Comments on the Nuclear Posture Review
to the NPR Working Group Meeting, Nov. 22, 2021
by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director
Thank you for the opportunity to present our perspectives on the NPR. My comments today are based on recommendations put forward in a Sept. 15 memo to the President from the Arms Control Association and about two dozen of my fellow experts and nongovernmental leaders.1
Given time constraints I am going to focus on some, but not all the points in that memo, but I would be interested in engaging on any of the points we raised in our memorandum.
Allow me to start with a couple of comments about the NPR process.
We believe this NPR working group has a responsibility to produce a full and diverse range of options for the president to consider and not to exclude options designed to deliver on the president’s clearly stated goal in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy …”
We are deeply disturbed by press reports quoting unnamed Pentagon officials that its “not likely” to present certain nuclear policy options that the President has said he supports and wants to operationalize.
Quite frankly, a review that omits certain options or unfairly represent the pros and cons of programmatic or policy alternatives because they do neatly fit in with the views of certain agency officials would be a disservice to the president and our national security.
This review also needs to comprehensively re-examine existing assumptions calculations about issues such as the size of the arsenal, current nuclear modernization programs, and legal and political judgments about existing nuclear use doctrine, especially in consideration of the president’s stated goal of restoring the United States role as a leader on arms control.
If this working group’s NPR output does not undertake such a re-examination, it should explain to the President and the American people why it chose not to do so.
In fact, the rationale for certain judgments should also be presented to the President should also made far more transparent, especially if the NPR does not produce a standalone document but is instead more of an insert or annex to the National Defense Strategy.
Following our discussion today, I will share a written request to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy regarding whether this NPR study will or will not examine certain questions or provide the analysis behind certain judgments that will inform the options it examines.
Now, I’ll turn to some thoughts on how this NPR can advance the goals of:
- reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use by any state,
- narrowing the role and salience of nuclear weapons, and
- advancing effective arms control and disarmament, particularly with Russia and China.
- The NPR can and should adopt a declaratory policy that substantially narrows the role of nuclear weapons, consistent with the president’s stated views.
President Biden’s views are quite clear: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats — it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary,” he said in 2017. “Or make sense.”
We agree with that statement.
In 2020, Mr. Biden said that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring— and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack” and that he “will work to put that belief into practice.”
To our knowledge, no major-party presidential nominee has ever expressed such views on a declaratory policy before taking office.
The 2018 NPR, in contrast, envisioned a greater role for nuclear weapons against a wider range of threats. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration defined the “extreme circumstances” under which the United States would consider nuclear use more broadly to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”
The risks to the United States and our allies, particularly front-line states, of the possible U.S. first use of nuclear weapons in conflict would be grave.
As McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1982 about nuclear weapons first-use contingency plans in Europe: “No one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited….”
We believe, the NPR should support a declaratory policy that reflects the President’s support for President’s previously stated views.
Whether the updated U.S. declaratory policy is described as a “no first use” policy or a “sole purpose policy,”2 I believe the NPR should communicate that the United States:
- does not intend to use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike (before an adversary launches a nuclear attack) or on warning of attack (before a reported attack arrives), and
- has no intention of using nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies.
Such a shift in declaratory policy would reduce the risk of nuclear war in response to bad intelligence or a false alarm or circumstances that do not threaten the survival of our nation. It would increase strategic stability and help operationalize the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
This would send an important signal about U.S. intentions and value to the world, and it would distinguish the United States policies from those of some other bad nuclear actors.
Some argue that shifting to a “sole purpose” policy would undermine extended U.S. nuclear deterrence. This assertion doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Such a policy would still protect U.S. allies from the threat of nuclear coercion or attacks. Due to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear conflict, the United States and its allies must be able to deter and defeat conventional attacks with conventional responses.
Moreover, the most important element of extended deterrence is the strength of the U.S. political commitment to the security of allies. President Trump’s assault on the U.S.-led alliance system has been a far greater threat to the underpinnings of extended deterrence than any potential U.S. changes to the nuclear declaratory policy.
It is certainly the case that in a few scenarios—such as a conflict with China over Taiwan, or a confrontation with Russia in the Baltic region—the United States and its allies could have difficulty promptly countering an attack with conventional weapons alone. It’s possible that China and Russia could even threaten the very existence of these nations using conventional weapons.
Yet retaining a nuclear first use option in such cases is not an effective or credible solution to this problem. Russia and China do not appear willing to forgo the ability to challenge and impose costs on the United States in a conventional conflict in their respective near abroad.
In any conflict over Taiwan, the United States is likely to have much lower interests at stake than Beijing. Threatening nuclear first use won’t ameliorate these problems and actual first use will almost certainly trigger a Russian and Chinese nuclear response resulting in devastation disproportionate to the damage inflicted by the initial aggression. The United States and its allies have no choice but to rely on conventional deterrence and non-military measures.
