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U.S. Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance

March 2018

Contacts: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director; (202) 463-8270 x107; Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102; Kingston ReifDirector of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270

Updated: March 2018

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review repeats exisiting U.S. negative security assurances by stating that Washington "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations." Previously, in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the United States declared that it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members in good standing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Before 2010 successive administrations had maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity" by refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapons attacks, even from NPT member states.


The 2018 NPR upholds but adds qualifications to earlier versions of U.S. "negative security assurances" first enunciated in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1995. Most notably, the report stipulates that the United States reserves the right to amend its negative assurance if warranted by "the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies," including cyber capabilites.

The 1995 formulation left open the option to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that were “in association or alliance with” a nuclear-weapon state—generally understood to be a reference to the Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union. The United States also specified at that time that non-nuclear-weapon states had to be in compliance with the NPT to be eligible for this assurance.

In 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 984 recognized the U.S. assurances and similar ones from Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom. These coordinated assurances were a key part of the multilateral decision to indefinitely extend the NPT that year.

Outside of the NPT context, however, senior U.S. officials maintained "strategic ambiguity" about Washington’s military options in key situations.  For example, just before the U.S. war with Iraq in 1991, former Secretary of State James Baker told Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister, that if "you use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces, the American people will demand vengeance and we have the means to exact it." Baker said that "it is entirely possible and even likely, in my opinion, that Iraq did not use its chemical weapons against our forces because of that warning. Of course, that warning was broad enough to include the use of all types of weapons that American possessed."

Similarly, in April 1996, in reference to a suspected Libyan chemical weapons facility at Tarhunah, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry said that "if some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory."  Perry noted that "in every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons would not be required for response."

The 2001 NPR report maintained the possibility that U.S. nuclear forces could be used against non-nuclear nations. In addition to nuclear-armed China, the 2001 NPR cited five states that at the time did not have nuclear weapons (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria) as driving "requirements for nuclear strike capabilities."  All five states were at the time suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions and were believed to have biological and/or chemical weapons or programs.  In February 2002, then-State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it was U.S. policy that "[i]f a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response."

In September 2002, the classified National Security Presidential Directive 17 was signed, which stated that "the United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including potentially nuclear weapons — to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies." 

Following the release of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report, President Barack Obama announced on April 6, that the United States was updating its negative security assurance policy to emphasize “the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in an interview broadcast April 11, 2010 on CBS’s Face the Nation, negative security assurances are “not a new thing. The new part of this is saying that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that attacked us with chemical and biological weapons.”

As for chemical weapons, Gates said April 11 that “[T]ry as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.”  On biological weapons, the 2010 NPR hedges: “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”

For both scenarios, Gates said April 6 that “[i]f any state eligible for this assurance were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners, it would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response.” And for states that have nuclear weapons or are not in compliance with the NPT all options are on the table—including the use of nuclear weapons first or in response to a non-nuclear attack.

Under the NPT, the five recognized nuclear-weapon states are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Three other states, India, Pakistan, and Israel, possess nuclear weapons but never joined the NPT. 

2018 NPR

Although the 2018 NPR report makes clear that the primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to “deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” the weapons serve other missions, too, including deterring non-nuclear attacks, assuring U.S. allies and partners, achieving U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedging against future uncertainty. This falls short of a declaration that the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack and represents a significant break with past U.S. efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in the world.

The 2018 NPR report does state that the first use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances,” but it defines these circumstances more broadly than previous reports, including in the definition “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.” Although the policy does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood clarified at the February 2 press conference following the report’s release that this could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The scenarios provided for in the 2018 NPR report are much broader than the “narrow range of contingencies” laid out in the 2010 report.

The document also breaks from the 2010 report on the role of non-nuclear forces. Whereas the 2010 report called for enhanced non-nuclear capability to maintain deterrence, the 2018 document states that “non-nuclear capabilities can complement but not replace U.S. nuclear capabilities” for the purpose of deterrence. Moreover, if deterrence fails, the 2018 report also declares that Washington may use nuclear weapons to end a conflict on the “best achievable terms for the United States.”

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

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Posted: March 16, 2018

U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs

March 2018

Contact: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: March 2018


Cost Overview

The United States maintains an arsenal of about 1,650 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers and some 180 tactical nuclear weapons at bomber bases in five European countries.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a major report in October 2017 that estimates the nuclear weapons spending plans President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor will cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars between fiscal years 2017 and 2046. This amounts to about 6 percent of all spending on national defense anticipated for that period, as of President Barack Obama’s final budget request to Congress in February 2016. When the effects of inflation are included, the 30-year cost would approach $1.7 trillion, according to a projection by the Arms Control Association.

The CBO estimate captures spending on the triad of nuclear delivery systems and command and control systems at the Defense Department and on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Nearly every element of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is slated to be upgraded over the next 20 years. Most of these efforts are in the early stages, and a few others have yet to begin.

Other nuclear-armed states, notably Russia and China, are upgrading their arsenals and have tested, produced, and deployed more brand new systems than the United States over the past decade. But the U.S. military has upgraded and refurbished nearly all of its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last well beyond their originally planned service life and is now in the early stages of replacing many of these aging systems with new systems. Though decades old, these modernized forces are more capable than the originals and the new systems will include additional capability upgrades. The current and planned U.S. financial investment in nuclear forces is unrivaled by any other nuclear power.

Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017 that while Russia and China continue to modernize their nuclear forces, "we [the United States] do have a qualitative advantage." 

The Trump administration, as outlined in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released on Feb. 2, 2018, intends to continue the modernization plan laid out by the Obama administration, and also develop several new nuclear weapons capabilities that will add to the price tag for nuclear forces, including the near-term development of a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the longer-term development of new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

The NPR acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial” but claims that nuclear weapons will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the defense budget. This projection does not include the cost of the new capabilities proposed in the review nor the major costs that must be borne by NNSA to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

The CBO estimates that annual spending on nuclear weapons will peak at about $50 billion during the late 2020s and early 2030s. During this period, nuclear weapons would consume about 8 percent of total national defense spending and 15 percent of the Defense Department’s acquisition costs. The CBO estimate includes the full cost to sustain and upgrade long-range strategic bombers.

White House and Pentagon officials and defense budget watchers have expressed concern that the current triad modernization plans may not be executable in the absence of significant and sustained increases to overall military spending in the coming 15-20 years, in large part due to the fact that nuclear costs are scheduled to rise and overlap with a large "bow wave" in projected spending on conventional weapon system modernization programs, as well as rising personnel and readiness costs.

Former head of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Robert Kehler said in November 2017 that he is "skeptical that we are capable of remaining committed to a long-term project like this [nuclear modernization] without basically messing with it and screwing it up."

The 2011 Budget Control Act puts in place caps on military spending through 2021. According to the CBO, in the long-term an aging population, rising health care costs, and the rising interest on the national debt will constrain the amount of funding available for discretionary spending, including defense spending, if tax revenues do not increase significantly. However, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 increased the FY 2018 cap for national defense spending by $80 billion to $269 billion and increased the FY 2019 cap by $85 billion to $647 billion. Regardless, pressure on the defense budget and the implicit trade-offs within that budget are likely to persist into the 2020s and 2030s. 

For FY 2019 President Trump requested $11 billion to fund NNSA's nuclear weapons activities. This represents a massive 19 percent increase over the FY 2017 appropriation and reflects the direction in the NPR to significantly expand the agency’s work to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. According to former deputy NNSA administrator Madelyn Creedon, “The biggest challenge laid out in the 2018 report is the new assignment for the NNSA.”

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued last year, warned that the “NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.” And former agency administrator Frank Klotz said in a Jan. 23 interview just two days after leaving office that the agency is “working pretty much at full capacity.”

Nuclear Modernization Snapshot

The overall nuclear modernization effort includes: 

  • Modernized Strategic Delivery Systems: Existing U.S. nuclear delivery systems are undergoing continual modernization, including complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II SLBM. The service lives of the Navy’s 14 Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being extended. Additionally, a new submarine, the Columbia class, which will replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, is undergoing development and is expected to cost about $128 billion to develop, according to the Defense Department. The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. The Air Force is also planning a new strategic bomber, the B-21, and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
  • Refurbished Nuclear Warheads: The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP). Existing warheads are certified annually to be safe and reliable. The NNSA is currently pursuing a controversial and expensive plan to consolidate the existing number of nuclear warhead types from 10 down to 5, although this program has been delayed. Known as the "3+2" strategy, the five LEPs associated with this approach are estimated to cost over $60 billion.
  • Modernized Production Complex: The nuclear weapons production complex is being modernized as well, with new facilities planned and funded. For example, the FY 2019 NNSA budget request includes $703 million for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The total construction cost for UPF is estimated at $6.5 – 7.5 billion, according to an independent study conducted by the Corps of Engineers, although some estimates put the price tag at $11 billion. NNSA has pledged to complete construction by 2025 for $6.5 billion.
  • Command and Control Systems: The Defense Department maintains command, control, communications, and early-warning systems that allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect or rule out incoming attacks. The department plans to spend $40.5 billion on these activities between FY 2017 and FY 2026. This estimate is probably understated as the Pentagon is still developing its plan for modernizing these systems. In addition, the 2018 NPR calls for placing greater attention and focus on sustaining and upgrading command and control capabilities. 

  • Nuclear Force Improvement Program: In the wake of revelations of professional and ethical lapses and poor morale in the U.S. nuclear force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in November 2014 steps the department is taking to address the numerous setbacks. These include changing the conduct of inspections to reduce the burden on airmen and sailors, eliminating micromanagement of nuclear personnel seen as overtaxed by excessive bureaucratic and administrative requirements, and elevating the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the Air Force’s nuclear forces, from a three- to a four-star rank.

Nuclear Modernization Overview

The following is a status update of existing programs to enhance the nuclear stockpile and modernize the delivery systems that make up each element of the U.S. nuclear triad:

1. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) 

The United States Air Force currently deploys about 399 Minuteman III ICBMs (as of September 1, 2017) located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. U.S. nuclear-armed ICBMs are on high alert, meaning the missiles can be fired within minutes of a presidential decision to do so. Under the New START treaty, the United States maintains 50 extra missile silos in a "warm" reserve status.

Today's Minuteman weapon system is the product of almost 40 years of continuous enhancement. The Pentagon has spent over $7 billion over the past 15 years on life extension efforts to keep the ICBMs safe, secure and reliable through 2030. This modernization program has resulted in an essentially "new" missile, expanded targeting options, and improved accuracy and survivability. 

Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The Air Force is planning to replace the Minuteman III missile, its supporting launch control facilities, and command and control infrastructure. The Air Force intends to purchase over 600 missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed through 2070. The remaining missiles would be used for test flights and as spares. The replacement program is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The serivce is seeking to make significant capability upgrades as part of the recapitalization program. The Pentagon in August 2016 set the estimated acquisition cost of the program at $85 billion and the total life-cycle cost at $238 billion (in then-year dollars). The $85 billion estimate is at the lower-end of an independent Pentagon cost-estimate that put the acquisition price tag as high as $140 billion.

For FY 2019, the Trump administration requested $345 million for the program, a 60 percent increase over 2018.  On Aug. 21, 2017, the Air Force awarded contracts to both Boeing Company and Northrop Grumman to continue development and begin design of the new ICBM system.

W78 and W87 Warheads

The Air Force has also upgraded the Minuteman’s nuclear warheads by partially replacing older W78 warheads with newer and more powerful W87 warheads, formerly deployed on the now-retired MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The W87 entered the U.S. stockpile in 1986, making it one of the newest warheads in the arsenal with the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit design, which can help to minimize the possibility of plutonium dispersal in the event of an accident. Under a 2004 LEP, the W87 warhead was refurbished to extend its service life past 2025.

NNSA has proposed a joint LEP to field a common, refurbished warhead to replace the W78 and W88 (see SLBMs, below). Congress approved NNSA's 2014 proposal to delay production of this warhead by five years from 2025 to 2030. However, the 2018 NPR proposes to accelerate the program by one year and the FY 2019 budget request would provide $53 million for the project.

2. Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and Submarines

The United States Navy deploys, as of September 2017, 212 Trident II D5 SLBMs on 12 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based out of Bangor, Washington (7 boats) and Kings Bay, Georgia (5 boats). The Ohio-class submarines have a service life of 42 years — two twenty-year cycles with a two-year mid-life nuclear refueling. The total fleet includes 14 boats but due to the refueling process, only 12 SSBNs are operational at any given time. Four to five submarines are believed to be "on station" in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans ready to fire their missiles at targets at any given time.

The Ohio-class SSBNs were first deployed in 1981, and will reach the end of their services at a rate of approximately one boat per year between 2027 and 2040. The Navy plans to replace each retiring boat, starting in 2031, with a new class of ballistic missile submarine, now referred to as the Columbia class. The Navy originally planned to begin using the replacement boats in 2029, but in 2012 the Pentagon announced a two-year delay to the replacement program. This pushed back completion of the first new submarine to 2031.

Taking into account the delay, the Navy now plans to purchase the first Columbia class submarine in 2021, the second in 2024, and one per year between 2026 and 2035. The first vessel is scheduled to become operational in 2031. As a result, the Navy will field 10 ballistic missile submarines between 2030 and 2040. 

In its FY 2019 request, the Navy asked for $3.7 billion for the Columbia class program — a 97 percent increase over 2018, making it the second-most expensive program in the 2019 Pentagon budget request, next to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Navy ultimately wants 12 boats, and in 2017 estimated the cost to develop and buy the submarines to be $128 billion in then-year dollars at the total life-cycle cost to be $267 billion. However, a report on the Columbia class program published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in December 2017 warned that the program is not adequately funded to address program risks and that the acquisition cost is likely to exceed $128 billion.

Under New START, each Ohio-class submarine serves as a launch platform for up to 20 SLBMs loaded with up to eight warheads each, or 240 total SLBMs. The Columbia class will carry up to 16 SLBMs, for a maximum of 192 deployed SLBMs when the fleet is fully converted to the new boats in 2040.

Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles

First deployed in 1990, the force of Trident II D5 missiles has been successfully tested over 160 times since design completion in 1989 and is continuously evaluated. (By contrast, Russia's newest SLBM, the Bulava, has failed in roughly half its flight tests.) The Trident II D5 LEP is underway to modernize key components, notably the electronics, and extend the life of the missile until 2042. In 2008, 12 life-extended variants of the D5 were purchased; 24 D5s were produced each year through 2012 for a total of 108 missiles at a total cost of $15 billion. The first modified D5s were deployed in 2013. The Navy’s FY 2019 budget request includes a proposed $1.23 billion to fund the Trident II LEP. 

The Pentagon has yet to establish replacement program of record for the Trident II (D5), development of which is likely to begin in the 2020s.

W76 and W88 Warheads

The D5 SLBMs are armed with approximately 768 W76 and 384 W88 warheads. In 2009, NNSA began delivery of the W76-1, a refurbished version of the W76 that extends its service life for an additional 30 years. NNSA plans to complete the $4 billion production of up to 2,000 W76-1 warheads by 2019. NNSA requested $114 million for the W76 life extension program for FY 2019, down from $222 million the year before. 

The W88 entered the stockpile in 1989, making it the newest warhead in the arsenal. The W88 was the last U.S. warhead produced before the Rocky Flats Plants - which made plutonium "pits" - was shut down in 1989. NNSA re-established pit production capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory with the first "certifiable" pit in 2003, and new production resumed in 2007. A new plutonium research and pit production facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), was planned for Los Alamos, but was put on hold for budget reasons in 2012. 

With the rebuilt Trident D5 missile in service to 2042, the W76-1's life extended to 2040-50, the relatively new W88 in service, and a new class of SSBNs lasting into the 2070s, the U.S. Navy’s Trident Fleet will be kept robust and modern deep into the 21st century.

3. Strategic Bombers

The United States Air Force currently maintains 20 (11 deployed) B-2 Spirit bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and 46 (38 deployed) B-52H bombers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, that can be equipped for nuclear missions as of September 2017.  

Projected spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs could account for as much as 19% of estimated Pentagon modernization spending over the next 15 years, according to a recent analysis of 120 planned major Defense Department acquisition programs. (Source: Todd Harrison, CSIS)

B-52H Bomber

The B-52H fleet, first deployed in 1961, has an on-going modification program, beginning in 1989, incorporating updates to the global positioning system, updating the weapons capabilities to accommodate a full array of advanced weapons developed after the procurement of the B-52H, and modifying the heavy stores adapter beams to allow the B-52H to carry up to 2,000 pound munitions and a total of 70,000 pounds of mixed ordnance armaments. In FY 2011 the Air Force added to its modernization efforts for the B-52H, receiving funding for the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) program, which updates the B-52 computer infrastructure. The upgrade is projected to cost a total of $1.1 billion.

The B-52H is expected to remain in service until 2040. 

B-2 Bomber

The Air Force continually modernizes the B-2 fleet, which first became operational in 1997 and is expected to last through 2058.

Ongoing B-2 modifications include an incremental three-part program to update the Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications and Computer Upgrade program (EHF SATCOM). Increment 1 will upgrade the B-2’s flight management computers. Increment 2 provides more secure and survivable strategic communications by integrating the Family of Beyond-Line-of-Sight Terminals with the low observable antenna. Increment 3 connects the B-2 with the Global Information Grid. The Air Force also began procuring components for a Radar Modernization Program (RMP) in FY 2009. The RMP includes replacing the original radar antenna and upgrading radar avionics.

The Air Force announced in February 2018 that "once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired."

B-21 Bomber

The Air Force is planning to purchase at least 100 new, dual-capable long-range penetrating bombers that will replace the B-1 and B-52 bombers. Known as the B-21, the Pentagon estimates the average procurement unit cost per aircraft will be between $546 million and $606 million (in Fy 2016 dollars). Fielding is slated to begin in the mid- 2020s. The Trump administration requested $2.3 billion for the program in FY2019. The Air Force plans to spend $38.5 billion between FY 2017 and FY 2026 on research and development for the new bomber (in then-year dollars). The Air Force has refused to release the value of the contract awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in October 2015 to begin developing the B-21 program and the estimated total cost of the program, citing classification concerns.

The CBO estimates the B-21 program will cost $97 billion (in FY 2017 constant dollars).

Air-Launched Cruise Missile and Long-Range Standoff Cruise Missile

The B-52H carries the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), first deployed in 1981. Each ALCM carries a W80-1 warhead, first produced in 1982. The Air Force retained roughly 570 nuclear-capable ALCMs as of the spring of 2015. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota with the W80-1 nuclear warhead. 

Some reports indicate that the reliability of the ALCM could be in jeopardy due to aging components which are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52H bombers, as well as the planned B-21. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026. The LRSO would carry the refurbished W80-4 warhead.

The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. According to the service, the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than it plans to arm and deploy with nuclear warheads. For FY 2019, NNSA requested $654 million for the W80-4, making it the second-most expensive nuclear warhead, next to the B61-12. In addition,  the Air Force requested $615 million for development of the LRSO missile.

The Pentagon projects the cost to acquire the new missile fleet at about $11 billion (in then-year dollars) and the cost to operate and sustain the missile fleet over its expected life at over $6 billion (in constant FY 2016 dollars). The Energy Department projects the cost of the life extension program for the ALCM warhead to be between $8  billion and $11.6 billion (in then-year dollars).

B61 and B83 Warheads

The B-2 carries the B61 and B83 strategic gravity bombs. The B61 has several mods, 3, 4, 7, 10, and 11. B61-3 and B61-4 are non-strategic weapons deployed in Europe for NATO aircraft as part of America’s extended nuclear commitment.

The B61-7 and B61-11 are strategic weapons deployed on the B-2 bomber. An LEP recently extended the life of the B61-7 for an additional 20 years by refurbishing the bomb’s secondary stage (canned subassembly) and replacing the associated seals, foam supports, cables and connectors, washers, o-rings, and limited life components. The ongoing B61 LEP would combine mods 3, 4, and 7 into a single bomb, the B61 mod 12. The B61-12 is slated to begin production in 2020 and will refurbish the bomb  with new firing, arming, and safety components, updated radar components, permissive action link components and equipment, modified power supplies, thermal batteries, join test assemblies, weapon trainers, and test and handling gear.  The LEP will also modify the B61 for compatibility with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The LEP will extend the life of the B61s for 20-30 years.

An updated assessment of the B61 life extension program (LEP) performed by the NNSA in 2016 put the direct cost of the program at $7.6 billion, an increase of $200 million over the agency’s estimate of $7.4 billion provided in its fiscal year 2017 budget materials. The NNSA’s independent Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation, however, told the GAO that its assessment of the program projects a total cost of approximately $10 billion and a two-year delay to the agency’s estimated March 2020 first production-unit date. NNSA requested $794 million for the B61 LEP in FY 2019. 

The upgraded B61 will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly that will make the bomb more accurate and allow it to have a lower yield than some of the existing variants. The new tail kit is being developed by the Air Force and is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

The B83 was first produced in 1983, making it one of the newer weapons in the stockpile and the only remaining megaton-class weapon in the stockpile. The B83 has the most modern safety and security features, including insensitive high explosive and a fire-resistant pit. 

The Obama administration stated that the B83 would be retired once confidence in the B61 mod 12 is projected to be achieved in the mid 2020s. However, the Trump NPR reverses this decision and calls for retaining the B83 until a suitable replacement is found.


Department of Defense Programs


Modernization Plan


Length of Deployment

Additional Information

Minuteman III ICBM

Modernization and Replacement Program

$7 billion

through 2030 

Modernizes the propellant, guidance systems, propulsion system, targeting system, reentry vehicles and continues work on the rocket motors


Replace the Minuteman III missile and associated launch control and command and control facilities

$85-$140 billion (DoD estimate; FY 2017-2046)


Air Force plans to purchase over 600 new ICBMs

B-2 Bomber

Modernization Program

$9.5 billion (FY 2000-2014)


Improves radar and high frequency satellite communications capabilities for nuclear command and control

B-52H Bomber

On-going modifications



Incorporates global positioning systems, updates computers and modernizes heavy stores adapter beams, and a full array of advance weapons

Long Range Strike Bomber (B-21)

Research and development phase

$38.5 billion (FY 2017-2026)


The exact specifications of the new bomber are classified

Long Range Standoff Cruise Missile (LRSO)

Replacement for the ALCM

$20 billion (estimated; includes cost of W80-4 warhead refurbishment)


Air Force plans to procure ~1,000 LRSOs

Columbia Class SSBN (SSBN(X))

New ballistic missile submarine

$128 billion (2016 Navy acquisition estimate)

2031 - 2080s

Navy plans to purchase 12 new submarines to replace the existing 14 Ohio-class submarines

Trident II D5 SLBM LEP

Modernization and life extension

$6 billion (FY 2019-2023



Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Posted: March 9, 2018

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: The United States

March 2018

Updated: March 2018

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of February 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total of 6,550 nuclear warheads. On Feb. 2, 2018, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, detailing the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces for this administration. The United States has destroyed about 91% of its chemical weapons arsenal as of 2017 and is due to complete destruction by 2023. It is party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has destroyed its biological weapons arsenal, although Russia alleges that U.S. biodefense research violates the BWC.


Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
  • Nuclear Doctrine
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • New START
  • Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
  • Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Syrian Chemical Weapons
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties




Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty



Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty


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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)



CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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Chemical Weapons Convention



Biological Weapons Convention



International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism



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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards



Australia Group


Missile Technology Control Regime


Nuclear Suppliers Group


Wassenaar Arrangement


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signed in 1998, entered into force January, 2009.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Co-founder with Russia

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation


Proliferation Security Initiative


UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

The United States has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states.

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview

According to the Federation of the American Scientists, as of February 2018, the United States possesses 4,000 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads and an additional 2,550 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total arsenal of 6,550 warheads. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States can deploy no more than 1,550 treaty accountable strategic warheads until February 2021 when the treaty expires. According to the February 2018 New START data exchange, the United States deploys 1,350 strategic nuclear warheads on 652 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. However, these numbers may be artificially low due to a temporary fluctuation in deployed and non-deployed weapons at the time of the exchange. The United States also deploys an additional 150 tactical (non-strategic) nuclear warheads based in Europe. While the United States and Russia maintain similarly sized total arsenals, the United States possesses a much larger number of strategic warheads and delivery systems while Russia possesses a much larger number of non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear warheads.

