hyperbolic articles, they have argued that any change to U.S. policy would alarm allies and embolden adversaries, despite the fact that the Biden administration has not fully articulated its policy. According to this view, raising the bar for a U.S. nuclear response would give a green light to attacks that fall below that bar. Rather than engaging with any specific formulation of the sole purpose doctrine, these arguments tend to conflate the policy with a no-first-use strategy and object generally to any related change in existing policy.7

Admiral Charles Richard,head of the U.S. Strategic Command, has said that the purpose of Biden's NPR should be “validation, that we like the strategy we have.” (Photo by Department of Defense)In October, former Trump administration officials released a declassified document that was required to report on presidential guidance for nuclear employment plans that had been issued in April 2019.8 Although legally required to inform Congress of the change before it occurred, the outgoing team only sent the document to Capitol Hill in December 2020, after Trump lost the election. It is a strikingly partisan document that explicitly refutes policies to which Biden had committed on the campaign trail by arguing that “the United States sees no benefit and significant risk in adopting a ‘sole purpose’ policy” and claiming that doing so “would dispirit allies and partners.”9 The document does not provide Congress with information about Trump’s employment guidance, but rather serves as a handbook for civil servants, military officials, and sympathetic officials in allied countries who intended to resist Biden administration policies. It is more a partisan strategy than a nuclear strategy.

Consistent with that document, Admiral Charles Richard, who oversees the nation’s nuclear forces, said that the purpose of Biden’s NPR should be “validation, that we like the strategy we have.”10 With that perspective, Richard went before Congress in April to argue against options that the Biden administration was then considering, including a sole purpose policy and any changes to existing plans for acquiring new weapons.11 Further, an unnamed Pentagon official stated that it was “not likely” that sole purpose or no-first-use policies will be presented as options.12

Closing Off Options

This campaign effectively is an attempt to deprive Biden of the ability to set his own nuclear weapons policy. In this context, it would require a concerted effort to advance the president’s objectives. In practice, the Biden administration has taken steps in the structure and staffing of the review that further constrain its ability to pursue the president’s goals.

Biden’s first budget request, submitted in April, was an early opportunity to build leverage and set the tone of the review. Rather than pause or cancel questionable programs to preserve decision space, the request fully supported Trump’s accelerated schedule to procure new air-launched cruise missiles and continue developing a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) and the low-yield submarine-launched warhead that Biden had called “a bad idea” during the campaign. The budget request is 28 percent higher than projected two years ago.13 These decisions guaranteed that the default position in the NPR would be to retain the existing policy, ensuring that debate would center around low-hanging fruit such as the SLCM that had been carefully positioned by the previous administration to divert attention from other policies.

The crucial moment for an administration seeking to shift nuclear weapons policy comes when the National Security Council (NSC) issues presidential guidance to initiate, indicate the president’s expectations for, and structure the NPR. For the Biden administration, this took the form of a public interim national security guidance document and a classified presidential study directive. Neither document referred to a sole purpose policy directly. Rather than explicitly direct that the Pentagon develop the president’s preferred options, the guidance was negotiated among a range of offices across the government, including officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, there is no political appointee on the NSC staff empowered to represent and interpret the president’s guidance in the NPR process. Instead, the responsibility is divided between the offices of the NSC senior directors for defense and nuclear issues. The director for strategic capabilities in the defense office is customarily a uniformed general officer and so will tend to be more comfortable implementing settled policy than defining a shift in policy such as a sole purpose policy.

A visitor to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima walks by images of the mushroom cloud that erupted when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. An estimated 70,000 people were killed instantly and afterward, many thousands more died from radiation. Nearly four decades later, nuclear weapons remain a serious threat. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)In the months leading up to the NPR, Leonor Tomero, the deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of managing the review, came under fire from Senate Republicans and civil servants who worried that her views were too progressive.14 In particular, she was accused of favoring the sole purpose declaration that Biden supported and had written into the Democratic party platform. Rather than defend her, Pentagon leadership showed her the door, saying she was removed as part of a larger reorganization.15

The Biden administration began its NPR in July with the intention to release its report in January, along with the National Defense Strategy.16 Tomero’s removal meant there was no Pentagon political appointee in the NPR process who was prepared to implement the president’s sole purpose policy. Following Tomero’s departure, the NPR was led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Melissa Dalton and Richard Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary tasked with preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, who also served in an acting capacity in Tomero’s previous role, despite the apparent reorganization. Even capable officials such as Dalton and Johnson will have difficulty influencing the highly politicized and complex debates of nuclear weapons policy without experience with those arguments, without a portfolio that allows them to focus their full attention on the review, and without clear guidance from the president.

As a result, the administration has been unable to engage in a complete discussion on a sole purpose policy with allies, many of whom have been understandably apprehensive about potential shifts in an established U.S. policy. With firm guidance from the president and a concerted effort to adjust policy, U.S. officials might have engaged allies on their concerns about specific proposals. Without firm presidential guidance, allies have been left to fret about undefined concepts and rumors, allowing opponents of the president’s objectives in the Pentagon, Congress, and outside of government an opening to flood allies with misleading speculation. This mix of uncertainty and misinformation created an environment that made it easy for Pentagon political appointees to avoid serious consideration of the sole purpose issue altogether.

The administration also complicated the NPR process by folding nuclear weapons policy into a concept of “integrated deterrence.” The concept held considerable promise for Biden’s stated objectives for the review. If the United States was to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, an integrated review could examine the utility and credibility of nuclear and non-nuclear options for performing specific missions and identify ways to safely reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.17 In principle, an integrated review could also communicate the benefits of Biden’s goals to allies, demonstrating how reduced reliance could lead to increased credibility in the overall U.S. deterrence posture.

A Soviet-era SS-23 missile is destroyed in 1989 under the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)The 2022 NPR and the National Defense Strategy did not undertake this assessment. There is no indication that the strategy was tasked with reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, and the bureaucratic silos that have divided the NPR and the broader National Defense Strategy remain intact. Instead, combining the documents could decrease the transparency of nuclear policy, concealing areas where the review failed to reach agreement or advance the president’s objectives. An integrated review that does not engage with the difficult questions of operational plans and posture might reduce the word count assigned to nuclear weapons policy, but not the missions assigned to the weapons.

Without firm presidential guidance, staff empowered to implement that guidance, and a detailed examination of the utility of nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities, the Pentagon is unlikely to produce a policy that significantly reduces reliance on nuclear weapons. The administration evidently acquiesced in a broad effort to undermine the president’s stated objectives and his ability to set policy. As it stands, the 2022 NPR will not only preserve the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons, but if its practices are adopted by future administrations, will make it more difficult to accomplish the goal in coming years.

The Path Forward on Reducing Reliance

It is still possible that the administration could adjust declaratory policy through other means. The undersecretary of defense for policy or the national security adviser could choose to rewrite the NPR material or make significant amendments at the 11th hour, similar to the process that occurred in the 2010 NPR. Although such intervention might further Biden’s stated objectives, it would also underline that the NPR failed to perform that task and that the review process had to be circumvented to adjust policy. Furthermore, the administration should avoid last-minute changes that are simply cosmetic. Declaratory policy is consequential and credible to the extent that it reflects a strategy that shifts reliance away from nuclear weapons in operational plans.

Nevertheless, one option is to declare that the United States would use nuclear weapons only in the event of an “existential attack” against the United States or its allies.18 Although Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, spoke approvingly about this possibility in the spring of 2021, the formulation raises its own questions. Could a cyberattack or chemical weapons attack ever threaten the existence of an ally? Would attacks that leave U.S. allies intact but exposed to subsequent attacks count as existential? These questions permit widely divergent interpretations by allies and adversaries and, depending on the exact language in the document and the statements of U.S. officials, might fail to raise the bar significantly for nuclear use.

The administration will have another opportunity to adjust nuclear weapons policy when it drafts its own nuclear employment guidance over the next year or two. This could serve as an opportunity to translate shifts in declaratory policy into operational plans and require planners to develop more credible, flexible nonnuclear options for specific contingencies. This would require a more active and directed employment guidance process than in previous years. Without fixing the decisions that constrained the NPR process, it will be even more difficult to affect the complex and parochial planning process. It will require that the president issues clear implementation guidance if he selects new declaratory language and empowers expert officials to create a significant change in strategy.

