New Nuclear Posture Review Sends Mixed Signals at Time of Heightened Nuclear Danger

A Preliminary Analysis by Daryl G. Kimball, executive director

For Immediate Release: Oct. 26, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107); Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst (202-463-8270 x113)

(Washington, D.C.)— After delaying for nearly seven months the release of the public version of the classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Pentagon-led study sends muddled messages about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy at a time when the United States should be more clearly de-emphasizing the salience of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear weapons use.

At the same time, the NPR appropriately and smartly "places renewed emphasis on nuclear arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, and risk reduction," which is vitally important as the last U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty expires in less than three and a half years, and the risk of nuclear weapons use in the context of Russia's war on Ukraine is as high as any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago.

The NPR notes that verifiable nuclear arms control strategies offer "the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use" and calls for a greater emphasis on nuclear risk reduction dialogue with the United States' primary nuclear adversaries, Russia, and China.

A Risky, Status Quo Nuclear Weapons Declaratory Policy

The study, which was coordinated by the Pentagon and approved by President Biden, reiterates longstanding policy reserving the right of the United States to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear weapons threats "in extreme" circumstances to defend the "vital interests of its Allies and partners."

The 2022 NPR declares that "the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners." The document acknowledges that there is "a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring attacks that have a strategic effect against the United States or its Allies and partners."

This broad and ambiguous nuclear weapons declaratory policy walks back President Biden's earlier position and pledge to narrow the role of U.S. nuclear weapons. In 2020, Biden wrote "that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

The 2022 NPR reports that the administration conducted a "thorough review of options for nuclear declaratory policy, including both No First Use and Sole Purpose policies, and concluded those approaches would result in an unacceptable level of risk ...."

In reality, policies that threaten the first use of nuclear weapons, whether they are long-range or shorter-range, tactical nuclear weapons carry unacceptable risks. Putin’s deadly war against Ukraine, his nuclear threats, and Russia’s policy that reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with NATO underscore the dangers of such policies. As President Biden declared Oct. 6, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

Costly Modernization Plans and New Capabilities

The NPR study also rubber stamps much of the multibillion-dollar program of record for the modernization of all U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems and the refurbishment of all existing major nuclear warhead types.

The document rightly seeks to cancel the Trump administration's proposal for a destabilizing and very expensive new capability, the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, however, it also endorses the Trump-era, W76-2 lower-yield warhead on sub-launched ballistic missiles. The Pentagon argues that the ostensible purpose for the system, which was deployed in 2020, is to provide the president greater "flexibility" to retaliate to a limited nuclear strike by a hostile adversary. In layperson's terms, this means nuclear war-fighting at the regional level using a missile system designed for retaliation against an all-out strategic attack on the United States.

President Biden strongly criticized the W76-2 in 2020, saying it was a "bad idea" that makes the U.S. government "more inclined" to use nuclear weapons than in the past.

The NPR also endorses the development and the introduction of a new design warhead first proposed by the Trump administration, the W-93. This warhead is redundant and is not necessary to maintain the existing U.S. arsenal, rather it is primarily intended to provide support for the nuclear weapons modernization plan of a foreign government, the United Kingdom.

Blurring the Lines Between Nuclear and non-nuclear Deterrence

The NPR, which was released in tandem with the Biden administration's Missile Defense Review and overall National Defense Strategy, doubles down on the concept of "integrated deterrence" involving "synchronizing nuclear planning, exercises, and operations." The goal is, according to the 2022 NPR, to "raise the nuclear threshold of our adversaries in regional conflict by undermining adversary confidence in strategies for limited war that rely on the threat of nuclear escalation."

But because the NPR's integrated deterrence strategy relies on the employment of dual-capable (i.e., nuclear and conventional) fighter bombers and U.S. long-range ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, missile interceptors, and cyber offensive capabilities, it creates the potential to contribute to a miscalculation by certain adversaries about whether the U.S. is launching a nuclear attack, or not. Such an approach is potentially more destabilizing in the absence of a U.S declaratory policy that rules out first use of nuclear weapons.

Renewing Focus on Arms Control

On the positive side, in contrast to the Trump administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the 2022 NPR helpfully and appropriately says that the United States "will seek opportunities to pursue practical steps to advance the goals of greater transparency and predictability, enhanced stability, reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and, ultimately, a world without nuclear weapons."

“Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability,” President Biden said on the first day of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in August. “Today, my administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026," he said.

The 2022 NPR re-affirms the president's statement by expressing the view that "Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use."

The Biden administration should therefore move expeditiously to formally launch negotiations on a New START follow-on arms control framework, which is essential to reduce the Russian nuclear threat, constrain a potential Chinese nuclear buildup, and lower the risk of nuclear conflict.

Appropriately, the NPR also says the United States' "priorities include fostering transparency and mutual risk reduction, pursuing initiatives that limit destabilizing systems or postures, and reducing the chance of miscalculation." At the moment, however, direct dialogue with Russian leaders on reducing nuclear risk is compromised, and unfortunately, Chinese officials have rebuffed U.S. overtures for bilateral strategic risk reduction talks.

One option mentioned in the NPR and that must be pursued more vigorously and creatively is the multilateral P5 process, which is currently chaired by the United States and involves all five nations recognized as nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

NPR Assertions About Nuclear Weapons and International Law

Similar to the NPRs of the Obama and Trump administrations, the 2022 NPR claims that U.S. nuclear targeting plans will "not intentionally threaten civilian populations or objects in violation of the Law of Armed Conflict," which applies principles of distinction and proportionality.

Unfortunately, these assurances are undermined by the fact that the United States has not to date foresworn the possibility that it might direct nuclear attacks against the civilian population, or otherwise launch attacks that cause disproportionate civilian harm, by relying on the customary international law doctrine of belligerent reprisal.

If we are to operate according to a “rules-based international order,” certain states, including the United States, cannot bend the rules to suit their narrow national security aims. In a democracy, we must also be transparent about what we think the rules are and why. Other states, and other serious lawyers, consider the potential use of nuclear weapons on the scale envisioned in the U.S. nuclear war plan to be incompatible with international law, particularly International Humanitarian Law.

We challenge the Pentagon and the White House to provide a detailed written explanation to support the assertion that U.S. nuclear weapons use plans are consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict and provide an explanation as to why the U.S. government continues believes it is permissible under customary international law, to target civilians intentionally or consequentially by way of reprisal using nuclear or other weapons.

Daryl G. Kimball has served as the executive director of the Arms Control Association since 2001 and has been a leading nongovernmental advocate for nuclear threat reduction and disarmament since 1989. In November 2021, he was invited to brief the Pentagon's NPR Working Group.