The United States has conducted 1,030 total nuclear tests, far more than any other nuclear-armed state. The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another country, dropping two bombs (one apiece) on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Delivery Systems

(For a detailed overview of current and planned U.S. nuclear modernization programs, see our fact sheet here.)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  •  As of September 2017, the United States Air Force deploys 399 LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs.
    • The Minuteman III has a range of over 6,000 miles (9,650-13,000 km).
    • Each missile is equipped with either one 300 kt W87 warhead or one 335 kt W78 warhead.
  • Under New START, the United States reduced the number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 400. 50 excess silos have not been destroyed but have been kept in a “warm” operational status and can be loaded with missiles relatively quickly if necessary.
  • In 2015, the United States concluded a multibillion dollar, decade-long modernization program that will extend the service life of the Minuteman III to beyond 2030.  
  • The U.S. Air Force is also developing a new ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent, which is intended to replace the Minuteman III between 2028 and 2035.

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

Ohio-class submarines

  • The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class SSBNs submarines, two of which are undergoing overhaul of their nuclear reactors at any given time. The remaining 12 are available for deployment. However, since some operational SSBNs also undergo minor repairs at any given time the actual number of SSBNs at sea usually numbers at around 10.
  • 7 submarines are based out of Bangor, Washington and 5 submarines are based out of Kings Bay, Georgia.
  • The submarines originally had 24 missile tubes for Trident II D5 SLBMs, but under New START, the Navy deactivated 4 tubes on each submarine, finishing this process in 2017.
  • The Ohio-class submarines have a life-span of 42 years.

Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile

  • The Trident II D5 was first deployed in 1990 and has an operational range of 7,400-12,000 km.
  • The Trident II D5 missile can hold up to eight warheads (but usually holds an average of four to five) and carries 3 variants:
    • the W88—a 475 kt Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warhead.
    • the W76-0—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
    • the W76-1—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
  • To comply with New START, the Navy will not deploy more than 240 missiles. As of September 2017, 212 missiles carrying a total of 945 warheads were deployed. 
  • An ongoing life extension program is expected to keep the Trident II D5 in service until  2042.
  • The Trident II D5 is the only MIRV’ed strategic missile remaining in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.


  • As of September 2017, the Air Force deploys 38 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers and 11 nuclear-capable B-2A Spirit bombers.
  • The Air Force will deploy no more than 60 nuclear-capable strategic bombers under New START.
  • An estimated 980 nuclear warheads are assigned to the strategic bombers, but only about 300 are typically deployed at bomber bases.
    • B-52H Stratofortress bombers: dual-capable; can carry 20 AGM-86B cruise missiles. The AGM-86B has a range of 2,500 km and is equipped with a 5-150 kt W80-1 warhead
    • B-2A Spirit bombers: dual capable; can carry 16 B61-7, B61-11, or B83-1 gravity bombs.
  • The United States also maintains several fighter-aircraft that serve in a dual-capable role. The F-15E and F-16C have been the cornerstone of this aspect of nuclear deterrence, carrying the B61 gravity bomb. The new stealth F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, will replace the F-16 as the U.S. Air Force’s primary nuclear capable fighter-aircraft.

Nuclear Doctrine

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on Feb. 2, 2018, details the Trump administration’s approach to the size and role of U.S. nuclear forces. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a Feb. 2, 2018 press briefing, claimed that the 2018 NPR “reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence.” Critics of the document argue that the NPR reverses previous policy to reduce the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Declaratory Policy

The NPR dictates that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It defines “extreme circumstances,” which the 2010 NPR did not, 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.” For more on declaratory policy, see: Nuclear Declaratory Policy and Negative Security Assurances.

Negative Security Assurance

The NPR also includes a negative security assurance that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapons states that are “party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and are in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” It caveats its negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.” For more on negative security assurances, see: U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance.

Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

The United States develops and deploys several ballistic missile defense systems around the world. To learn more, see: "U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance." 

Fissile Material

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

  • The United States has publicly declared that it no longer produces fissile material for weapons purposes. It stopped production of HEU in 1992.
  • In March 2016, the United States announced the declassification of its national inventory of highly enriched uranium (HEU), as of September 30, 2013.
  • The United States halted the production of HEU for weapons in 1964 and ceased plutonium separation for weapons in 1992.
  • Estimates from 2016 place the U.S. HEU stockpile at around 600 metric tons, including 253 metric tons of military HEU and 264 metric tons of fresh and spent naval HEU.
  • According to the 2015 Global Fissile Material Report, the United States has about 40 metric tons of HEU remaining to be downblended of the 187 metric tons it declared as excess to defense requirements and has committed to dispose.


  • The United States ended production of separated plutonium in 1988.
  • At the end of 2014, U.S. military plutonium stockpiles amounted to a total of 87.6 declared metric tons (49.3 metric tons of which are declared as excess military plutonium).
  • In October 2016, citing U.S. failure to meet its obligations under the agreement, Russia suspended its own implementation of the deal. Russia refuses to resume the agreement’s implementation until U.S. sanctions against Russia are lifted and NATO forces in Europe are reorganized along lines favorable to Russia. Russia contends that U.S. plans to abandon the conversion of plutonium into MOX fuel in favor of a cheaper and faster downblending method does not meet the terms of the deal because doing so would fail to change the composition of the plutonium from weapons grade to reactor grade. 
  • The United States possesses no separated civilian plutonium but at the end of 2014, an estimated 625 metric tons of plutonium were contained in spent fuel stored at civilian reactor sites.
  • Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), finalized with Russia in 2000, the United States committed to disposing of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium beginning in 2018. The agreement was amended in 2010 to change the agreed disposition methods in which Russia abandoned using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light-water reactors in favor or irradiating plutonium in its fast-neutron reactors. The amendment also expressed renewed U.S. commitment to provide $400 million towards the Russian disposition program. Russia suspended cooperation with the agreement in November 2016.

 Proliferation Record

  • A close relationship exists between U.S. and British nuclear weapons programs. The United States supplies the United Kingdom with the Trident II D5 SLBM.
  • Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey all host U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs as part of NATO nuclear sharing agreements. The estimated 180 weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but some may be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.
  • Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, the United States has engaged in extensive worldwide trading and exchanging of fissile materials and technical information for nuclear science research and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In 1954, an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act allowed bilateral nuclear agreements with U.S. allies to proceed, with the intent of exporting only low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel; however, this soon expanded to include HEU.
  • Under the “Atoms for Peace” program a number of former, aspiring, and current nuclear weapon-states such as South Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Israel all received, directly or indirectly, training and technology transfers utilized in their nuclear weapons programs. For example, in 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with HEU fuel. Iran admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance capable of starting a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.
  • Since the end of the Cold War the United States has tried to mitigate the adverse effects of the “Atoms for Peace” initiative and returned exported HEU and plutonium to the United States.

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Biological Weapons

  • In the early 1970s, the United States destroyed its entire stockpile of biological weapons, which had been developed between 1943 and 1969.
  • In 2001, the Bush administration opposed and killed an effort dating back to 1995 to augment the Biological Weapons Convention with a legally binding verification protocol. U.S. officials said the protocol would be too burdensome on legitimate governments and private biodefense programs, while at the same time failing to deter cheaters.
  • According to a 2016 State Department report, “In December 2015 at the annual Meeting of States Parties to the BWC, the delegation of the Russian Federation asserted that the United States had knowingly transferred live anthrax spores to a foreign country for use in open-air testing, and that this constituted a ‘grave violation’ of Articles III and IV of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].”
  • The United States maintains that these transfers were a blunder. The report also notes that, “All U.S. activities during the reporting period were consistent with the obligations set forth in the BWC. The United States continues to work toward enhancing transparency of biological defense work using the BWC confidence building measures.”

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Chemical Weapons

  • Behind Russia, the United States has declared the second-largest stockpile of chemical agents.
  • As of Oct. 31, 2017, the United States had destroyed 25,154 metric tons, or about 91 percent, of its declared Category 1 chemical weapons stockpile. The United States has completed destruction of all its Category 2 and 3 chemical weapons. 
  • The United States received several extensions on its initial deadline for chemical weapons destruction under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it now due to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by 2023.
  • Destruction of the United States’ largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons began in March of 2015 at Colorado’s Pueblo Chemical Depot. Upon completion, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky will have the last remaining chemical agent stockpile in the United States.

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities  

In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a successor agreement to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) accord. The 2010 agreement, known as New START, commenced on Feb. 5, 2011. It requires that both sides reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons on no more than 700 ICMBs, SLMBs, and bombers by Feb. 5, 2018 and both sides met the limits by the deadline. In addition, it contains rigorous monitoring and verification provisions to ensure compliance with the agreement. President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of New START, calling it a “one-sided” agreement.

Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
In February 2013, President Obama announced that the United States intended to engage with Russia to further reduce deployed strategic warheads by one-third below the New START limit to around 1,100 to 1,000 deployed warheads. However, there has been little progress toward achieving such reductions due to the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s insistence that other issues, such as limits on U.S. missile defenses, be part of negotiations on further reductions.

Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
In July 2005, the United States signed a controversial agreement with India to repeal most U.S. and multilateral civilian nuclear trade restrictions on India. In 2006, Congress amended its own domestic legislation to allow nuclear trade with India to proceed. The two governments later concluded a “123 Agreement,” which was approved by Congress and signed into law in October 2008. In September 2008, India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The United States has pushed for India to become a member of the NSG, but in January 2017, China and other countries blocked India's membership bid on the grounds that India has not yet signed the NPT.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
The United States has ratified a protocol to the Latin America and the Caribbean Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaty pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the contracting parties. The U.S. has declined to ratify similar additional protocols to any of the remaining NWFZ treaties for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. 

Nuclear Security Summits
In April 2010, the United States hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC. Participants included 47 countries, 38 of which were represented at the head of state or head of government level, and the heads of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Union. At the summit, the participants unanimously adopted the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in the next four years. The United States also attended the NSS in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26-27, 2012 and the third NSS on Mar. 24-25, 2014. Washington hosted a fourth summit in the Spring of 2016 where attendees developed action plans for five global organizations to continue the work of the summits.

Syrian Chemical Weapons
In September 2013, in the aftermath of the large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, United States reached an agreement with Russia to account, inspect, control, and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Before the deal was reached, the United States was planning to use airstrikes to punish the perpetrators of the attack, which the United States blamed on the Syrian government. By July 2014, Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile had been successfully removed from the country and flagged for destruction following a broad multilateral operation. However, the United States has raised concerns about the accuracy of Syria’s declaration.

In September 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that chlorine gas was being used in Syria. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Mar. 6, 2015 condemning the use of chlorine gas in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to suggest that the Assad regime was the likely perpetrator of the chlorine gas attacks; Russia, however, was hesitant to assign blame. In August 2016, the third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was released, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks.

In April 2017, another chemical weapon attack was carried out in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun where Syrian government warplanes were accused of spreading a nerve agent via bombs, killing dozens. U.S. President Donald Trump responded by immediately blaming the regime of Bashar Assad and launching 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting the airfield that had allegedly launched the. Following the launches, Trump stated that “It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” As a justification for the U.S. response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “If you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”   

(For a detailed timeline on Syrian chemical weapons, see our fact sheet here.)

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Under the Obama administration the United States played the central role in the brokering of the July 2015 JCPOA, better known as the “Iran deal,” which limits and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Congress in September 2015 debated a resolution that would have blocked implementation of the accord, but it failed to receive enough votes to pass the Senate. In January 2016, financial and oil sanctions on Iran were lifted along with the release of $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets after international inspectors confirmed that Iran had rolled back large sections of its nuclear program. In an effort to preserve the deal before leaving office, the Obama administration worked to fend off additional sanctions and encouraged American companies to conduct business in Iran.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the agreement. During the presidential campaign, he made comments about “tearing up” the deal, although as of January 2018, he has re-issued waivers on nuclear-related sanctions on Iran to meet U.S. obligations under the agreement.

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

The Conference on Disarmament was established in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiating forum by the international community. At the 65-member CD, the United States has expressed support for continuing discussions on the CD's core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and negative security assurances. The United States has been a prominent supporter of a proposed FMCT.