An administration committed to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons will have to learn three lessons from the 2022 NPR process if it is to succeed where its predecessors have failed. First, the president should issue clear guidance about what they want, including an explicit description of how to reduce nuclear reliance and what options should be developed and presented to the president for decisions. Second, the president will have to select and appoint expert officials to lead the NPR process who are ready to defend and implement that guidance. Third, civilian leaders must ensure that military officers, civil servants, and political appointees follow the president’s guidance and hold them accountable if they refuse to do so or attempt to subvert the review process, for example, if they mislead allies, undermine political appointees, or coordinate with the administration’s opponents in Congress. If Pentagon officials disagree with the president’s guidance, they have a duty to try to convince the president to change it, but they also have a duty to provide options requested by the president.

Whether or not Biden, confronted with political resistance or additional information, changed his mind on a sole purpose policy, the 2022 NPR demonstrates that the existing process for developing nuclear weapons policy is deeply flawed. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer optimistically promised that “this is going to be the president’s posture review and the president’s posture.”19 It is also possible that, in his final days in office, Biden may find himself delivering another wistful speech lamenting that yet another administration has failed to establish a sole purpose policy as a guiding principle of U.S. nuclear policy or to significantly reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.


1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. 16, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

2. Ibid.

3. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times, September 6, 2016.

4. Office of the Vice President, The White House, “Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security,” January 12, 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/12/remarks-vice-president-nuclear-security.

5. George Perkovich, “Really? We’re Gonna Nuke Russia for a Cyberattack?” Politico, January 18, 2018, http://politi.co/2Dpp28s; Scott D. Sagan and Allen S. Weiner, “The U.S. Says It Can Answer Cyberattacks With Nuclear Weapons. That’s Lunacy.” The Washington Post, July 9, 2021; Patrick Tucker, “No, the U.S. Won’t Respond to a Cyber Attack With Nukes,” Defense One, February 2, 2018.

6. Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller, “President Biden, Don’t Help Our Adversaries Break NATO,” The Washington Post, November 4, 2021; Jim Risch, “The U.S. Must Reject a ‘Sole Purpose’ Nuclear Policy,” Defense News, October 25, 2021. Those arguments were mirrored by editorials boards and some Democratic politicians. “Folding America’s Nuclear Umbrella,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2021; Seth Moulton, “We Must Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, but a ‘No First Use’ Policy Is Not the Answer,” The Hill, November 29, 2021, https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/583433-we-must-eliminate-nuclear-weapons-but-a-no-first-use-policy-is. Reports on allied concerns about President Joe Biden’s objectives featured prominently in arguments made by opponents and in media accounts of the review. Demetri Sevastopulo and Henry Foy, “Allies Lobby Biden to Prevent Shift to ‘No First Use’ of Nuclear Arms,” Financial Times, October 30, 2021.

7. Patty-Jane Geller, “What Experts and Senior Officials Have Said About Adopting a No-First-Use or Sole-Purpose Nuclear Declaratory Policy,” Heritage Foundation Factsheet, No. 219 (October 20, 2021), https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/FS219.pdf.

8. Robert Soofer and Matthew R. Costlow, “An Introduction to the 2020 Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” Journal of Policy and Strategy, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 2021): 2–8, https://nipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/1.1R.pdf.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States - 2020,” 2020, p. 8, https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/NCB/21-F-0591_2020_Report_of_the_Nuclear_Employement_Strategy_of_the_United_States.pdf.

10. Charles R. Richard and Ronald R. Fritzmeier, Remarks to the Defense Writers Group, January 5, 2021, https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/2/672/files/2021/01/DWG-Admiral-Charles-R.-Richard.pdf.

11. “To Receive Testimony on United States Strategic Command and United States Space Command in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program,” April 20, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/download/transcript2042021.

12. Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman, “Biden’s Nuclear Agenda in Trouble as Pentagon Hawks Attack,” Politico, September 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/leonor-tomero-pentagon-nuclear-hawks-513974.

13. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July 9, 2021), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2021-07/bidens-disappointing-first-nuclear-weapons-budget.

14. “To Receive Testimony on the Department of Defense Budget Posture for Nuclear Forces in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program,” May 12, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/download/transcriptnuclear51221; Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman, “Biden’s Nuclear Agenda in Trouble as Pentagon Hawks Attack,” Politico, September 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/leonor-tomero-pentagon-nuclear-hawks-513974.

15. Lara Seligman, Alexander Ward, and Paul McLeary, “Pentagon’s Top Nuclear Policy Official Ousted in Reorganization,” Politico, September 21, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/21/pentagon-top-nuclear-official-ousted-reorganization-513502.

16. Kingston Reif, “Biden Administration Begins Nuclear Posture Review,” Arms Control Today, September 2021, pp. 26–27, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-09/news/biden-administration-begins-nuclear-posture-review.

17. Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi, “An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture,” Federation of American Scientists, January 2021, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/An-Integrated-Approach-to-Deterrence-Posture.pdf; Brad Roberts, “It’s Time to Jettison Nuclear Posture Reviews,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 1 (2020): 31–36.

18. This formulation would presumably apply to nuclear attacks and other existential attacks in order to maintain an option to employ U.S. nuclear forces to prevent any nuclear attack, not only existential nuclear attacks. For a recently proposed version of this option, see George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi, “Proportionate Deterrence: A Model Nuclear Posture Review,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 21, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/21/proportionate-deterrence-model-nuclear-posture-review-pub-83576. This version specifies that nuclear weapons could be used “only when no viable alternative exists to stop” an existential attack in order to confine potential use to preemption of an attack and to accommodate the “nuclear necessity principle.” Jeffrey G. Lewis and Scott D. Sagan, “The Nuclear Necessity Principle: Making U.S. Targeting Policy Conform With Ethics and the Laws of War,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fall 2016, https://www.amacad.org/publication/nuclear-necessity-principle-making-us-targeting-policy-conform-ethics-laws-war.

19. Emma Belcher, “Press the Button,” podcast, Ploughshares Fund, November 2, 2021, https://soundcloud.com/user-954653529/the-white-houses-jon-finer-on-all-things-nuclear.


Adam Mount is director of the Defense Posture Project and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

Public hints about the Nuclear Posture Review, to be released early this year, suggest President Joe Biden will not achieve his goal of reducing the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Resetting the Requirements for Nuclear Deterrence

January/February 2022
By Sharon K. Weiner

As the Biden administration finalizes its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), it faces the same challenges as the architects of the four earlier NPRs: how to make choices about nuclear deterrence and translate them into nuclear strategy and force structure. If it chooses to learn from the experience of its predecessors, the administration will confront two sets of requirements that are central to U.S. nuclear deterrence policy yet limit its freedom of action. The NPR managers would be wise not to just buy into those requirements but instead to be explicit and transparent about questioning them in order to enable choices that are based on a clear understanding of the trade-offs, as well as other possible options.

Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group at F.E. Warren missile complex in Wyoming work on maintaining an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), one leg of the nuclear triad, in December 2019. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)One set of deterrence requirements that is almost certainly being presented to President Joe Biden by the nuclear weapons establishment as strategic or military necessities are actually choices. A second set of requirements is the taken-for-granted assumptions that are often overlooked. All of these so-called requirements are presumed to be based on evidence and are never challenged in a way that would determine their actual validity. They are more aspirational than necessary. They are rooted in stories that strategists, policymakers, and the military tell themselves, each other, and the public about how they hope deterrence will work.

Discussions of nuclear strategy and force structure are full of references to things that are required. A modernized triad is a requirement for deterrence, and anything less will leave the United States vulnerable.1 The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) system, a fleet of next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), meets U.S. Strategic Command’s requirements, but the current fleet of Minuteman III missiles does not.2 Operational requirements necessitate no fewer than four concurrent warhead life extension programs.3 Nuclear weapons plutonium pit production at a rate of least 80 pits per year by 2030 is a requirement, otherwise U.S. nuclear weapons will not work as intended.4 A national military uranium-enrichment plant is a requirement, otherwise there will be no way to make tritium for nuclear weapons or fuel for naval nuclear reactors.5 These and many other immutable positions held by the nuclear enterprise can make it seem as if everything is a requirement and that there can be no serious alternatives without a collapse of the whole deterrence structure.

Labeling something a requirement suggests it is necessary to avoid failure. In Pentagon jargon, however, a requirement is not required. It is the culmination of a decision-making process that found a particular outcome desirable, given other goals and constraints.6 In other words, something becomes required because it was the result of due process, not because it was the only option for achieving a national security goal. Requirements are, in fact, malleable bureaucratic constructions. They reflect and can change with the decision-making process and its inputs and constraints.