I hope to learn today whether the reported survey produced by the administration of allied views on this topic asked, as President Biden has suggested we should, whether “they can envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary, or would make sense?”
- The NPR should facilitate renewed U.S. leadership on nuclear arms control.
To strengthen U.S. and global security, the NPR should support a realistic strategy for risk reduction and nuclear arms control opportunities with our primary nuclear rivals: Russia and China. Accordingly, the NPR should reaffirm U.S. support for continued, mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
Before the review is completed, the U.S. government should be able to express its support at the upcoming NPT Review Conference for:
- energetic efforts by the United States and Russia to reduce nuclear risks and maintain strategic stability, and to conclude talks on a New START follow-on agreement or agreements that achieve further, lower limits on strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems and limits for the first time on nonstrategic weapons no later than 2025
- a pledge by all the NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and reduce their fissile stockpiles, as the United States and Russia seek to achieve new agreements to reduce their offensive nuclear arsenals and address non-nuclear weapons that impact the strategic nuclear equation; and
- deeper engagement between the five nuclear-armed states on nuclear disarmament pathways and on nuclear risk reduction, either bilaterally and/or through a new multilateral format.
Forging new arms control arrangements to address the range of nuclear and non-nuclear systems—strategic warheads and launchers, short-range and intermediate-range weapons, new hypersonic weapons, and missile defenses—will be difficult and time-consuming.
But such arrangements are possible and are the best way to reduce the threats posed by Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The president also recently proposed options for a nuclear risk reduction and arms control dialogue with China. If arms control with China is going to stand a chance of success, U.S. and Chinese leaders will need to exercise restraint and be willing to address the concerns of the other.
It would be unwise to condition any further arms control engagement with Russia, including further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, on the participation or cooperation from China. The Trump administration pursued such an approach and it failed.
- The NPR should put the U.S. in a position to further reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Despite reckless behavior on the part of Russia and China and their pursuit of a more diverse array of nuclear weapons, we believe the size and diversity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal still exceeds what is necessary to maintain an effective deterrent.
President Obama announced in 2013 that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below New START levels. The analysis concluded the United States could independently reduce is deployed arsenal to this level and still hold adversary targets at risk so as to deter nuclear attack. But the administration made a political decision to pursue such reductions bilaterally with Russia. The rationale for a smaller force still holds.
An up-to-one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.
Any increase in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons above New START would not enhance deterrence in the face of China’s growing nuclear capabilities. In fact, it would make it more likely that China would pursue a more substantial buildup of its nuclear forces over the coming decade.
The NPR and the President should take a fresh look at the guidance and requirements that inform how many nuclear weapons the United States maintains to hold enemy targets at risk in order to deter nuclear attack. The development and installation of so-called super-fuze components appear to have made U.S. strategic warheads significantly more accurate and more reliable than previous warhead variants. While this may increase adversary concerns about the vulnerability of their second-strike forces, it also means that fewer deployed and reserve warheads are needed to hold key adversary targets at risk.
The Pentagon should develop a range of force sizing options based on the guidance and direction of the President, outline the damage expectancy assumptions for the targets in current U.S. nuclear war plans, and describe how combatant commands consider nuclear forces in their operational planning.
- The NPR should provide options for a more cost-effective nuclear modernization plan in keeping with a more integrated approach to deterring adversaries.
Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice.
The warning signs indicating that the current modernization plans cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule and will force painful cuts to other military priorities more relevant to countering Russia and China are everywhere. And they are increasingly flashing bright red. It is not at all clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates the magnitude of the challenge it is facing.
Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort that could advance U.S. arms control goals vis-à-vis Russia and China.
We have identified several options to reduce the scope of the modernization plans that would save scores of billions of dollars over the next decade and still allow the United States to maintain a devastating nuclear force.3
For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up-to-one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Among other changes to the modernization program, we and others have recommended that the administration should delay the development of a new $264 billion ICBM via the GBSD program and believe the United States can continue to rely on the Minuteman III ICBM for an additional period of time and at less cost over that period than the GBSD program. We believe the assumptions undergirding the GBSD program are flawed and have called for a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility and cost of extending the life of the Minuteman III.
Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts. In 2017, CBO projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with the refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s.
It is our understanding that the Pentagon has rejected a proposal made by some Members of Congress to contract the JASON defense advisory group to assess the feasibility of extending the life of the Minuteman III and is instead working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to host a series of meetings with a spectrum of experts and former officials to consider how to proceed with the ICBM force.
A series of expert meetings and a report summarizing their discussion is all well and good. But it is not a substitute for an independent technical feasibility assessment by the JASONs or cost estimate from DoD’s CAPE office.
If the Pentagon fails to initiate such assessments, this NPR will have failed to explore a full range of reasonable policy options. I hope to learn today whether, and if so, why the Department has refused to look more fully at potential alternatives to GBSD.