In March 1995, the CD took up The Shannon Mandate which established an ad hoc committee directed to negotiate an FMCT by the end of the 1995 session. A lack of consensus over verification provisions, as well as desires to hold parallel negotiations on outer space arms control issues, prevented negotiations from getting underway. Later, in May 2006, the United States introduced a draft FMCT along with a draft mandate for its negotiations. However, following an impasse in negotiations on a FMCT in 2010, the United States (and others) signaled its desire to look at alternative approaches outside the CD and called for negotiations to be moved to the United Nations General Assembly where the agreement could be endorsed by a majority vote. However, the United States no longer makes comments to this effect.

 The United States does not support negotiations on PAROS, deeming it unnecessary because there are no weapons yet deployed in outer space. China and Russia continue to articulate a desire to hold parallel negotiations, a point which has further stalled efforts to begin FMCT negotiations.


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Posted: March 8, 2018

Remarks to the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on Nuclear Weapons Launch Procedures


Daryl Kimball offered the following testimony before the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on Monday, March 5, 2018, regarding legislation introduced by Maryland delegates Queen (Montgomery Co.), Gibson (Baltimore City), and Gutierrez (Montgomery Co.).

By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director
Arms Control Association
March 5, 2018
Annapolis, Maryland

Good afternoon. I want to commend Delegates Queen, Gibson, and Gutierrez for introducing House Joint Resolution 12, which:

… “calls upon Maryland’s Congressional delegation to take all necessary steps to establish a system of checks and balances with regard to the first use of nuclear weapons and to ensure that the President of the United States shall no longer have the sole and unchecked authority to launch nuclear weapons, except in circumstances of retaliation.”

At this very moment, the United States and Russia each deploy massive strategic nuclear arsenals, approximately 1,550 bombs on each side. Each side possesses thousands more nonstrategic warheads and warheads in reserve. These arsenals are far in excess of what it would take to decimate the other and far more that is required to deter a nuclear attack.

Executive Director Daryl Kimball testifies before the Maryland House of Delegates Rules Committee on legislation urging its congressional delegation to support limits on presidential nuclear launch authority. (Photo: Maryland General Assembly)Worse still, each side maintains a significant portion of its land and sea-based missile forces on a prompt launch posture to guard against a “disarming” first strike.

As a result, there are roughly 800 U.S. nuclear warheads – all of which are far more powerful than the weapons that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – that can be launched within about 15 minutes of an order by the president and the president alone.

In most scenarios, the president would have just minutes to listen to the list of retaliatory options and decide whether or not to order one of the nuclear strike plans. No cabinet secretary, adviser, or military official has the authority to override the president’s decision. Congress currently has no say in the matter.

Current U.S. nuclear policy also allows for the possible use of nuclear weapons first, or in response to a non-nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies, such as in a conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person and to maintain a prompt-launch posture is undemocratic, irresponsible, unnecessary and untenable.

Cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald Trump about nuclear weapons use and threatening and boastful comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin about his country’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities underscore the risks of a system that puts the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the hands of these individuals.

Defenders of the status quo argue that altering the current system would deprive the president of the ability to respond quickly in a crisis—including by using nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear attack—and undermine the credibility of deterrence.

Such arguments ignore the fact that throughout the history of the nuclear age, there have been several incidents in which false signals of an attack have prompted U.S. and Russia officials to consider, in the dead of the night and under the pressure of time, launching nuclear weapons in retaliation.

The reality is that this “launch-under-attack” policy is unnecessary because U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

In addition, retaining the option to use nuclear weapons first is unnecessary and risky. Given the overwhelming conventional military edge of the United States and its allies, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat.

As then-Vice President Joe Biden said in public remarks in January 2017: “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. Or make sense.”

Congress and the executive branch can and should take a number of steps to reduce these dangers:

  • Requiring that a decision to use nuclear weapons be made by more than one person. This could include the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps one or more designated members of Congress, such as the speaker of the House or Senate majority leader.
  • Prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced bipartisan legislation the "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" that would put this policy into place.
  • Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles under attack, which would increase the time available to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.
  • Declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. Congressman Adam Smith and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee has introduced H.R. 4415 to establish a “No First Policy” for nuclear weapons.
  • Clarify that only Congress can authorize U.S.-initiated military action against North Korea, which would likely result in a nuclear exchange, and urge the administration to “avoid actions that could contribute to a breakdown in talks, and continue to search for confidence-building measures that are conducive to dialogue,” as state in bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate (H.R. 4837/S. 2016).

Your support for Maryland House Joint Resolution 12 can help push Congress to re-examine and revise nuclear decision making so that fate of millions in not decided by one person in the span of a few minutes.

Since 2001, Daryl G. Kimball has served as the executive director the independent, non-partisan Arms Control Association and publisher of the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. The Association is a national membership organization established in 1971 to provide information and analysis on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and to promote practical policy solutions to address the risks they pose.

Posted: March 5, 2018

A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review

The new NPR comes with a high price tag. That is not the only issue.

March 2018
By Madelyn Creedon

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is consistent in many respects with long-standing nuclear policies. Yet, certain elements are deeply troubling.

In terms of consistency, it reiterates that the primary mission of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack; rejects a declaratory no-first-use policy; retains the long-standing policy of ambiguity as to what constitutes U.S. vital interests, although with less ambiguity; seeks to assure allies; and reinforces the U.S commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These are pillars of U.S. deterrence policy.

Sandia National Labratories technologists Curt Tenorio, left, and Jessie Fowler install instrumentation on a B61-12 nuclear bomb unit for a vibration and shaker-shock test. Sandia has sophisticated tests and computer models to qualify non-nuclear components under its nuclear-weapons stockpile stewardship role. (Photo: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)The choices that are troubling include the intention to seek a new low-yield nuclear capability, the rejection of future arms control agreements, and the plan to increase U.S. nuclear weapons production capability. These matters, in particular, deserve close scrutiny by Congress and public debate.

Certainly, the international security environment has been evolving since the Cold War ended and since the previous NPR during the Obama administration. Change was the backdrop for the 2010 NPR and remains the backdrop for the 2018 review, which highlights major nuclear modernization programs by Russia and China, rapid nuclear weapons advances by North Korea, and growing cyberthreats by state and nonstate actors.1

The report on the 2010 NPR concluded that “the threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” This conclusion remains valid. The underlying assumption in the 2018 NPR, however, is that the risk of nuclear attack, although not quantified, has increased, that it is the greatest risk facing the United States, and that the country’s deterrent is not sufficiently robust to counter or deter the increased risk. Alternatively, even if the risk has not increased, the latest NPR report seemingly calls into question whether the U.S. deterrent is sufficiently robust to deter the same level of risk.

Thus, the new report concludes that U.S. nuclear forces must be “supplemented” now. To that end, it calls for the nuclear complex to be positioned to develop new nuclear weapons, possibly resume explosive nuclear testing, increase the size and makeup of the nuclear stockpile, and increase the diversity of the delivery systems. The report argues that without expanding the capabilities of the nuclear enterprise, particularly the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to move beyond its current focus on life-extension programs for warheads, this and future administrations will not be able to tailor deterrence to the changing nature of potential adversaries.

In contrast, the prior NPR report determined that the greatest risks were presented by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear or radiological capabilities, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities to states such as North Korea. Based on this conclusion, significant emphasis was placed on addressing these proliferation and terrorism threats, including securing, consolidating, and eliminating highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium that could be used by terrorists in an improvised nuclear device. Although there is no indication that these threats have diminished, they are not given priority in the 2018 NPR report. One can only hope that the language urging funding trade-offs among programs does not include the programs that prevent proliferation and ensure the security of weapons-usable materials.

The 2010 NPR report by no means ignored “the more familiar challenge of ensuring strategic stability with existing nuclear powers—most notably Russia and China.” Although it identified five pillars to address threats across the spectrum, it certainly did not diminish the importance of deterrence, clearly stating that the United States would maintain safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear forces. It recognized that nuclear forces continue “to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

Realistically, however, the 2010 review also recognized that nuclear deterrence alone was not the answer but rather that a wide spectrum of highly capable U.S. conventional capabilities, including missile defense, in conjunction with nuclear forces would provide the best deterrent for the United States and its allies and partners.

In a bold step, the 2010 NPR report tried to identify and set the conditions for meaningful compliance with the disarmament provision in NPT Article VI, while clearly recognizing that the conditions were not currently suited to achieve those goals and might not be for many years. Since 2010, unfortunately, the global security conditions have become even less conducive to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. The 2010 report, while aspiring to these goals, reflected a growing concern that the world was approaching a nuclear tipping point where more states and more weapons would be the norm.

Although the nuclear deal with Iran has removed that country’s nuclear weapons capability for the time being, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability has qualitatively and quantitatively improved, China and Russia have embarked on nuclear weapons modernization programs, and the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan have grown.

Russia, China, and even North Korea are expanding their conventional and nuclear programs to match or offset the U.S. conventional force advantage. The United States has been very public about Russian deployment of a new nuclear-capable missile system in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.2 China has continued its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, growing and diversifying its conventional capabilities and modernizing its nuclear forces. While remaining small in number, their nuclear forces are becoming increasingly more capable and survivable.

These disturbing trends are unlikely to change in the near term.

Philosophies articulated in the 2010 NPR report, including the need for a strong and credible deterrent, continue in the new report. The prior report reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy that “[t]he United States will continue to ensure that in the calculations of any potential opponent, the perceived gains of attacking the United States or its allies and partners would be far outweighed by the unacceptable costs of response” and that “any attack on the United States or our allies and partners, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.” Similarly, the 2018 NPR report concluded that “the highest nuclear policy and strategy priority is to deter potential adversaries from nuclear attack of any scale.”

Different in Tone and Tenor

Notwithstanding such similarities, the new NPR report is remarkably different in tone and tenor from its predecessor, placing the bulk of the emphasis on the nuclear forces and much less emphasis on nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation. This NPR is consistent with the National Security Strategy’s shift to a new era of great power rivalries.3

Chinese soldiers applaud during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review says China’s military modernization “has resulted in an expanded nuclear force, with little to no transparency into its intentions.” (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)Although focused and driven primarily by Russian behavior, China’s growing conventional capabilities, including space and cyber capabilities, also shape the decisions in the 2018 report. In addition to the near-term decision to “supplement” the nuclear forces with a low-yield variant of the W76-1 warhead for ballistic missile submarines, the new report lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.

This new version of a hedging strategy—being able to address geopolitical and technical uncertainty, a key tenant of the 2010 and previous reports—includes a decision to retain more weapons longer and make new weapons faster.

The United States can hedge in two complementary ways. One is by having a robust nuclear weapon production infrastructure that has the design, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons needed to address changes in the threat environment. Another approach is to retain a significant non-deployed inventory of weapons that can be added to current delivery vehicles to address geopolitical threat or technical failure.

One disturbing aspect of the new approach is the apparent decision to keep the last megaton weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the B83. How long this warhead will be retained is unclear, but one section of the NPR report indicates that it will be retained until replaced.

On the other hand, the report continues previous decisions to maintain the nuclear triad and replace the delivery systems: a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, and a new air-launched cruise missile. A new addition to the ongoing programs is a sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Whether the SLCM goes forward is highly dependent on Russia and whether it continues to violate the INF Treaty or returns to compliance.

The new low-yield warhead, although designed to counter Russia’s growing arsenal of novel nonstrategic systems, may prove to be counterproductive. To deploy the new low-yield warhead, the United States, unlike Russia, will sacrifice some of its strategic warheads because nonstrategic nuclear warheads are not counted under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Russia has taken advantage of this fact by substantially increasing its arsenal of nonstrategic weapons, while complying with the limitations on strategic systems. Because the Trident II D5 ballistic missile on U.S. ballistic missile submarines and any warheads on it are counted under New START, the low-yield warhead will be subject to the treaty limits, just like the higher-yield W76-1. In other words, it is a one-for-one trade-off. How many low-yield weapons will be produced is unknown, but having fewer high-yield warheads, such as the W76-1, seems to advantage Russia.