The unwillingness to confront the challenge of entrenched interests and ideas has led critics to judge that “all prior NPRs…have generally—and disappointingly—rubber-stamped the nuclear status quo.”7 This also underpins the broader observation by Admiral Charles Richard, the head of Strategic Command, that “this nation has had basically the same strategy dating back to the Kennedy administration. It’s been repeatedly validated through multiple administrations. It would be useful to do that again.”8 If the Biden NPR continues this trend, it should do so only after actively challenging the requirements and assumptions.

Choices, Not Requirements

The contextual nature of requirements can be seen in the shifting arguments in support of the GBSD program. Initially, the requirement for this weapons system was based on cost. Advocates argued that it is cheaper to design, develop, and build a new fleet of 659 ICBMs and to rebuild the command-and-control systems in the 450 missile silos and 45 missile launch control facilities than to sustain the existing Minuteman III fleet.9 When independent analysis suggested otherwise, the requirement argument shifted to technology: the GBSD program is required because the Minuteman III can no longer be maintained or upgraded indefinitely. Yet, numerous options to replace parts of the Minuteman system and keep it functioning for the foreseeable future have been offered. Today, arguments for the GBSD program increasingly focus on new threats that cannot be covered by the Minuteman III. Thus, the GBSD program now is a requirement for deterrence.

Nuclear-powered submarines constitute one leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.  (Photo by U.S. Navy)Before accepting that deterrence and also presumably U.S. national security rely unequivocally on the GBSD program, the administration should ask exactly what ICBMs in general and the GBSD system in particular contribute to deterrence that is necessary or unique and explore other choices to meet this requirement. For example, China’s nuclear modernization may create new targets or make existing targets more difficult to hold at risk. Yet, is deterring China somehow less effective if those targets are covered by submarine-launched nuclear weapons alone or in combination with Minuteman IIIs? More specifically, if the nuclear-armed submarines can hold at risk 95 percent of the targets in China, is it worth the estimated $264 billion life cycle cost of the GBSD program to increase that margin to 97 percent?

These are not rhetorical questions. The imbalance between the arsenal necessary to meet military requirements and the existing stockpile has been an enduring characteristic of U.S. nuclear decision-making. In the early 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that assured destruction of the Soviet Union would require the ability to destroy 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet population and half its industrial capacity.10 He calculated that this would necessitate 400 one-megaton warheads. At the time, the United States had just under 18,000 megatons in its arsenal. McNamara felt that he needed to translate deterrence into a precise requirement or it would be difficult to constrain spending on nuclear weapons.

In 2012 the military concluded it could meet all necessary military requirements with about 1,000 deployed strategic warheads rather than the approximately 1,550 deployed strategic warheads agreed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.11 Almost 10 years later, in April 2021, Richard told the House Armed Services Committee that the triad is designed to meet all presidential requirements even if one leg is lost.12 Put simply, current nuclear deterrence goals could be met without ICBMs, either the Minuteman III or the GBSD program. There is plenty of additional evidence to suggest that the size of the arsenal is derived from something other than military requirements and that there is room for significant reductions without compromising deterrence.

Another requirement that is likely to be examined by the NPR is the production of pits, which are the hollow metal cores that enable the initial explosive reaction in a nuclear weapon. The nuclear establishment has asserted that large-scale pit production is vital because without it, nuclear weapons may not function as specified. If nuclear weapons do not work, then deterrence suffers because deterrence rests on the capability to inflict damage and on the ability to hold at risk things that the enemy values. The debate over pit production, however, is not about whether the weapons will work but how well they will work.

Military requirements for weapons performance are classified, but presumably the administration can be briefed on these requirements and on the degree to which they could suffer if pits do not function exactly as intended. For example, if the government has 90 percent confidence that a nuclear weapon will explode on target with 98 percent of its anticipated yield, does that deter less than a weapon in which there is 95 percent confidence? Given that the United States has about 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and perhaps twice that number in the arsenal of reserve warheads known as the hedge, how many of these weapons have to work at what level to deter? Does the country have enough redundant capability at least to call into question the need to spend $18 billion—a figure certain to increase, perhaps significantly—on the required pit production capability?

The GBSD system, pit production, and multiple other choices about force structure should be considered requirements only after they survive comparison to alternative means for achieving robust deterrence, including force structure trade-offs and possible changes to presidential guidance about targeting and the acceptable margin for error. To make such choices, the administration first needs to scrutinize the myriad requirements for deterrence that often go unexamined.

Requirements for Deterrence

Nuclear weapons are said to deter many things. In April 2021 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard outlined numerous threats facing the United States.13 The list was ominous. China is bent on establishing hegemony in East Asia and denying the United States the ability to project power in the region and to maintain stable relationships with traditional allies. Russia too is focused on expanding its sphere of influence, challenging U.S. leadership, and eroding international norms. North Korea threatens the stability of the Korean peninsula, and Iran is using proxy forces in an attempt to destabilize the Middle East.

In outlining these national security challenges, Richard is no different from other Department of Defense witnesses. Indeed, there seems to be a strong consensus that the United States faces multiple, growing threats, especially in East Asia. What makes Richard’s testimony stand out is not his assessment of the security situation but the nuclear arsenal that he is in charge of mustering in response. He made expansive claims about the power of nuclear deterrence, saying it is “the foundation of our national defense policy and enables every U.S. military operation around the world.”14 More explicitly, he said, nuclear weapons provide the “maneuver space” necessary for the United States “to project conventional military power strategically.”15

An aging Minuteman III missile, slated to be replaced by the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system, is fitted with a new cable by members of the U.S. Air Force. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)The administration’s NPR should make clear its perspective on the expansive role for nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence advocated by Strategic Command. Nuclear deterrence as cover for conventional military operations around the globe and as a requirement for nuclear forces and a posture able to “deter all countries, all the time”16 is a significant expansion of the original mission of these weapons, namely deterring existential threats against the United States. Twenty-plus years after the Cold War, a “bolt from the blue” surprise attack intended to destroy the United States is increasingly dismissed as unlikely.17 Deprived of the main raison d’être, one might expect nuclear weapons to be marginalized or at least relegated to a smaller role in U.S. strategy.

The review also needs to consider what next steps will be necessary if nuclear weapons fail to deter conventional or other aggressive actions. Most specifically, how will escalation be controlled? The experience of Strategic Command is that escalation control never works. “It ends the same way every time,” explained General John Hyten, the Strategic Command chief, in 2018 after the annual Global Thunder wargame. “It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”18

In the event that Russia uses a nuclear weapon for the first time, even on a limited basis, to what extent does Strategic Command planning and U.S. credibility dictate that the president respond not in kind but by escalating, by using just a bit more? This supposedly is the logic behind the escalate-to-deescalate doctrine, under which a country would threaten to ratchet up the violence to make an adversary back down. If Russia and the United States adopt this logic, then escalation is unlikely to be controlled, and the use of even low-yield nuclear options runs a significant risk that it will lead to mutually assured destruction.

From the perspective of deterrence, if the review endorses low-yield nuclear options, it means the administration has examined the requirements for escalation control, brinksmanship, and competitive risk-taking and has concluded that limited goals are worth the danger of total nuclear war.

At the deepest level, the most important requirement that the NPR should examine is that of rational decision-making, a concept fundamental to nuclear deterrence yet most often under-analyzed. Deterrence assumes leaders can weigh rationally the costs and benefits of their actions under any and all circumstances, if not completely then at least sufficiently to justify a final decision. Anyone who has been involved in a crisis understands, however, that this assumption is unrealistic. This is confirmed by a vast literature on foreign policy decision-making, behavioral economics, and behavioral psychology that shows people rely on a variety of less-than-rational shortcuts, especially in a crisis and when the stakes are high, information is missing or uncertain, and time is short.

Research has shown that people tend to assume the current situation is “just like” one they recently experienced or that they make a decision on the basis of a “gut feeling” rather than analyzing the available data or seeking additional relevant data. In a crisis, people tend to assume their motivations are clearly understood and assume that they are more in control of a situation than they actually are. Of particular concern is the tendency in crises for people to be biased toward risk taking rather than playing it safe. Given that in a nuclear crisis a U.S. president is likely to have 15 minutes or less to make a decision with unimaginably profound consequences, the NPR managers should ask themselves the degree to which they expect themselves and any adversary to behave rationally in a crisis and be prepared to explain the answer in detail and in public.