We also believe this NPR should reverse the decisions made by the Trump administration to field the new lower-yield W76-2 warhead variant on Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile and begin development of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
These weapons, which are ostensibly intended to provide more nuclear war-fighting options, are unnecessary to deter or, if needed, respond to limited adversary nuclear use and could exacerbate competition with Russia and China and invite miscalculation in a crisis by lowering the threshold for nuclear use.
We have also been disturbed to learn that the NPR is apparently not seriously evaluating potential alternatives to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) excessive and clearly un-executable warhead modernization and production facility recapitalization plans.
We also urge the NPR to scale back plans for pursuing an ever-wider array of costly new warhead types requiring the large-scale production of new plutonium pits, including the W87-1 and W93 as currently planned. By making a few commonsense choices, a sustainable stockpile can remain effective for decades at far lower cost and with substantially less risk than seeking to build new warheads with an excessive number of new pits.
To those who argue that adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements, a reality check.
First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control shows that increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons does not translate into arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.
Second, even if the current U.S. modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest.
Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.
Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. Russia has also repeatedly said it is willing to negotiate a verifiable arrangement to limit intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
The success or failure of new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM or new ground-launched cruise missiles.
- U.S. nuclear plans should fully comport with international law.
In 2013, the Obama administration asserted that all U.S. nuclear weapons use plans “must …be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.” In 2018, the Trump administration reaffirmed that any U.S. nuclear military operations “would adhere to the law of armed conflict,” and its principles of distinction and proportionality. The United States also accepts that it is legally required, under the principle of precaution, to take all feasible measures to minimize incidental damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.
Unfortunately, as other experts have noted,4 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 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.5
This NPR should provide a detailed 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 believes it is permissible under customary international law, to target civilians intentionally or consequentially by way of reprisal using nuclear or other weapons.
- The MDR and the NPR
Closely related to the NPR is the Missile Defense Review. The MDR should take into account the interrelationship between strategic offenses and defenses and the effect of missile interceptor deployments that can exacerbate strategic offensive nuclear threats from Russia and China.
The stated goal of U.S. missile programs should be clearly focused on countering limited ballistic missile threats from regional adversaries, particularly North Korea and Iran. In addition, the United States should be able to define how much missile defense is enough to defend against limited rogue state missile attacks.
Further expansion of certain systems with strategic capabilities, such as the SM3 Block IIA interceptor, which has been tested against an ICBM-class target, is unlikely to provide meaningful additional capability against North Korea but will likely exacerbate Russian and Chinese offensive missile developments.
The Pentagon’s own assessments, including the annual report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, consistently note that China’s nuclear advances are, in part, a response to concerns about how missile defense can affect its strategic nuclear retaliatory capabilities.
We believe the MDR should clearly outline the scope and limits of long-term U.S. plans to develop and deploy long-range missile defenses and specify what adversary actions might change those plans to help dissuade China and Russia from pursuing potentially dangerous offensive countermeasures.
When it comes to addressing the threats posed by nuclear weapons, the world is watching to see whether the United States is actually “back” as a leader.
Is the United States prepared to take real actions that reduce the role of nuclear weapons, to nuclear risks, and slow and reverse a burgeoning nuclear arms race?
Or is it just another major nuclear power, not unlike Russia or China, that is, albeit more transparently, developing new nuclear capabilities, ignoring its NPT disarmament obligations, and reacting to worst-case assumptions about the intentions its adversaries?
In the end, this NPR will be measured in terms of whether the United States:
- Meaningfully reduces the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy;
- Continues the pursuit of the new nuclear weapons capabilities launched during the Trump administration; and
- Reaffirms the United States commitment to the steadfast and pragmatic pursuit of effective arms control and disarmament measures that help to fulfill the United States’ solemn legal obligations and commitments under Article VI of the NPT on disarmament.
Thank you for your attention.
1. “A Call for Changes to Outdated Nuclear Weapons Thinking,” letter to President Biden, Sept. 15. Online at: https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/documents/Letter_NPR_POTUS-09152021.pdf
2. "Sole Purpose Is Not No First Use: Nuclear Weapons and Declaratory Policy," by Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang in War On the Rocks, Feb. 22, 2021. Online at: https://warontherocks.com/2021/02/sole-purpose-is-not-no-first-use- nuclear-weapons-and-declaratory-policy/
4. See: Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner,“The Illegality of Targeting Civilians by Way of Belligerent Reprisal: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Doctrine,” in Just Security, May 10, 2021. Online at: https://www.justsecurity.org/76049/the-illegality-of-targeting-civilians-by-way-of-belligerent-reprisal-implications-for-u-s-nuclear-doctrine/
5. See: Charles J. Moxley, Jr., John Burroughs and Jonathan Granoff, “Nuclear Weapons and Compliance with International Humanitarian Law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Fordham International Law Journal (Vol. 34, No. 4, 2011). Online at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/603410a4be1db058065ce8d4/t/605b50629ac3ac26cb5d3eef/1616597090 889/Fordhamfinaljoint.pdf