A concept of operations has yet to be explained for the new low-yield weapon. The sea leg of the nuclear triad is the most survivable leg in large part due to the ability of Ohio-class submarines to be invisible in the open ocean. Launching a high-value D5 missile from a ballistic missile submarine will most likely give away its location. China and Russia are expanding their ability to detect a missile launch and will be able to locate a U.S. submarine if it launches a D5 missile. Is having a low-yield warhead worth the risk of exposing the location of a ballistic missile submarine at sea?

Moreover, if the reason to have a low-yield warhead is to respond to Russian first use of a low-yield weapon, rather than sticking to the promise of the 2010 NPR report to use overwhelming force in response to nuclear use, responding with a low-yield warhead also seems to advantage Russia and weaken deterrence. Signaling that a low-yield weapon would be used to respond to low-yield weapon use might persuade Russia to lower the nuclear threshold, thus risking nuclear war-fighting. President Ronald Reagan cautioned against this in 1984 when he said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”

Budget Challenges

Whether there is the political and budgetary will to implement the 2018 NPR report remains to be seen.

The biggest challenge laid out in the 2018 report is the new assignment for the NNSA. The NNSA is well into the process of fixing its aging infrastructure, but has a long way to go. It cannot fund these very expensive, one-of-a-kind nuclear facilities within its existing budget plan. A new state-of-the-art HEU storage facility is complete, and the design of the new uranium processing facility is well along. The NNSA is deciding where to build a new plutonium facility, but needs new funding, and the 1976-era PF-4 plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory must be replaced at some point. Continuing resolutions in Congress and changing requirements add to the cost and delay schedules.

Air Force General John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command commander, addresses the 5th Bomb Wing airmen at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 6, 2017. "The ICBMs that we have here are the most ready element [of the nuclear triad], the bombers that we have here are the most flexible, the submarine element is the most survivable, and when you put those three together, you come up with a deterrent capability that our adversaries fear and they need to fear those capabilities,” he told the Bismarck Tribune during the visit. “I hope to never have to employ them but they have to be ready all the time.” (Photo: J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force)The NNSA does not have out-year funding to implement the next generation of stockpile stewardship, build new experimental facilities, conduct and diagnose more subcritical experiments at the Nevada National Security Site, expand computational capabilities necessary to maintain the current stockpile, identify and resolve future problems, conduct life extension programs, and support the fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

New capabilities such as the stockpile responsiveness program and other new efforts to challenge the design and manufacturing skills of the nuclear complex will also need new funding. As the 2018 NPR report points out, although there is a new tritium-extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the NNSA needs a new tritium loading facility. Lithium facilities must be constructed or a commercial source identified. In the long term, enrichment capabilities must be built to provide suitable low-enriched uranium fuel to produce tritium. If indeed the 2018 NPR is setting the NNSA on a course to build more weapons and new weapons, the NNSA budget must increase significantly.

Not mentioned at all in the NPR report is the cost, which could run into the low billions, to safely tear down the old buildings, such as building 9212 at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as the new buildings become operational. Transporting nuclear weapons, materials, and parts is also a mission not mentioned. Because funding for the new secure trailers for the Secure Transportation Asset program4 has been delayed, the new trailers will not be available until 2024, and the program is understaffed.

The fiscal year 2019 budget that President Donald Trump sent to Congress in February calls for $11 billion for NNSA weapons activities. That would be an increase of about $800 million, or 8 percent, from the fiscal year 2018 request and $1.8 billion more, a 20 percent jump, from the enacted funding for fiscal year 2017. It is not clear how much of those budget requests will be enacted by Congress, nor is it clear necessary increases will be sustained under future administrations.

Historically, neither Congress, the Department of Defense, nor the Office of Management and Budget have shown an inclination to fully fund the NNSA program of record, let alone the new initiatives such as those outlined in the 2018 NPR report. Even though the NNSA budget has increased by 60 percent since 2010, the efforts to address the decades of inattention to the infrastructure have not been fully funded. Similarly, stockpile surveillance work and the extremely successful Stockpile Stewardship Program have been cut back to support the ongoing warhead life extension programs.

The NNSA’s challenge is further complicated by an inability, imposed by Congress, to hire the skilled federal workforce needed to design and oversee implementation of the existing programs. Even though the NNSA’s work has grown significantly over the past five years, Congress continues to impose an arbitrary cap on federal staff at 1,690 employees.

The labs, plants, and the NNSA will need to recruit and train new staff and retain new and existing staff to carry out the life extension programs, maintain a robust Stockpile Stewardship Program, and take on the many new initiatives. Staffing efforts, including for the Secure Transportation Asset program, is further hindered by the year-long security clearance process, and the backlog is growing.

Although the 2018 NPR report puts considerable emphasis on the relatively low cost of nuclear deterrence in the overall defense budget, the NNSA’s entire budget already supports the spectrum of deterrence. There are no trade-offs and no untapped sources of funding.

A significant omission in the NPR report is how the NNSA will get the new funding. History has taught us that having the Defense Department move its money to the NNSA is not the answer. That approach, although well meaning, led to dissent and discord in the Defense Department-NNSA relationship. Only an increase in the overall defense budget, which includes the Defense Department and NNSA, can support the full range of efforts. Even the new low-yield weapon will be expensive, despite assertions in the NPR report that it will be easy, fast, and cheap.

The Defense Department must not neglect its efforts to maintain its nuclear enterprise and the existing delivery systems until the new platforms are fielded. This effort, started under Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is essential to the long-term well-being of the nuclear enterprise. The well-documented loss of focus on all things nuclear starting with Operation Desert Storm forced the military services to devote resources, attention, and a renewed commitment to sustain the nuclear deterrent and the men and women who support it.

The NPR report includes language supporting this ongoing effort, which has already shown results. “The Service reforms we have accordingly implemented were long overdue, and the Department of Defense remains fully committed to properly supporting the Service members who protect the United States against nuclear threats.”

The 2018 NPR report also expresses strong support for upgrading the nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning system known as NC3.5 Here again, efforts to revitalize the system have been underway for years, such as new secured protected communications and early-warning satellites, but funding is always a challenge, particularly for the related terminals and ground systems.

Role for Arms Control

Finally, the NPR report argues that “arms control can contribute to U.S., allied, and partner security by helping to manage strategic competition among states. By codifying mutually agreed-upon nuclear postures in a verifiable and enforceable manner, arms control can help establish a useful degree of cooperation and confidence among states. It can foster transparency, understanding, and predictability in adversary relations, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

New START meets these criteria. Extending New START, whose central limits were achieved on February 5 by Russia and the United States, would further support these goals. Russia has not shown any interest in a new treaty, but it did leave open the door for discussion to extend New START by five years, an option provided in the treaty. Discussions beginning this summer or fall to extend New START would go a long way toward demonstrating that arms control remains important.

Does the Trump administration NPR put an end to the decades-long reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and military strategy? Does it position the United States for a new nuclear arms race and a return to nuclear weapons testing after a 26-year moratorium? Is there the political and budgetary will to implement this new, more aggressive nuclear force posture and policy and its supporting infrastructure? Does the NPR report present an appropriate approach given an increasingly uncertain and competitive world? These questions need to be addressed as the administration’s newly released fiscal year 2019 budget request is considered by Congress.


1 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF; U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

2 Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Has Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

4 Office of Secure Transportation, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Ten-Year Site Plan FY2012 Through FY2021,” April 2011, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/inlinefiles/OST%20TYSP%202012-2021%20053111%20cjs.pdf.

5 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: Update on Air Force Oversight Effort and Selected Acquisition Programs,” GAO-17-641R, August 15, 2017.

Madelyn Creedon was the Department of Energy’s principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2014 to 2017 and was assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs from 2011 to 2014.


Posted: March 1, 2018

Trump Seeks Expanded Nuclear Capabilities

The Nuclear Posture Review marks significant change from the Obama years.

March 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, unveiled Feb. 2, puts deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks at the top of the U.S. nuclear agenda and pivots away from a number of key Obama administration policy priorities and commitments that sought to lower reliance on nuclear weapons.

“[G]lobal threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries,” states the review, citing Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. “The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L), and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify on the Nuclear Posture Review before the House Armed Services Committee on February 6. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)The review, the fourth since the end of the Cold War, makes a case for what it presents as a more flexible, resilient, and adaptable U.S. nuclear posture to meet current and future challenges. But critics warn that the Trump administration is moving in ways that will be costly and potentially destabilizing.

Most controversially, the review addresses the circumstances under which the United States would consider the first use of nuclear weapons to include cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities; calls for the development of two sea-based, low-yield nuclear options that do not currently exist in the arsenal; and gives relatively short shrift to arms control and nonproliferation.

Whether the NPR has the impact the administration intends is far from certain in light of questions in Congress about the need, effectiveness, and affordability of the strategy; opposition from rival powers Russia and China; and concerns about President Donald Trump’s intemperate and bellicose rhetoric on nuclear weapons.

The United States is “creating a brand-new nuclear force,” Trump said on Feb. 12. “[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.”

Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy. These strategy documents outline the president’s views on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, maintenance of and upgrades to nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

The Obama administration’s review, completed in April 2010, concluded that the top priority of the U.S. nuclear agenda should be nonproliferation and prevention of nuclear terrorism. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report stated that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. (See ACT, May 2010.)

In a January 2017 executive order, Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, an NPR, and a ballistic missile defense review. Mattis initiated the NPR in April 2017. (See ACT, May 2017.) A draft of the document was leaked to the Huffington Post on Jan. 11, nearly a month before the planned release date. The final draft largely mirrored the leaked version.

Reactions Mixed

The NPR report contains elements of continuity with long-standing U.S. nuclear policy, such as affirming the strategic triad of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, continuing the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and stating that deterrence of nuclear attack is not the sole purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons.

“This review is consistent with U.S. nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at a Feb. 2 press briefing. “It reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence and continues our clear commitment to nonproliferation and arms control.”

But several of the proposed changes in the review have sparked controversy. Critics fear that the changes reverse decades of efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, increase the risk of nuclear conflict, and add to the crushing financial burden to sustain and upgrade the arsenal in the coming decades.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Trump based on the leaked version of the document, 16 Democratic senators wrote that “creating new nuclear capabilities and widening their possible use constitute an increase in America’s nuclear warfighting capacity that will pressure other nuclear weapons states to follow suit.” The senators criticized the document for failing to address how the administration plans to pay for new nuclear capabilities “on top of the already-unsustainable costs of modernizing our existing U.S. nuclear forces.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans Trump inherited from Obama to maintain and upgrade the arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in current dollars. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The NPR report acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial,” but claims that they are affordable and, at their projected peak in the late 2020s, will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the Pentagon budget. This estimate does not include the additional costs that must be borne by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

Republican lawmakers have generally expressed support for the recommendations in the NPR report. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Feb. 2 statement that the review “takes a number of steps in the right direction.”

“[S]ince the end of the Cold War, we have let our nuclear capabilities atrophy under the false belief that the era of great power competition was over,” McCain added.

As with Congress, the reception to the NPR report among allies has also been mixed.

“Japan highly appreciates the latest NPR which clearly articulates the U.S. resolve to ensure the effectiveness of its deterrence and its commitment to providing extended deterrence to its allies including Japan,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a Feb. 3 statement.

But German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel blasted the NPR report. “The U.S. administration’s decision to develop new tactical nuclear weapons shows that the spiral of a new nuclear arms race has already been set in motion,” he said Feb. 4. “We need new disarmament initiatives rather than new arms systems.”

Meanwhile, Russia and China reacted harshly. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Feb. 3 that “the document is focused on confrontation and is anti-Russian” and the claim that Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons has no “connection with reality.” The following day, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated China’s commitment that it will not use nuclear weapons first and said that Beijing hopes “the U.S. side will discard its ‘cold-war mentality’ [and] shoulder its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament.”

Updated Roles

The NPR report says that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It also includes a so-called negative security assurance that Washington “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”

The 2010 NPR report used identical language. Yet, unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration defines “extreme circumstances” 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 document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological weapons attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The report references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks more than 30 times.

The 2010 NPR report, in contrast, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, or biological weapons attack and called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities were not cited as grounds for a nuclear response.

The 2018 NPR report also caveats the negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.”

The Trump administration argues that the new revised language on declaratory policy does not signal an expansion of the circumstances under which the president would consider nuclear first use but rather makes explicit threats that have always been implicit.