Choices and Assumptions

Given the experience of the past four NPRs, Biden can expect the review process to offer him few real options for nuclear policy reform; these options will likely allow, at best, only narrow deviations from the status quo. The nuclear weapons establishment will limit choice by presenting everything as an interlocking set of military requirements instead of multiple options for meeting deterrence goals.

As the administration weighs inputs into its review, managers could start by searching for and replacing every mention of “military requirement” with “presidential choice.” Biden can treat the requirements with which he is presented as choices that a president is entitled to make and seek new opportunities to satisfy national security needs with fewer nuclear weapons and with less reliance on the threat of their use. Biden finally could choose to reset the guidance to Strategic Command on nuclear deterrence goals. As Richard has recognized, for Strategic Command, “[T]here is a total amount of capability and capacity that's required to execute the responsibilities that I have been given.… We don't have capacity…to start to change that unless we change the guidance, right? And we can always do that.”19

The wisdom of developing new options for nuclear strategy and policy becomes even clearer if all questions of nuclear deterrence are seen not simply as questions of a calculus of nuclear forces and nuclear postures but as sets of unproven assumptions about the likely behavior of the United States and its potential adversaries under conditions of extraordinary uncertainty and stress with no basis for expecting a good outcome.


1. John E. Hyten, Statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, February 26, 2019, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Hyten_02-26-19.pdf.

2. John A. Tirpak, “New GBSD Will Fly in 2023; No Margin Left for Minuteman,” Air Force Magazine, June 14, 2021.

3. Charles Richard, Testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, April 20, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/21-22_04-20-2021.pdf (hereinafter Richard testimony).

4. Sharon K. Weiner, “Reconsidering U.S. Plutonium Pit Production Plans,” Arms Control Today, June 2020.

5. Frank N. von Hippel and Sharon K. Weiner, “No Rush to Enrich: Alternatives for Providing Uranium for U.S. National Security Needs,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2019, pp. 10–15.

6. For a discussion of this lexicon, see Mark Cancian, “Bad Idea: Using the Phrase ‘Military Requirements,’” Defense 360, December 6, 2018, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-using-the-phrase-military-requirements.

7.  Stephen I. Schwartz, “Ready, Aim, Fired: Can Biden Rescue the Nuclear Posture Review?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 30, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/09/ready-aim-fired-can-biden-rescue-the-nuclear-posture-review.

8. Charles Richard, Remarks to the Defense Writers Group, Project for Media and National Security, George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs, January 5, 2021, https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/2/672/files/2021/01/DWG-Admiral-Charles-R.-Richard.pdf.

9. Amy Woolf, “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” CRS Report, RL33640, July 13, 2021, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/nuke/RL33640.pdf.

10. John T. Correll, “The Making of MAD,” Air Force Magazine, July 27, 2018.

11. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Obama Administration Embraces Major New Nuclear Weapons Cut,” Center for Public Integrity, February 8, 2013, https://publicintegrity.org/2013/02/08/12156/obama-administration-embraces-major-new-nuclear-weapons-cut.

12. Richard testimony.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Charles Richard, “Forging 21st-Century Strategic Deterrence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2021.

16. Richard used this phrase on April 22, 2021, when he told the press, “I don't have the luxury of deterring one country at a time, right? I have to deter all countries, all the time, in order to accomplish my mission sets.” “Admiral Charles Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, Holds a Press Briefing,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 22, 2021, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2582171/admiralcharles-a-richard-commander-us-strategic-command-holds-a-press-briefing (hereinafter Richard press briefing).

17. For example, see “The Future of Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Modernization: A Conversation With Admiral Charles Richard,” The Brookings Institution, May 7, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2021/05/fp_20210507_strategic_deterrence_richard_transcript.pdf.

18. John Hyten, Speech at the Mitchell Institute Triad Conference, July 17, 2018, https://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/1577239/the-mitchell-institute-triad-conference/.

19. Richard press briefing.


Sharon K. Weiner is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article draws on and includes parts of testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Forces strategic forces subcommittee on June 16, 2021.

What nuclear weapons are really needed to deter adversaries? The unwillingness to confront the challenge of entrenched interests and ideas has locked the United States into a decades-long status quo.

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Defense, Offense, and Avoiding Arms Races

January/February 2022
By Steven Pifer

President Joe Biden’s administration is conducting a missile defense review in parallel with its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Those reviews will determine whether to adjust the nuclear and missile defense programs that the administration inherited from its predecessor. They will also shape decisions on the contribution that negotiated arms control could make to meet the increasingly complex challenges of maintaining strategic stability and enhancing U.S. and allied security.

A ground-based interceptor (GBI) rocket is launched in May 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Photo by Gene Blevins/AFP via Getty Images)One question the administration should consider is whether it can design a missile defense approach that would protect the homeland against limited attacks by rogue states such as North Korea while avoiding an offense-defense dynamic that would frustrate efforts to achieve nuclear arms reductions with Russia that go beyond the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) or to agree on any constraints on nuclear forces with China.

The Offense-Defense Relationship

In June, the administration launched a missile defense review, which should be completed early in 2022, about the same time as the NPR. The two documents produced by the reviews should be considered in tandem.

Washington and Moscow have long recognized the interrelationship between strategic offense and defense. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1972 produced agreements addressing both sides of the equation. The Interim Offensive Agreement constrained intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limited strategic missile interceptors and prohibited a national missile defense. The two accords were seen as enhancing strategic stability, a situation in which incentives for the United States or the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to strike first with nuclear weapons were minimized.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan took a different approach in 1983 with the Strategic Defense Initiative. He sought to defend the United States against ballistic missile attacks of any size, although the limitations of technology and cost frustrated that goal. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999 set U.S. policy so as to “deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.”1

The George W. Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and subsequently began deploying ground-based interceptors (GBIs) to engage strategic ballistic missile warheads. The United States maintains 44 GBIs, with plans to add 20 more by 2030. The military also deploys Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, which are designed to engage short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile warheads.

The Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review affirmed the idea of defending against “a limited ICBM attack” mounted by a rogue state, although the president’s comment that the U.S. goal was to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace” suggested that he might have something more ambitious in mind.2 As for Russian and Chinese strategic ballistic missiles, the review said the United States “relies on nuclear deterrence to prevent potential Russian or Chinese nuclear attacks.” The review spelled out, however, new technologies for exploration and possible development.3 Moreover, in 2020, the Pentagon successfully tested an SM-3 interceptor against an ICBM warhead-class target as part of an effort to develop a second layer of interceptors to supplement the GBI system.

Although Russian officials regularly voice concern about U.S. missile defenses, their fears appear overstated given Russia’s large ICBM and SLBM warhead numbers. Still, the Russian military has developed systems such as the Avangard boost-glide vehicle to penetrate missile defenses. In addition, Russia maintains its own missile defense systems, including the A-135 system protecting Moscow, the S-400, and the new S-500. The latter two systems are advertised as having capabilities similar to the SM-3 and THAAD systems.

Beijing too has expressed concern about U.S. missile defenses, including their ability to negate a retaliatory strike following a U.S. attack on China’s nuclear deterrent. That concern could explain the recent Chinese test of what appears to have been a hypersonic glide vehicle mounted on a fractional orbital bombardment system.4 Such a system could approach the United States from the south, thus potentially evading U.S. missile defense radars that are oriented toward threats from the north or the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. At least for the near term, Beijing’s concerns have a stronger base than Moscow’s, given the significantly smaller number of Chinese strategic warheads.

Offense Wins and Arms Race Concerns

With existing missile defense capabilities, offense will win the strategic offense-defense competition, a point acknowledged in September by General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, “The defensive capabilities that we have been building tend to be very cost prohibitive on us.… And when our interceptor costs more than the weapon attacking us, that’s a bad place to be.”5 This echoes the argument made by U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze in 1985 that missile defenses should be judged on, among other things, whether they are cost effective at the margin.6

Current U.S. missile defenses fall short of that criterion. The cost of a GBI missile and kill vehicle is $65–75 million. Although the Pentagon says GBI systems have succeeded in 55 percent of their tests, skeptics argue that, given the scripted nature of the tests, this record likely overstates their performance. If these interceptors could replicate their test performance in a real attack, it would take three GBIs, costing $195–225 million, to have a 91 percent chance of destroying an incoming warhead. Russia, China, and North Korea could each build many additional warheads and decoys for that same amount of money.7

This calculation could change, most probably if a missile defense technology based on directed energy were to prove feasible. For the foreseeable future, however, spending heavily on existing strategic missile defenses appears a losing game. An adversary can increase the number of its strategic warheads and decoys at far less cost. Although existing U.S. strategic missile defenses may not be that effective, the other side will assume they will improve and increase in number. That will affect the adversary’s calculation of what strategic offensive force it needs to be able to absorb a first strike and overcome U.S. missile defenses to inflict a powerful retaliatory blow.

If missile defenses remain unconstrained and grow in number, the other side may conclude that it must expand its strategic offensive forces. This may well be a factor behind China’s apparent effort to increase its strategic nuclear forces. Russian military planners, facing questions about the future of U.S. missile defenses, might question whether Russia can afford reductions below New START’s limits. The situation could devolve into something similar to the competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s with both sides increasing ICBM and SLBM forces in part to have confidence in defeating the other’s developing strategic missile defenses. In the worst case, Washington might find itself in offense-defense races with both Russia and China.

Missile Defense Review

The Biden administration’s Missile Defense Review should address several questions. First, should the objective of U.S. missile defense policy remain protecting against a limited ballistic missile attack on the United States? If so, are specific programs unnecessary for that goal, or do they suggest to potential adversaries a desire to defend against larger-scale attacks?

Looking out over the next 10 to 20 years, will U.S. GBIs and other interceptors improve their ability to destroy ICBM and SLBM warheads and come closer to meeting Nitze’s cost-effectiveness criterion? It is not just about a higher probability of hitting the target; the interceptor should not cost so much that an adversary could cheaply overwhelm the defense by adding warheads and decoys. A major factor affecting the answer to these questions will turn on the ability of radars, other sensors, and the interceptor itself to discriminate between warheads and decoys. GBI tests to date have not involved decoys and other countermeasures that are realistic.8

Another issue is whether there is some level of missile defense capability that the United States would consider adequate to deal with limited rogue-state attacks and, if so, what level that would be. Could that level be sufficiently low that it would not create incentives for Russia and China to increase their strategic offensive forces?

The review should also examine the pluses and minuses of giving SM-3 and THAAD missiles the capability to intercept ICBM- and SLBM-class targets. Creating a second layer to defend the United States may seem attractive. Yet, such capabilities may count for little if the warships carrying the SM-3 interceptors and the ground units equipped with THAAD missiles are deployed forward and thus not positioned to defend the U.S. homeland. Even so, these systems could still incentivize Russia and China to increase their ballistic missile numbers out of concern that the interceptors could be redeployed if needed to defend the homeland.

Missile Defense and Arms Control

Following up on the summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, U.S. and Russian officials began a strategic stability dialogue. Senior U.S. officials have said they want to reduce reliance on nuclear arms and engage Russia in a negotiation to cover all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, not just the deployed strategic warheads constrained by New START. Russian officials, however, have different priorities, including missile defense and long-range conventional-strike weapons.9 Reconciling these competing priorities could pose a major challenge.

The Trump administration’s review stated repeatedly that it would not agree to any limits on missile defenses that are intended to protect against rogue-state ballistic missiles. The Obama administration resisted Russian efforts to bring missile defense into the New START negotiations. The treaty preamble notes the “interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” but contains just one limit related to missile defense: a prohibition on converting ICBM or SLBM launchers so that they could launch missile interceptors.

One option for Washington is to continue to reject any constraints on missile defense. Unlike its Russian and Chinese counterparts, the U.S. military seems relatively unconcerned about the ability of adversary missile defenses to prevent U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs from reaching their targets. Notably, the Pentagon has not sought limits to constrain Russian missile defenses.

A launcher for a Russian anti-ballistic missile system was on display at the Russian Army's 2021 International Military and Technical Forum near Moscow.  (Photo by Sergei Karpukhin\TASS via Getty Images)Russian officials, however, could continue to insist on addressing missile defense. In that case, the Biden administration would have to decide whether the U.S. interest in a negotiation covering all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is such that it justifies agreeing to confidence- and transparency-building measures on missile defense or even actual limits.

Washington has offered transparency measures in the past. In 2013 the Obama administration proposed an agreement mandating annual data exchanges with current numbers of certain missile defense systems, such as interceptors and radars, and projected numbers each year for the next 10 years. The Russians did not take up the idea.10 Other proposals have included exchanging notifications on missile launches through a Joint Data Exchange Center, an idea that was agreed by the United States and Russia in 1998 but never implemented. The idea was revived in 2011 in discussions regarding a NATO-Russian data fusion center, but the sides reached no agreement.

Washington might also consider actual limits. One idea would be to offer a time-limited ban on the testing or deployment of space-based interceptors. Such systems could pose stability concerns, but neither the U.S. military nor the Russian military has them at present.11 This could offer a way to defuse Moscow’s worst-case fears about U.S. plans.

Another approach would entail numerical constraints on missile defenses. Assuming that a successor to New START would have a duration of 10 to 15 years, with a provision for extension, Washington and Moscow might reach an agreement of similar duration on missile defenses. It appears possible to have a limit that would accommodate the U.S. desire for a capability to defend against limited rogue-state ballistic missile attacks while offering Russia and perhaps China assurance that their strategic ballistic missiles would not require a build-up.

For example, a limit of 100 to 125 strategic interceptors, along with transparency and verification measures, would permit the U.S. military to boost the number of GBIs beyond the 64 it plans to have in 2030. That would provide significant capability against North Korea, but should leave peer competitors with confidence that they could still hold at risk a large number of targets in the United States. Trying to include SM-3, THAAD, S-400, and S-500 missiles would significantly complicate this arrangement.

For the administration, negotiating such GBI limits would prove controversial politically, given the support among Republicans in Congress for strategic missile defense. It might also turn out to be only one of several issues the Russians try to link to a U.S.-desired limit on all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

It appears, however, that a limit could be possible that would allow the U.S. military to maintain a capability to defend against a rogue-state ballistic missile attack while assuring Russia and China that their nuclear deterrents would not be rendered ineffective. That could enable further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions, lower the likelihood of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese arms races, and perhaps open the door to a productive strategic stability discussion with Beijing. Hopefully, the Missile Defense Review will offer Biden such options.


1. Greg Thielmann, “The National Missile Defense Act of 1999,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009-07/national-missile-defense-act-1999.

2. Kingston Reif, “Trump Seeks Missile Defense Buildup,” Arms Control Today, March 2019, pp. 30–32, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-03/news/trump-seeks-missile-defense-buildup.

3. Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “2019 Missile Defense Review,” n.d., https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Interactive/2018/11-2019-Missile-Defense-Review/The%202019%20MDR_Executive%20Summary.pdf.

4. Cameron Tracy, “De-Hyping China’s Missile Test,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 21, 2021, https://allthingsnuclear.org/guest-commentary/de-hyping-chinas-missile-test/.

5. “A Conversation With Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John E. Hyten,” The Brookings Institution, September 13, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/fp_20210913_hyten_jcs_transcript.pdf.

6. Strobe Talbott, Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 217.

7. Andrey Baklitskiy, James Cameron, and Steven Pifer, “Missile Defense and the Offense-Defense Relationship,” Deep Cuts Commission Working Paper, No. 14 (October 2021), pp. 23-24, https://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/DeepCuts_WP14.pdf.

8. David Wright, “Decoys Used in Missile Defense Intercept Tests, 1999–2018,” Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2019, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2019/01/Missile-Defense-Intercept-Test-Decoys-white-paper.pdf.

9. Amy F. Woolf, “Nuclear Arms Control After the Biden-Putin Summit,” CRS Insight, IN11694, September 30, 2021, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IN/IN11694.

10. Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Arms Control Choices for the Next Administration,”
Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series Paper, No. 13 (October 2016), p. 15, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/acnpi_20161025_arms_control_choices_final.pdf.

11. James Timbie, “A Way Forward,” Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 2 (Spring 2020): 190–204, https://doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_01797.


Steven Pifer is a William Perry Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. This article is based on the Deep Cuts Commission working paper “Missile Defense and the Offense-Defense Relationship” co-authored with Andrey Baklitskiy and James Cameron.


As the United States and Russia contemplate new nuclear weapons reductions, the U.S. missile defense program stands as a complicating factor.