“The Obama policy didn’t rule out anything as a potential extreme circumstance,” Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon before the release of the NPR report. “Our intent is to clarify the kinds of things that might constitute extreme circumstance so adversaries don’t miscalculate and cross that threshold unwittingly.”

But some analysts warn that the language of the NPR report could have the effect of lowering the bar for first use of nuclear weapons and that threatening such use in response to cyberattacks or attacks on U.S. command and control capabilities would lack credibility.

The review “opens questions about whether the United States would consider using [nuclear] weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic,” Rebecca Hersman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a Feb. 6 commentary.

Using nuclear weapons in response to attacks on command and control capabilities would “violate any notion of proportionality,” argued James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Feb. 5 article for the War on the Rocks website. “Russian or Chinese non-nuclear strikes on U.S. satellites would almost certainly cause no human casualties.”

New Nuclear Capabilities

The NPR report calls for the development of two additional low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis, a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.”

These “supplements,” as the report describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

According to the report, the development of the two options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’”

“Rather,” the report argues, “expanding U.S. tailored response options will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”

Critics maintain that the report misconstrues Russian nuclear doctrine and that additional low-yield options are unnecessary. “Rather than lowering the threshold of nuclear use, the Russians are actively seeking to increase it,” wrote Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in a Feb. 13 article.

Other analysts have noted that the United States already possesses two types of low-yield warheads for delivery by strategic bombers, making redundant the NPR report’s proposed third and fourth low-yield options.

The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 released on Feb. 12 includes $22.6 million for developing a low-yield SLBM option. The request does not contain funding for a new SLCM. The NNSA budget request does not include additional funds to modify SLBM warheads or to begin development of a warhead for the SLCM.

The NPR also seeks to retain the B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile. The decision reverses the Obama administration’s proposal that the warhead be retired once confidence in the under-development B61-12 gravity bomb is achieved.

The plan to keep the B83-1 bomb is part of a larger proposed expansion of NNSA nuclear weapons work that the NPR report says would provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the estimated 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The administration requested $11.2 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019, an increase of $780 million over last year’s request and $1.8 billion over the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

Arms Control Takes a Back Seat

The NPR report states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and if such accords “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” It adds that the administration “will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions.”

But the report does not offer any proposals to advance U.S.-Russian arms control or address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. It also does not commit to an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is slated to expire in 2021. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

In addition, the report says, without offering a reason, that the administration will not pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Jan. 18 interview with WNYC New York Public Radio. “How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons?”


Nuclear Posture Reviews, Then and Now

The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review is the fourth since the end of the Cold War. It differs from the Obama administration's 2010 review in some key areas.

IssueObama, 2010Trump, 2018
Conditions for nuclear useUnder “extreme circumstances” to defend U.S. and allies’ “vital interests”; policy to reduce nuclear role in deterring non-nuclear attacks with the goal of achieving sole-purpose nuclear deterrence“Extreme circumstances” include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” on United States or ally population, infrastructure, nuclear forces, and/or command and control capabilities; no reference to reducing nuclear weapons’ role or implementing sole-purpose policy
Negative security assurancesUnited States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); contains caveat if biological
weapons threat advances
United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with NPT; contains caveat if non-nuclear strategic threat advances
Arms reductionsNew START, 1,550 strategic deployed warheads; calls for future reductions to include nondeployed and tactical weaponsSupports New START implementation though 2021, silent on possible five-year extension; open to future arms control if conditions permit and it enhances U.S. and allied security, is verifiable,
and enforceable
New weapons and testingRatify Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); no nuclear testing; no new weapons development; no new missions for nuclear weaponsOpposes CTBT ratification; calls for development of additional low-yield options and ability to rapidly prototype new weapons designs


Posted: March 1, 2018

The New U.S. Nuclear Strategy is Flawed and Dangerous. Here’s Why.



In December 2016, President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” prompting condemnation in the United States and around the world. Those concerns, it turns out, were well justified.


Volume 10, Issue 3, February 15, 2018

In December 2016, President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told MSNBC that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. The comments mostly prompted condemnation in the United States and around the world and raised concerns about the direction the president would take U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul Selva (L), arrives at a closed briefing before the Senate Armed Service Committee January 23, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a closed briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Those concerns, it turns out, were well justified.

The Defense Department released Feb. 2 a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the fourth since the end of the Cold War. The NPR is a strategy document that outlines the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, the plans for maintaining and upgrading nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

Though there are, not surprisingly, elements of continuity with previous reviews, the proposed changes in the new NPR are significant and align with Trump’s more aggressive and impulsive nuclear notions. The document incorporates wish list items long-advocated by parts of the nuclear weapons establishment and breaks with past U.S. efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons worldwide in several key areas.

It is true that the international security environment is less favorable than it was in 2010 when the Obama administration conducted its NPR. Some of the other nuclear-armed states have not been responsible nuclear citizens. Technology is advancing in new and unpredictable ways. And the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal— originally built during the Cold War-era and refurbished since—is aging.

But these developments do not justify the approach advanced in this NPR.

The review proposes to expand the circumstances under which Trump might consider the use of nuclear weapons, including in response to so-called “non-nuclear strategic threats” and calls for the development of new, more usable nuclear weapons capabilities.

The review also walks back from the longstanding U.S. leadership role on arms control and nonproliferation at a time when the global nuclear weapons risk reduction enterprise is facing significant challenges.

Taken together, these and other changes in the Trump Nuclear Posture Review rest on faulty assumptions, are unnecessary and unlikely to achieve their stated goal, set the stage for an even more unsustainable rate of spending on U.S. nuclear weapons, would accelerate global nuclear competition, and could increase the risk of nuclear conflict in the years ahead.

Wider Range of Nuclear Use Options

Instead of deemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy as previous NPRs have done, the Trump NPR envisions a greater role for the weapons against a wider range of threats. Trump administration officials claim that their NPR is consistent with the 2010 Obama NPR on declaratory policy. Both in tone and substance, it is not.

The 2018 NPR says that the first use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies (p. 21). The 2010 NPR used identical language. Unlike the previous administration, however, the Trump administration defines extreme circumstances 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 document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The review references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks over 30 times.

The 2010 NPR, on the other hand, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring "a conventional or CBW attack.” There was no reference to cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities anywhere in the 2010 document.

“This opens questions,” writes former Pentagon official Rebecca Hersman, “about whether the United States would consider using” nuclear “weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic.”

In addition, the 2010 NPR stated that the United States “will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, by the end of his second term of office President Obama believed that goal had effectively been achieved. As then Vice President Joe Biden put it in remarks delivered in January 2017: “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. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means.”

In contrast, the new NPR explicitly rejects the idea of “sole purpose” (p. 20). The review extols ambiguity and proposes two new low-yield nuclear capabilities to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack” (p. 55).

The Trump NPR diverges from the Obama NPR on declaratory policy in still other ways.

The 2010 review updated and strengthened the U.S. pledge of nonuse against non-nuclear-weapon states that are in good standing with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations, even in the unlikely event that one of those states attacks the United States or its allies with chemical or biological weapons. This revised negative security assurance expanded the security benefits for non-nuclear-weapon states of good faith membership in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

The 2018 NPR reiterates this pledge but undermines the value of this assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat” (p. 21).

It is notable that President Trump argued in his 2018 State of the Union address that “we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else.”

This approach represents a clear shift away from past U.S. strategy and practice that aims to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military and foreign policy. The 2010 NPR stated that the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack against the United States or its allies, not “any act of aggression.”

The proposed changes in the 2018 NPR on the role of nuclear weapons are real. And they are dangerous.

Threatening nuclear retaliation to counter new kinds of “asymmetric” attacks would lower the threshold for nuclear use, increase the risks of miscalculation, and make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies. Such threats are also unlikely to be proportional and therefore would be difficult to make credible. For example, though a kinetic or nonkinetic attack on U.S. nuclear command and control capabilities, which support both nuclear and non-nuclear missions, could have major repercussions, such an attack is unlikely to result in any human casualties.

Given the overall conventional superiority of the U.S.-led alliance system, it is in the U.S. interest to raise, not lower, the bar for nuclear use. A more prudent approach to countering potential non-nuclear attacks on U.S. infrastructure and command and control capabilities would include strengthening the resilience of these systems against cyberattack and ensuring the availability of credible symmetric and asymmetric conventional response options.

New, “More Usable” Nuclear Weapons

The Trump NPR calls for the development of new low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use nuclear weapons first on a limited basis early in a conventional conflict or crisis (also known as “escalate to deescalate”). The review warns that Russia maintains a much larger arsenal of "non-strategic" nuclear weapons than the United States and is upgrading those weapons.

To attempt to correct Russia's purported "mistaken impression" that its non-strategic forces could "provide a coercive advantage in crises or at lower levels of conflict," the review proposes to supplement the U.S. arsenal with the following capabilities:

  • the near-term deployment of a new low-yield, W76-1 nuclear warhead variant for the D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and
  • the longer-term development of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

To counter Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the review also seeks a new (for the time being conventional) ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that would, if tested and deployed, put the U.S. in violation of the treaty.

The shortcomings in the rationale for additional low-yield options are too numerous to count.

For starters, the claim that Russia has lowered the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons is hotly disputed. While Russia appears to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons for its security than the United States due to its overall conventional inferiority and concerns about U.S. missile defenses, is violating the INF Treaty, and developing new types of nuclear weapons, Russia’s official nuclear doctrine does not support the claim that it has an “escalate to deescalate” doctrine. As Jeffrey Edmonds, a former director for Russia on the National Security Council, has written, “If the Russian leadership decides to use nuclear weapons in a limited way to gain escalation control, then it is likely doing so as a last measure, reacting from a perception that the Russian state is about to fall.”

In fact, what is far more likely to prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to perceive that he could get away with limited nuclear use is past and future statements by President Trump questioning the value of NATO and U.S. alliances. Deploying additional low-yield nuclear options won’t solve this political problem.

In any event, the review fails to produce compelling evidence that Russia might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using the weapons in its current arsenal (conventional or nuclear) in response to a limited Russian nuclear attack. Speaking of the weapons in its current arsenal, Washington already possesses hundreds of low-yield warheads as part of the air-leg of the triad and plans to invest over $150 billion in the coming decades to ensure these warheads can penetrate the most advanced air defenses. New low-yield options are a solution in search of a problem.

The NPR argues that additional low-yield options are “not intended to enable” nuclear war-fighting “[n]or will it lower the nuclear threshold” (p. 54). But this assertion ignores the fact that the stated purpose is to make their use “more credible” in the eyes of U.S. adversaries, which means that they are meant to be seen as “more usable.”

The belief that a nuclear conflict could be controlled is dangerous thinking. The fog of war is thick, the fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Such thinking could also have the perverse effect of convincing Russia that it could get away with limited nuclear use without putting its survival at risk.

Many military targets are in or near urban areas. It has been estimated that the use of even a fraction of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces could lead to the death of tens of millions of people in each country. An all-out exchange would kill hundreds of millions and produce catastrophic global consequences with adverse agricultural, economic, health, and environmental consequences for billions of people.

No country should be preparing to wage a “limited nuclear war” that neither side can guarantee would remain “limited.” Rather, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declared in 1985, today’s Russian and U.S. leaders should recognize that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Even if one buys the rationale that more low-yield options are needed, the two new nuclear capabilities proposed by the review are deeply flawed.

Given that U.S. strategic submarines currently carry SLBMs armed with higher-yield warheads, how would Russia know that an incoming missile armed with a low-yield warhead wasn’t actually armed with high-yield warheads? The answer is it wouldn’t, thereby increasing the risks of unintended escalation.

Deploying nuclear SLCMs on U.S. surface ships and/or attack submarines also raises several concerns. The potential for miscalculation would increase since an adversary would be unable to determine if an incoming missile is armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead. And the Navy is unlikely to be pleased with the additional operational and financial burdens that would come with nuclearizing the surface and/or attack submarine fleet.

The NPR claims that development of a new nuclear SLCM, which would take nearly decade, could serve as a bargaining chip in future arms control negotiations with Russia. The document states that if Moscow “returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviors, the United States may reconsider the pursuit of a SLCM” (p. 55). This requirement is so sweeping that it lacks any realistic negotiating value. It’s also not clear how additional nuclear options would be useful bargaining chips given Russia’s concerns about overall NATO conventional superiority.