U.S., Russia Broaden Strategic Dialogue

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball and Shannon Bugos

Senior U.S. and Russian officials have agreed to meet in Geneva on Jan. 10 to discuss a long list of security issues, including a wide-ranging set of Russian proposals that Moscow says are designed to provide “security guarantees.” In recent weeks, tensions have flared as Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russian military activity near Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014, and complained about NATO military support for Ukraine and Georgia.

President Joe Biden speaks to the press as he departs the White House on Dec. 8, a day after a virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another virtual summit was held on Dec. 30 as tensions over Ukraine heated up.  (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)On Dec. 15, Karen Donfried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who transmitted two draft agreements outlining political and military security guarantees Moscow wants from the United States and NATO. They include demands that NATO renounce any expansion eastward into states of the former Soviet bloc, including Ukraine, and limit troop and weapons deployments and military drills on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two days later, Russia published its proposals, one between Russia and the United States and another between Russia and NATO. “We hope that the United States will enter into serious talks with Russia in the near future regarding this matter, which has critical importance for maintaining peace and stability, using the Russian draft treaty and agreement as a starting point,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The White House quickly announced it would engage on the proposals, but insisted its European partners would also be involved. The Russian-U.S. strategic stability dialogue in Geneva is expected to be followed on Jan. 12 by talks in Brussels within the NATO-Russia Council, which has not met in more than two years.

“We’ll listen to Russia explain its proposals and the underlying concerns motivating them. We’ll respond and share our own concerns, and we do have many,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Jan. 4 of the Geneva meeting.

He stressed that the talks are narrowly focused on strategic stability matters and described the U.S. goal as being able to “identify a few issues where there might be enough common ground to continue discussions and ultimately address together.”

Price also emphasized that the talks would deal strictly with bilateral matters and “we’re not going to talk above the heads of our European allies and partners.”

On Dec. 30, President Joe Biden spoke with Putin on security matters, the second such conversation that month. According to a statement released by the White House, Biden “… urged Russia to deescalate tensions with Ukraine. He made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine. President Biden also expressed support for diplomacy, starting early next year [and] reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of deescalation rather than escalation.”

The January meetings were scheduled as fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continues and as concerns linger about Russia’s military activities along its common border with Ukraine. Last month, U.S. officials said Russia has amassed around 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border that could be used against Ukraine. On Dec. 25, Reuters reported that more than 10,000 Russian troops were leaving regions near Ukraine, including Crimea, Rostov, and Kuban, and returning to permanent bases in Russia.

The Russian-U.S. talks will occur in the context of the strategic stability dialogue launched after the June summit between Biden and Putin to discuss nuclear weapons-related issues. The previous two rounds, in July and September, were led by Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

The dialogue was originally designed to explore future arms control options. After the September dialogue, Moscow and Washington agreed to establish two working groups, one on “principles and objectives for future arms control” and the other on “capabilities and actions with strategic effects.”

How the broadened dialogue will affect progress toward negotiations on new nuclear arms control arrangements is not yet clear. Both sides have indicated interest in a new agreement or agreements to supersede the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in February 2026. The treaty caps Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles and heavy bombers each. The Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body, last met Oct. 5–14 in Geneva.

One Russian security proposal calls for the United States not to deploy outside its borders any missiles formerly banned under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Under that treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union banned all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, leading to the elimination of a total of 2,692 missiles.

After Washington withdrew from the accord in 2019, Putin proposed that the two countries impose a moratorium on the deployment of INF Treaty-range missiles and later added mutual verification measures to the proposal. Russia also indicated that its 9M729 cruise missile, which the United States alleged was a violation of the INF Treaty, would be covered by its proposal.

At the time, the Trump administration and NATO dismissed the Russian proposal. The Biden administration has not clarified whether it would consider the Russian concept or offer a counterproposal.

The draft Russian-U.S. agreement proposes that the two countries “shall undertake not to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories, as well as in the areas of their national territories, from which such weapons can attack targets in the national territory of the other party.”

The draft Russian-NATO agreement also includes a moratorium, proposing that “the parties shall not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other parties.”

Additionally, Moscow proposed that Russia and the United States “refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories” and “not train military and civilian personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons.”

This refers to the U.S.-NATO nuclear sharing agreement, under which Washington is estimated to deploy more than 100 B61 gravity bombs across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, with all but the Turkish air force assigned and trained to carry out nuclear strike missions with the U.S. weapons.

Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, outlined the key concepts for U.S. arms control efforts in a Sept. 6 speech. “First, we will look to capture new kinds of intercontinental-range nuclear delivery systems. Second, we will seek to address all nuclear warheads, including those which have not been limited previously, like so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons. Third, we will seek to retain limits on Russian intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments after New START expires in 2026,” she said.

It remains unclear how the two sides could bridge their nuclear differences and when they might transition from the dialogue to more formal negotiations on a successor to New START. Biden said in June that “we’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

Russian, U.S. officials planned security talks for Jan. 10.

Congress Boosts Defense Budget By $25 Billion

January/February 2022
By Shannon Bugos

U.S. lawmakers have authorized a $25 billion increase to the annual defense policy bill’s topline, bringing the total to $768 billion. The total reflects bipartisan views that President Joe Biden’s proposal was insufficient to deter China and Russia and keep pace with inflation.

The B-21 Raider strategic bomber, shown here in an image provided by Northrup Grumman Corp., is among the weapons systems that will receive increased funding under the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. (Photo by Northrup Grumman Corp.)The fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), approved by Congress in December, “makes great progress,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “It addresses a broad range of pressing issues, from strategic competition with China and Russia; to disruptive technologies like hypersonics, [artificial intelligence,] and quantum computing; to modernizing our ships, aircraft, and vehicles.” The committee’s version of the NDAA, passed July 21, included the $25 billion increase to the administration’s NDAA request of $743 billion.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said the NDAA “bolsters our national security” and “prepare[s] our military to face the ever-growing threat of China.” Rogers had introduced an amendment in the committee for the boost to the request, which the committee approved in its version of the NDAA on Sept. 2.

The House passed the NDAA on Sept. 23, but the Senate deadlocked over the legislation and failed to pass its own version. The leaders of the respective armed services committees then bypassed the usual conference committee, during which the chambers reconcile their respective versions of a bill, and negotiated a final compromise bill between themselves.

The House passed the compromise NDAA on Dec. 7 by a vote of 363–70, and the Senate followed with an 88–11 vote on Dec. 15. Biden signed the legislation into law on Dec. 27, marking the 61st consecutive year that an NDAA has been enacted.

“This bill represents compromise between both parties and chambers—as a result, every single member involved has something in it they like and something that didn’t get into the bill that they wish had,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) in a Dec. 7 statement. “Ultimately, our responsibility as a Congress to provide for the common defense supersedes these areas of disagreement, making the substance of this bill and its signature into law critical.”

But the NDAA only authorizes the funding. Congress has yet to pass the defense and energy and water appropriations bills, which appropriate actual spending, and is not expected to do so until at least mid-February, when the continuing resolution passed on Dec. 2 expires.

The legislation authorizes a total $5.1 billion for the construction and continued research and development of what ultimately will be a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, an increase of $138 million from Biden’s budget request. (See ACT, July/August 2021.) The Senate summary of the legislation attributed part of the cost to the need for “industrial base development and expansion.”

The NDAA includes the $15.2 million requested by the Defense and Energy departments for the development of a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) and its associated low-yield nuclear warhead. The House Appropriations Committee has zeroed out this funding in its version of the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill, therefore leaving the possibility that this SLCM program ultimately may not receive any funding.

The Trump administration proposed this controversial SLCM program in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). (See ACT, March 2018.) The NDAA would exert some oversight over the program by restricting travel by select Navy staff until the department releases the analysis of alternatives for the new capability and briefs Congress on it.

Congress authorized the Air Force’s $3 billion request for the B-21 Raider strategic bomber program, including $108 million for initial procurement. The legislation also approved the service’s $609 million request for the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapons program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), a 58 percent increase from the fiscal year 2021 authorization.

Bloomberg reported in July that the projected total cost of the development and procurement phases of the LRSO program will fall between $14.2 billion and $16.2 billion, an increase of 30 to 50 percent from the Air Force’s 2016 estimate. (See ACT, September 2021.) In the 2022 NDAA, Congress prohibited the awarding of the LRSO procurement contract until the Pentagon conducts additional cost analysis and justifies the awarding of a sole-source contract for the program. The Air Force announced in April 2020 that Raytheon would be the sole contractor for the LRSO program and awarded the company a $2 billion development contract in July 2021. (See ACT, September 2021; May 2020.)

The legislation also provided $2.6 billion for continued R&D and initial missile procurement for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, the same as the Biden budget request and $1.1 billion more than the previous year’s authorization. The GBSD missiles are slated to replace the fleet of 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) beginning in 2029.

The Pentagon requested in late 2021 a report by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by the end of January on potential options for the future of the land-based leg of the nuclear triad, but the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is scheduled for release around the same time, casting doubt on how influential the Carnegie report could be.

Meanwhile, there has been significant pushback from Congress on downsizing or eliminating the ICBM leg, as evidenced by the NDAA provision that bars any 2022 funding from going toward reducing the number of deployed ICBMs below 400.

The Carnegie report will help “to make sure we surface the full range of viewpoints across the political spectrum, tension points, and key considerations, so that the Department can benefit from those insights during the NPR process,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in a Nov. 8 letter to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The senator had written Kahl in September following the abrupt departure of the department’s lead on the NPR process, Leonor Tomero, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, from the Pentagon. (See ACT, December 2021.)

In addition to the NPR, which began in July, the Pentagon is working on two other complementary studies, the National Defense Strategy and the Missile Defense Review, which began in June. (See ACT, September and October 2021.) The White House is also working on the National Security Strategy, which helps to guide these three Pentagon documents. Kahl said on Dec. 8 that the National Security Strategy will be released “early in the new year,” to be followed by the National Defense Strategy.

Relatedly, the NDAA mandates the establishment of a congressional commission to examine and offer recommendations regarding the long-term U.S. strategic posture, including a strategic threat assessment and a review of nuclear weapons policy, strategy, and force structure.

In the 2022 legislation, Congress also authorized the Army’s request of $286 million for the development of a conventional, ground-launched, midrange missile capability. The service announced in 2020 its selection of the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk cruise missile to serve as the bases for this capability. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) Both missiles likely would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in August 2019.

The overall national defense topline, including defense-related activities outside the scope of the armed services committees, is anticipated to be $778 billion for fiscal year 2022, a 3.4 percent increase from the administration’s request. In the coming years, the Pentagon is expected to face tough choices as the defense budget is projected to experience no growth beyond inflation adjustments.

The Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains and modernizes the nuclear warhead stockpile, received a total of $16 billion for its nuclear weapons activities account, a $497 million increase from the Biden administration’s request. Congress gave the NNSA a mammoth 24 percent increase in its 2021 authorization compared to the previous year and set the agency on track to request and thus far receive a larger annual budget than projections had anticipated.

The NDAA will provide the requested funds for the B61-12 gravity bomb, the W87-1 ICBM warhead, and the W80-4 ALCM warhead upgrade at $772 million, $691 million, and $1.1 billion, respectively. Congress also authorized the requested $1.6 billion to increase the production rate of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year at two production sites.

In addition, U.S. lawmakers approved funding for other controversial NNSA programs proposed by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration. These include the new high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead (W93), along with an associated aeroshell, for $134 million, and the megaton-class B83-1 gravity bomb for $98.5 million.

Meanwhile, Congress for the second year in a row slashed the Pentagon’s proposal for a layered homeland missile defense system. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has plans to adapt the Aegis missile defense and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, both designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited ICBM threats, which is currently the aim of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California.

Congress made an 87 percent reduction in the $99 million MDA request for adapting the Aegis system to supplement the GMD system due to “lack of requirement,” according to the budget documents. The law also zeroed out $65 million that was requested to demonstrate THAAD capabilities against longer-range threats, as the request was “unjustified” and “lacking [an] acquisition strategy.”

But lawmakers funded the $745 million R&D request for the GMD system, as well as $926 million for the development of the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) missile. The Pentagon plans to supplement the existing 44 ground-based interceptors with 20 NGI missiles beginning not later than 2028, a timeline endorsed by the NDAA, so as to bring the fleet total to 64.

Congress once again boosted the Cooperative Threat Reduction program after receiving a greatly reduced budget request from previous appropriation levels. This program is aimed at reducing threats from weapons of mass destruction and related challenges, including the spread of dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

The Trump administration aimed to cut the program in fiscal year 2021 by 36 percent from the previous year’s appropriation, but Congress thwarted the effort. (See ACT, April 2020.) For 2022, the Biden administration proposed a significant 33 percent cut from the 2021 appropriation of $360 million, but the NDAA boosted the $240 million request by 44 percent, to $345 million, specifically in support of the Biological Threat Reduction Program.

U.S. lawmakers authorized a $25 billion increase in annual defense spending to $768 billion.

AUKUS States Sign Information Exchange Deal

January/February 2022
By Julia Masterson

For the first time, the United Kingdom and the United States may now share sensitive naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, as a result of a trilateral agreement signed on Nov. 22.

The HMS Vigilant, a UK Valiant-class submarine, in Scotland in 2019. The UK and the United States recently agreed to share sensitive naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia under a new security partnership known as AUKUS.  (Photo by James Glossop - WPA Pool/Getty Images)The Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement marks the latest step by the security partnership, known as AUKUS, to provide Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.

The multifaceted AUKUS initiative, announced Sept. 15, will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and long-range-strike, cyber-, and quantum capabilities. According to U.S. President Joe Biden on Sept. 15, the objective of the new trilateral alliance is “ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term.”

Although the submarine project is in its early stages, the AUKUS pact could ultimately allow Australia to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear submarine. (See ACT, October 2021.)

In a Nov. 22 press release, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton stressed that the agreement allows only for the sharing of information, not equipment or technology. The agreement is subject to consideration by the U.S. Congress under Section 123 of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, which regulates U.S. nuclear trade, and to a UK parliamentary review. Section 123 establishes conditions and outlines the process for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries.

According to a Dec. 1 message from the White House to Congress, “The agreement would permit the three parties to communicate and exchange naval nuclear propulsion information and would provide authorization to share certain restricted data as may be needed during trilateral discussions, thereby enabling full and effective consultations.”

Dutton explained that the agreement will support an 18-month examination by the three countries into the steps necessary for Australia to acquire the submarines, including training and education to “safely and effectively build, operate, and support nuclear-powered submarines.” It remains unclear whether the vessels will be based on existing UK or U.S. attack submarines or on an entirely new design. In September, Dutton told reporters that Australia may lease vessels from its partners in the near term to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors [and to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” suggesting that the submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS project already has skirted international norms regarding the sharing of nuclear information and technology between nuclear and non-nuclear states. Pending domestic legislative review in the UK and the United States, Australia will soon become the first non-nuclear-weapon state privy to the sensitive engineering and mechanics of U.S. and UK nuclear submarines, powered by onboard nuclear reactors. Even without the transfer of materials, the sharing of protected information on UK and U.S. naval nuclear propulsion design entrusts Australia with an immense responsibility as a steward of that sensitive technical knowledge.

Australia’s new submarines will likely run on highly enriched uranium. Australia is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and on Nov. 22, Dutton asserted that “Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Irrespective of Canberra’s intentions, however, because only nuclear-weapon states currently field nuclear submarines, there is no precedent for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to safeguard naval nuclear propulsion technology or the fissile material used on board those vessels. As a non-nuclear-weapon NPT state, Australia is required to place all nuclear materials within its jurisdiction under nuclear safeguards. Mounting uncertainty over whether and how Australia’s vessels will be appropriately safeguarded is exacerbating concerns about potential nuclear proliferation and the precedent the new submarines could set.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Nov. 22 that nuclear submarine cooperation among Australia, the UK, and the United States “deliberately escalates regional tensions, stimulates [an] arms race, threatens regional peace and stability, and undermines international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”

In an Oct. 29 memo to the IAEA, China called for a special meeting of the agency’s members to consider the parameters of a regime to safeguard naval nuclear technology. Beijing urged that the AUKUS partners refrain from commencing their cooperation until a safeguards system is in place.

Although the November sharing arrangement pertains only to information, not nuclear materials, the Chinese spokesman criticized the nuclear submarine scheme as “clearly violat[ing] the object and purpose of the NPT and seriously impact[ing] the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

“It is extremely irresponsible for the three countries to forge the so-called agreement on the exchange of naval nuclear propulsion information [and] advance nuclear submarine cooperation in disregard of international rules and opposition of parties,” Zhao said.

In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov. 24, Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that Australia, the UK, and the United States had not provided the agency with additional information on the project or its safeguards implications since announcing the agreement in September.