Ultimately, attempting to mimic Russia by developing more low-yield options would play into Moscow's hands, since it can match NATO in the nuclear sphere. The main deterrence challenge Russia poses to the alliance is not nuclear. That means the United States should continue to invest in maintaining its overall conventional edge, buttress defenses as needed on NATO’s eastern flank where Russia has local superiority, and more effectively defend against and respond to Russia's use of disinformatin, propoganda, and cyber tools to undermine western democratic institutions. At the same time, it should seek opportunities to engage with Moscow to reduce tensions and the risk of renewed military competition.

Undermining the Taboo Against Nuclear Testing

The NPR asserts that “the United States does not support the ratification of the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] CTBT” (p. 63) even though the United States and 182 other nations have signed the treaty, and even though there is no technical need to resume nuclear testing. No reason or justification for rejecting the goal of CTBT ratification is provided.

The review says that “the United States will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Committee” and “the related International Monitoring System and the International Data Center.” It also calls upon other states not to conduct nuclear testing and states that “[t]he United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal.”

But the NPR proclaims that the United States will remain ready to “resume nuclear testing if necessary to meet severe technological or geopolitical challenges.”

The NPR also seeks “to reduce the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.” An annual National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) report released in November 2017 shortens the previous readiness timeline to conduct a “simple [nuclear] test” explosion from 24 to 36 months down to six to 10 months, undermining the global nuclear testing taboo. This shortened timeline means that should the United States decide to conduct a “simple test” explosion, it should be prepared to do so within six to 10 months.

While the NNSA report and the NPR both reaffirm that “there is no current requirement to conduct an underground nuclear test,” the administration’s hasty rejection of CTBT ratification, combined with the NNSA’s revised testing readiness timeline suggests the Trump administration only wants to reap the benefits of the treaty, including the data from the monitoring system, while leaving the door open to resuming nuclear testing.

A Nuclear Force That is Excessive and Unsustainable

The Trump NPR’s proposals to develop new nuclear capabilities come on top of the existing nuclear triad recapitalization program of record that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the Obama-era plans would cost over $1.2 trillion (excluding the impact of inflation) over the next 30 years.

Massive spending on nuclear weapons on the scale and schedule envisioned by the 2018 NPR will pose a major threat to other high priority national security programs, to say nothing about Trump’s pledge to expand the non-nuclear military. What makes the growing cost to sustain the nuclear mission so worrisome for military planners is that costs are scheduled to reach a peak during the mid-2020s and overlap with large increases in projected spending on conventional weapon system modernization programs. Though the recent budget deal agreed to in Congress has improved the near-term outlook for defense spending, the Pentagon is likely to face continuing budget pressure in the future.

The NPR acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial” but attempts to downplay them by claiming that nuclear weapons will “only” consume more than 6.4 percent of the defense budget (p. 52). This projection does not include the major costs that must be borne by NNSA to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

The review offers no plan to pay for the rising price tag to upgrade the triad and the coming bow wave of non-nuclear modernization costs. It also fails to examine more pragmatic, cost-effective alternatives.

The force outlined in the NPR calls for maintaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear forces at levels that exceed the deterrence requirements outlined by the Pentagon in 2013, which determined that the deployed strategic arsenal could be reduced by up to one-third below the limits set by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) of 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. Even if the United States maintains its arsenal at the New START levels, it can do so at a significantly lower cost, according to the CBO.

Planning for an Arms Race

President Trump said Feb. 12 that the United States is “creating a brand new nuclear force...[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.” The NPR comports with the president’s stated objective by laying the groundwork to provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile (pgs. 59-64).

One measure of the scale of the plan for building “new or additional weapons” is given in the commitment to “[p]rovide the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits [nuclear warhead cores] at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030” (p. 62). No basis is offered for this minimum capacity target.

The NPR also calls for options to expand the arsenal by using old warheads, including “modifying warheads,” assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile,” and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development” (p. 63).

In addition, the review proposes to accelerate the life extension programs for the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and W80-1 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warheads. It leaves open the option of whether to pursue Obama-era plans to develop common, interoperable warheads for ICBMs and SLBMs. The new NPR also appears to want to keep indefinitely the B83-1 warhead (the only remaining U.S. megaton-class warhead). The previous plan had been to retire it once confidence in the B61-12 had been achieved, if not sooner. In 2013 NNSA estimated that the cost to life extend the B83 would be $4 to $5 billion.

The NPR says that the Pentagon will undertake research and development “for advanced nuclear delivery system technology and prototyping capabilities,” including “on the rapid development of nuclear delivery systems, alternative basing modes, and capabilities for defeating advanced air and missile defenses” (p. 40). This sweeping language suggests the possible pursuit of research and development on mobile ICBMs and hypersonic missiles for nuclear weapons delivery.

These buildup plans go far beyond those proposed by the Obama administration, which married its proposal to develop a more responsive nuclear infrastructure with pledges to reduce the size of the stockpile of nondeployed hedge warheads and accelerate the rate of dismantlement of retired warheads. The Trump NPR does not reiterate these commitments.

The NPR gives short shrift to the additional financial and operational demands preparing for an arms race will put on an already overburdened NNSA. Though NNSA would receive a significant budget increase in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, such a buildup is unlikely to be executable.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued last year, the “NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.” And former NNSA administrator Frank Klotz said in a Jan. 23 interview just two days after leaving office that the agency is “working pretty much at full capacity... And you can draw your conclusion [on the Trump NPR proposals] from that.”

Nevertheless, the NPR makes an open-ended commitment to unleashing a nuclear weapon buildup whenever the U.S. sees fit. It is a clear incitement to other weapon states to do the same, and a clear violation of the NPT obligation to end the arms race and pursue effective disarmament measures.

Undermines U.S. Arms Control and Nonproliferation Leadership

In his January 2018 State of the Union address, Trump dismissed the idea of the elimination of nuclear weapons — a goal embraced by American President’s since the beginning of the nuclear age— as some “magical moment in the distant future.”

President Trump added Feb. 12: “Frankly I’d like to get rid of a lot of ‘em [nuclear weapons]. And if they [other nuclear-armed states] want to do that we’ll go along with them. We won’t lead the way, we’ll go along with them.”

Not surprisingly, the new Trump NPR does not proactively seek negotiations to limit nuclear arms.

Arms control only gets a brief mention at the end of the NPR and it’s a generally dismissive mention at that. The document passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and negotiations that “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” No previous nuclear arms control agreement has included enforcement measures.

In contrast, a major and important theme throughout the 2010 NPR was that “by reducing the role and numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons…we can put ourselves in a much better position to persuade our NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the nonproliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”

The 2018 NPR does state that the “United States will continue efforts to create a more cooperative and benign security environment” (p. 24) and that “the United States will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions” (p. 95).

But the review offers next to nothing in the way of proposals to advance particularly U.S.-Russian arms control efforts and address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. As Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, put in a Jan. 18 interview:

“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy. How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons, what’s the strategy there? There’s virtually no discussion of the arms control component of U.S. nuclear policy in this document.”

“The NPR essentially abandons the United States' leadership role in nonproliferation and arms control that have marked every president since Dwight Eisenhower,” noted Tom Countryman, former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, in a Jan. 23 Arms Control Association briefing on the NPR.

On the one bilateral strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty that is currently in force—New START—the NPR does not commit its possible extension, despite the obvious benefits.

New START has improved strategic stability, predictability, and transparency, and verifiably trimmed the still oversized U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. At a time when U.S.-Russian relations remain strained, New START, which is set to expire in 2021, serves an even more important role in reducing nuclear risks.

The next step should be for Presidents Trump and Putin to agree to extend the treaty for another five years–to 2026. If New START is allowed to lapse in 2021 with nothing to replace it, there would be no limits on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972. The United States would have fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of the Russian nuclear stockpile.

Flawed Assumptions

Several of the arguments offered in the NPR for expanding the diversity and role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy are highly misleading.

  • The Trump plan is centered on the mistaken belief that the United States is falling behind other countries in the fielding of a reliable and credible nuclear arsenal and it claims that there are gaps in our ability to “credibly” threaten to wage nuclear war. In reality, there is no “nuclear missile gap.” The United States is not falling “behind.” The U.S. arsenal is the most potent in the world and is more than intimidating enough to deter nuclear attack by others—and if ever used—kill hundreds of millions of people.
  • The Trump nuclear plan falsely suggests that U.S. leadership on nuclear disarmament has not contributed to nonproliferation efforts or enhanced U.S. global standing. In reality, the commitment of the nuclear-armed states to halt the arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament established in the NPT has been crucial to preventing proliferation and was essential to the non-nuclear weapon states decision extend the NPT indefinitely in 1995.
  • The Trump nuclear plan argues that the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been “polarizing” and “could damage the nuclear nonproliferation regime.” In reality, it is nuclear weapons, and U.S. threats of “fire and fury,” that are dangerous and divisive. This more aggressive U.S. nuclear posture gives other nuclear actors a cynical excuse to justify their ongoing nuclear upgrade efforts and build up their own nuclear capabilities. The “Nuclear Ban Treaty,” on the other hand, is a good faith effort by more than 130 states to meet their responsibility as signatories of NPT to help end the arms race. Steps, like the Ban Treaty, aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic nuclear weapons use are necessary and should be welcomed.

Bottom Line

Despite elements of continuity with previous administrations, the Trump NPR is not a status quo document.

Rather than develop new nuclear roles and capabilities and put additional strain on an already wobbly global nuclear order, the United States needs to show more responsible nuclear leadership.

It will be up to Congress, U.S. allies, the international community, and ultimately the U.S. public to ensure that Trump’s radical nuclear plans do not become the tipping point toward a new and more dangerous nuclear era.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director, and KINGSTON A. REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

Posted: February 15, 2018

Press Briefing: The Trump Administration's New Nuclear Posture Review



The Arms Control Association will host a briefing with a group of top experts to analyze the implications of the new Trump nuclear strategy.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018
1:00 to 2:30 p.m.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC

The transcript of the event is posted below.

Press Briefing with Thomas Countryman, Joan Rohlfing, Jon Wolfsthal, and Kingston Reif. (Photo: Arms Control Association/ ALLEN HARRIS)The Trump administration will soon formally release its revised strategy document on the role and composition of U.S. nuclear forces, known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

According to a leaked draft of the 64-page document, the administration calls for expanding the number of scenarios under which the United States might consider the use nuclear weapons—including in response to a major cyberattack—and it proposes the development of new nuclear weapons and capabilities for “tailored” war scenarios.

The document also reaffirms support for replacing and upgrading all three legs of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to cost in excess of $1.25 trillion over the next 30 years and walks back U.S. commitments to pursue measures to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons.

The independent, nonpartisan Arms Control Association hosted a briefing with top experts to analyze the implications of the Trump administration's nuclear strategy. The transcript and audio recording is below.

Speakers included:

  • Jon Wolfsthal, former Senior Director, National Security Council
  • Thomas Countryman, Chairman of the Board; and
  • Joan Rohlfing, President, Nuclear Threat Initiative
  • Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament Policy, Arms Control Association (moderator)

PHOTOS:  Available here. Usage requires attribution to the Arms Control Association. 



KINGSTON REIF: Well, good afternoon everyone and welcome to today's event on the Trump Administration's Nuclear Posture Review. My name is Kingston Reif and I am the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.

As most of you know, the Arms Control Association is an independent nonpartisan membership organization. We were established in 1971 and we're dedicated to reducing and eliminating the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons, namely nuclear, chemical, biological weapons as well as certain conventional weapons that pose particular harm and risk to civilians.

Outside the room, you'll find copies of two of our recent issues of our flagship publication, "Arms Control Today," which include commentaries on the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

So, when we first conceived of this event, we anticipated previewing possible key outcomes of the NPR and the implications based on fragments of reporting and intelligence, and little did we know that a full pre-decisional draft of the document would leak, which now provides us the opportunity to discuss and analyze the review itself and the Pentagon, as we understand it, is formally slated to release the NPR in early February and the date that we are hearing is February 2nd.