The United Kingdom and the United States may now share naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia.

Congress Fails to Block Saudi Arms Sales

January/February 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Despite continuing controversy over U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia, a divided Congress in December failed to block the sale of air-to-air missiles to Riyadh and to prohibit some support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Critical to the debate was what constitutes “offensive” weaponry and military action.

Yemenis inspect the scene of an aerial attack, carried out by a jet aircraft of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 23 in Sana'a, Yemen.  (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)The Biden administration notified Congress in early November of its desire to sell 280 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles and associated launchers to Saudi Arabia for $650 million. Amid intense debate about the sale, the administration made clear that it believed the deal was consistent with President Joe Biden’s Feb. 4 pledge to end support for “offensive operations” in the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting with the Houthi rebels since 2015. The administration claimed in a Dec. 7 policy statement and elsewhere that the missiles could not be used against ground targets and that “Saudi Arabia uses these munitions to defend against aerial cross-border attacks, such as Houthi explosive-laden drones.”

The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have been accused of atrocities in the Yemen war, which in 2021 was marked by the continued advance of Houthi forces, especially around Marib, and by Saudi-led airstrikes. The Houthis do not have an air force, but have used drones in attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition has continued a controversial blockade of Houthi-controlled sea- and airports, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Opponents of the air-to-air missile deal generally cited reasons other than whether these were “defensive” weapons. On Nov. 12, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who introduced a resolution of disapproval for the sale in the House, said, “It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter innocent people and starve millions in Yemen, kill and torture dissidents, and support modern-day slavery.” Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the Senate resolution on Nov. 18, arguing in part that the war was not approved by Congress and the weapons would reward Saudi bad behavior inside the kingdom, as well as exacerbate suffering in Yemen. The senators were later joined by six Democratic co-sponsors, many of whom had signed a letter in May encouraging Biden to "leverage all influence and tools available, including the potential impact on pending weapons sales…to demand that Saudi Arabia immediately and unconditionally stop the use of blockade tactics."

On Dec. 7, a majority of Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), voted to advance the resolution of disapproval. No Republicans, aside from Paul and Lee, supported the resolution, which failed by a 30–67 vote.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who had co-sponsored numerous bipartisan resolutions of disapproval during previous administrations, did not support the resolution. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) Also not supporting the resolution was Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who said in a statement, “The weapons up for discussion today are being used in this context to defend against these aerial attacks. As air-to-air missiles, they are largely incapable of attacking civilian targets or infrastructure, a critical factor in my decision to support this sale.”

Menendez added that protecting civilians remained a priority and that he would continue to hold up other sales to Saudi Arabia, indicating “there are many other sales that have not moved forward, that
I have not permitted to get out of the [c]ommittee.” Although he did not say what these sales might be, his comments suggest that so-called offensive weapons that could more easily be used against civilians would remain controversial to influential Democratic senators such as himself.

Separately, in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022 approved in December, Congress extended prohibitions on in-flight refueling by U.S. military planes of Saudi and other non-U.S. aircraft active in hostilities in Yemen. But the final version of the legislation did not retain measures that had been in the House version that prohibited support to offensive operations more broadly. Instead, the measure contained a policy statement on protecting civilians and required a report on whether Saudi Arabia had “undertaken offensive airstrikes...resulting in civilian casualties.” (See ACT, November 2021.) In a November policy statement, the Biden administration argued that stronger prohibitions were not needed because it “already has ceased support for Saudi-led coalition offensive operations in Yemen.”

Congress in December failed to block the sale of air-to-air missiles to Riyadh.

Congress Authorizes Accelerated Hypersonics Plan

January/February 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Congress has voted to authorize and, in some instances, substantially increase the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request for the accelerated development and deployment of hypersonic weapons capabilities amid increasing rhetoric from Pentagon officials that the United States is falling behind and needs to catch up to China and Russia.

A U.S. airman with the 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron secures the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (AARW) as it is loaded under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber at Edwards Air Force Base, California in 2020. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)The Pentagon in May requested a total of $3.8 billion for projects related to the research, development, and initial procurement of hypersonic weapons for fiscal year 2022. Congress either rubber-stamped or increased the requested amounts, except for two programs, in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by the House on Dec.7 and the Senate on Dec. 15. President Joe Biden signed the legislation on Dec. 27.

The passage of the NDAA came as defense officials called for the United States to speed up its development of hypersonic capabilities, in particular following a test by China in July that, according to published reports, featured a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the globe before launching a separate projectile over the South China Sea and then striking within two dozen miles of its target. (See ACT, November 2021.)

“There is an arms race, not necessarily for increased numbers, but for increased quality,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Reuters on Nov. 30. “The Chinese have been at it very aggressively,” he said, while the United States has not “done enough.”

Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the Space Force, noted on Nov. 20 that the United States has some “catching up to do very quickly.”

On Nov. 16, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged that the Chinese test should “create a sense of urgency” in the United States “from a technology perspective.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to comment on the Chinese test, but said on Nov. 17 that the Pentagon will “continue to move as fast as we can to develop [hypersonic] capabilities.” On Dec. 4, Austin asserted that the United States will meet “the pacing challenge [of China] with confidence and resolve, not panic and pessimism.”

The Trump administration launched an accelerated plan for the development and deployment of conventional hypersonic weapons, which the Biden administration continued in its 2022 budget request and Congress has now kicked up a notch with the 2022 NDAA. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

The 2022 NDAA fully authorizes the Air Force’s request for $238 million for continued research and development on the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, and $200 million for the new Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile program. Congress decreased the initial procurement budget for the ARRW system from $161 million to $117 million. The system failed three flight booster tests in 2021, with the latest failure on Dec. 15 when “the launch sequence was aborted before release with an unknown issue,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Heath Collins told The War Zone on Dec. 17. (See ACT, September 2021.)

As for the Navy, Congress boosted the budget for the Conventional Prompt Strike program, which features the common hypersonic glide body that is shared with the Army’s program, by $124 million above the requested amount to $1.5 billion, a 95 percent increase from the fiscal year 2021 authorization for the program. The Navy plans to add the system to Zumwalt-class destroyers starting in fiscal year 2025 and to Virginia-class submarines in fiscal year 2028.

The Navy’s request for $57 million for its new Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment II weapon was cut by $23 million due to “lack of program justification.”

The Army received the full request of $301 million for R&D on the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) and $111 million for additional LRHW batteries. The service plans to begin operating the program in fiscal year 2023.

A Nov. 12 report by Bloomberg, based on an estimate from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, highlighted the rapidly growing costs of the Navy’s and Army’s hypersonic programs, which share the common hypersonic glide body. The office projects that these programs will add $21.5 billion to the Navy’s budget and $7 billion to the Army’s budget in the coming years.

According to the CAPE office estimate, the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program will cost $10 billion for development, $11 billion for production, and $400 million for related military construction. The Navy is planning for 240 missiles in all, at a cost of $89.6 million each.

The CAPE office estimated that the Army’s LRHW program will cost the Pentagon $4.4 billion for development and $2.5 billion for production. With a plan for 66 missiles, including 48 development models, the cost of each LRHW missile comes to $106 million.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman, a Defense Department spokesperson, told Bloomberg that the CAPE cost projection is “in close alignment with the Army and Navy cost estimates for their respective programs.”

The rising estimates illuminate the motivation behind the remarks of Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, in October that “we need to figure out how to drive towards more affordable hypersonics.”

The Pentagon successfully conducted a second test of the first-stage booster rocket motor for the common hypersonic glide body on Oct. 28. The department last tested the glide body in March 2020. (See ACT, April 2020.)

“We are on schedule for the upcoming flight test of the full common hypersonic missile,” said Vice Adm. Johnny R. Wolfe Jr., director of the Navy’s strategic systems programs. This test is scheduled to occur by the fall of 2022.

Meanwhile, Congress authorized $256 million for the hypersonic programs overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a 47 percent increase from the agency’s request. One of those programs is for the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), for which the Pentagon successfully conducted a free flight test in September. Congress authorized an additional $37 million for the HAWC program above the DARPA request of $10 million.

The 2022 NDAA also included provisions related to the testing and development of hypersonic weapons. One provision requires the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress comparing U.S. efforts to deploy hypersonic weapons and other emerging technologies to those of China.

Congress authorized the Biden administration’s 2022 budget request for the accelerated development of hypersonic weapons.


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