At the Arms Control Association, our take is that the NPR constitutes unnecessary, unexecutable (ph) and unsafe overreach. Yes, the international security environment is less favorable than it was in 2010 when the Obama Administration conducted its Nuclear Posture Review. Yes, some of the other nuclear arm states have not been responsible nuclear citizens. Yes, technology is advancing in new and unpredictable ways and yes, the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging.

But none of these justifies the direction that Trump Nuclear Posture Review proposes to take U.S. nuclear strategy. Though there are elements of continuity with the policies of previous administrations, the document aligns with President Trump's more aggressive and impulsive nuclear notions and breaks with past efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons worldwide in several key areas.

First, instead of deemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons and U.S. policy, as previous Nuclear Posture Reviews have done, the Trump NPR actually seeks a greater role for them. Notably, the review proposes to enlarge the circumstances under which the United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons and explicit—to explicitly include "non-nuclear strategic attacks including major cyber attacks.”

Second, the NPR calls for new more usable nuclear weapons. These include the near-term deployment of low yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the longer-term development of a new nuclear armed sea-launched cruise missile. These proposals would come on top of the existing nuclear recapitalization program of record that the Trump Administration inherited from its predecessor, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years excluding the impact of inflation.

And third, the review walks back from key U.S. non-proliferation and disarmament commitments. Arms control only gets a brief mention at the end of the document and it's generally—and it is a generally a dismissive mention at that.

So, to help us further explore these and other issues, we have assembled a topnotch panel of experts. Our first speaker, on the far right will be Thomas Countryman. Tom, I am thrilled to say, is the new Chairman of the Board of the Arms Control Association and former Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

After Tom, we will have Joan Rohlfing who is seated between the three speakers there, the President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, excuse me and batting third will be Jon Wolfsthal, former Senior Director on the National Security Council responsible for nuclear weapons and arms control issues.

Each of our speakers will provide about 7 to 10 minutes of opening remarks which should leave plenty of time for questions from all of you. And before we get started, I just wanted to mention that we have coffee, tea, water and a selection of sodas in the back if you haven't seen them, and also if you're looking to access the wireless, the guest network is C-E-I-P guest and you open your browser and that should take you through the prompts that you need to get on the wireless and with that, the floor is yours, Tom.

THOMAS COUNTRYMAN: Thank you, Kingston. And thank all of you for coming out today. Nuclear weapons of course are technically complex and the policy that dictates their use, their strategy is perhaps esoteric, but the issue is not so complex that it cannot be comprehended by the public, by the media and crucially, in the months ahead, by the United States Congress.

The new NPR has real implications for our budget, for our leadership role and the world and above all, for our national security and it is crucial that the media and the public participate in an informed debate within the Congress on these issues.

As Kingston noted, U.S. nuclear policy has great elements of consistency. It is in many ways slow to change and you will note similarities in this draft report from what was decided by the Bush Nuclear Posture Review in 2002 and the Obama Nuclear Posture Review in 2010, but the changes are significant and have real-world implications. They are significant in their substance, in their tone, in what is added and in the striking omissions from previous posture reviews.

What concerns me most directly is the talk of an expanded role for nuclear weapons. For years, the United States under successive Presidents of both parties has consistently narrowed the circumstances under which an American President would contemplate use of nuclear weapons. For the first time in a long time, instead there is an expansion, an explicit expansion of the circumstances under which the President would consider such use.

As Kingston noted, this includes responding to non-nuclear threats including that of a massive cyber attack.

A year ago, Vice President Joe Biden, just before he left office, stood right here and spoke about the progress that the Obama Administration had made not only in narrowing those circumstances, but in reducing the role and the number of weapons in our nuclear arsenal and I’d just like to quote from Vice President Biden at that time. He said here, "Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today's threats, it is hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary."

That remains the case today and the draft Nuclear Posture Review fails to give a convincing rationale why it has changed. It does not explain why the U.S. nuclear arsenal, still the most powerful and diverse possessed by any nuclear weapon state is insufficient to match threats on both the nuclear and the non-nuclear level.

It fails to explain why the overwhelming United States advantages in both conventional military capabilities, and yes, in cyber capabilities is inadequate to respond to threats or attacks.

It does not explain why the Russian Federation's modernization, which parallels the United States’ own modernization efforts, is so severely different from ours that it means we have fallen behind in stability. It does not even talk about strategic stability between the United States and Russia as a goal to strive for and it does not explain how the additional threat of new nuclear weapons, including new low-yield weapons on top of those low-yield weapons that we already have, will change the Russian Federation thinking or make the first use of nuclear weapons by either side less likely.

Of concern to me also is the effect on our global leadership. It essentially abandons the United States' leadership role in nonproliferation and arms control that have marked every President since Dwight Eisenhower. In speaking of the most successful security treaty the world has ever seen, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it treats this only as a nonproliferation treaty and ignores… it does not restate the binding legal obligation that the United States undertook almost 50 years ago in that treaty. That is, we are committed to pursue effective measures to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons leading to their verifiable elimination.

By failing to restate this as a goal, it has an effect upon the readiness of other nations to honor their nonproliferation obligations. And this is the final point I would like to make: this posture review does not and will not be issued in a vacuum. It is not an issue simply between the U.S. and Russia, or the U.S. and China.

Other nations look to the United States' signal to determine their own policy and the signal that is being sent is unfortunately that the United States is putting aside a legal obligation, is not going to exert the same kind of leadership on nonproliferation and arms control issues, and it also signals the utility of nuclear weapons, something that will make them more attractive to those countries that have smaller arsenals or those that have no arsenals at all.

All of this is true even if you set aside the character and the impetuosity of the current United States' President. It still has these negative effects upon our national security. For these reasons, I hope not only that the final draft that we see perhaps next week will moderate some of these difficult points, but I also hope that the United States Congress will take up the obligation that it took up with great seriousness after the last two Nuclear Posture Reviews and put a limit to the kind of dangerous development that detracts from, rather than contributes, to stability in our world.

Thank you.

REIF: Thanks very much, Tom. Joan?

JOAN ROHLFING: (Inaudible) Kingston, thank you, Tom. I have been asked to focus in particular on the new capabilities being contemplated by the posture review, but I would like to put that in a little bit of a frame before offering some observations on that.

I do want to emphasize, I think you have certainly heard us mention that this is a draft and it still has to go through a White House review. I think this is important just to emphasize that anything nuclear is inherently presidential, so I am going to speak in terms of this being a draft with hopes that it could still improve. Much like, Tom and perhaps even a little bit more pointedly, I want to say this draft posture review represents a significant departure from the direction we have been headed in for the last four administrations.

It increases our reliance on nuclear weapons. It expands their role in our security and it makes them more likely—it makes the use of them more likely.

It also compounds rather than solves some of the top level nuclear issues left over from the previous administration. What do I mean by that? It maintains the same outdated hair trigger launch posture of our ballistic missiles that puts pressure on our leaders to make a use decision without enough time for deliberation.

It proposes enhancements to our arsenal that make nuclear weapons more usable and more destabilizing. It compounds the resource challenge by increasing the cost of the modernization program by at least another 20 percent. It doesn't offer any proactive solutions for overcoming the impasse in our relationship with Russia.

It undervalues arms control as a tool to achieve our military objectives and advance our national security. We don't do arms control for the sake of doing arms control. We do it because it advances our national security. If this review stands as it is currently written, I believe it significantly increases the risk of use.

Our primary focus as a nation should be on preventing the use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world and this posture review would move us in the opposite direction, so let me give you now a few specific examples of why that is the case starting with some of the capability enhancements proposed.

As Kingston mentioned, the review is proposing two new types of low-yield nuclear weapons. First, a near-term capability to put low-yield capacity on our SLBMs, our submarine launched ballistic missiles and then potentially, it contemplates over a longer time period a low-yield nuclear SLCM.

What's interesting about the SLCM is that we used to have nuclear SLCMs, they were taken off of deployment, off of our surface ships, off of our submarines in the 1991-timeframe by then President George Herbert Walker Bush. They were finally retired by the Obama Nuclear Posture Review in 2010, so this represents us coming you know, back full cycle to where we were at the height of the Cold War as opposed to continuing to move in the other direction.

Why do we need these low-yield nuclear weapons in the arsenal? I would argue emphatically, we do not. We already have a robust flexible nuclear deterrent today that includes low-yield options. But this draft review posits that we need more low-yield options, more low-yield capacity to restore a so-called deterrence gap at a regional level.

The premise in the review seems to be that the existing arsenal is not a credible deterrent to others unless we have this low-yield nuclear weapon. I find that argument simply incredible. The U.S. today has this robust deterrent. It is capable of being employed anywhere in the world in defense of our interest and our allies within a matter of minutes.

And as Tom said, they haven't offered a satisfactory explanation for what is the military purpose, what is the rationale for why we need this new capability? So, rather than raising the bar for nuclear use as they assert in the review, I believe it lowers the bar and makes their use more likely.

This is destabilizing, not stabilizing.

I think it's also a mistake to believe that we could use a little nuke to control escalation rather than strengthening deterrence, it therefore undermines it and it increases the risks of miscalculation. One final point on this, if we talk about deploying low-yield nuclear weapons on an SLBM, how is our adversary if they detect the launch from the ocean somewhere, a ballistic missile coming from them, how are they going to know that it's a little nuke, not a full-yield nuclear weapon, if the same platform deploys both a full yield nuclear weapon and a low-yield nuclear weapon. This is also destabilizing, I think it's fanciful to expect that there wouldn't be a full-scale attack in return for that.

So, a second point on how this posture review falls short just to emphasize some of comment that Tom made earlier about the short shrift given to arms control and nonproliferation, it mentions the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the good news is, it proposes that the administration will continue to observe the testing moratorium and will urge others to do the same, but it then undercuts that objective by explicitly noting that it will not seek ratification of the treaty. Why does this matter?

Without ratification the U.S. undermines its own ability to secure this nuclear test ban regime that's really vital to preventing new nuclear states from emerging and frankly, it preserves the U.S. nuclear advantage. Why wouldn't we want to do everything we can to ensure that the treaty is ratified so that we can sustain those benefits?

On the issue of further arms control with Russia, it offers no proactive agenda and is silent on the value of extending the New START Treaty, which is frankly critical to regulating our nuclear relationship with Russia. It ignores the value of the JCPOA and, very importantly, as mentioned by Tom, there is only a fleeting—the barest fleeting reference to a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, but it's not stated as a goal.

This is not only a U.S. legal commitment under the NPT, but also necessary for sustaining the political support, political will for the entire nonproliferation regime and it finally quite frankly, it takes too narrow a view of the role that arms control can play. We should have a whole-of-government approach looking at arms control diplomacy as a plank in our national security strategy; not one that's an afterthought. This review focuses primarily on the military dimensions of nuclear weapons.

Let me just close by saying, coming back to where I started, which is that the policy, the proposed posture, the enhancements being sought by this posture review are destabilizing and fundamentally increase the risk of use, increase the risk of miscalculation. Deterrence may be necessary, but it's certainly not sufficient to prevent nuclear use and potential miscalculation.

Thank you.

REIF: Thanks, very much, Joan. Jon.

JON WOLFSTHAL: Thanks, I am going to be lazy and just stay here unless anybody objects. Thank you to the ACA and Kingston and also to Joan and to Tom for letting me be part of this group. I want to support everything, everything that Tom and Joan have just said about the NPR and the concerns, I share many of them.

I will—you know, we're sort of always pushed to say, it's OK to find something positive to say about the NPR. There's something good in it and you know, I was struck, and I'd actually be surprised if Tom and Joan didn't feel the same way.

The stated objectives in the NPR to enhance deterrence, to reduce the risk of nuclear ambiguity, to ensure that countries that have nuclear weapons and threatened to use them like Russia, like North Korea know that they cannot use these weapons without escaping a consequence greater than any objective they might hope to achieve are I think valuable statements.

The deterrent language in the document is actually, I would argue, something you could find probably in any other Republican NPR and there actually would have been a similar type of discussion in a Democratic NPR.

The problem is of course the document then goes completely off the rails by pursuing systems that aren't supported by either intelligence information that suggests it will be helpful in enhancing deterrence by expanding the roles of nuclear weapons. It actually, as Joan said, increases the risks of use and then the document itself is rather schizophrenic when it talks about wanting to increase the ambiguity of the circumstances under which the United States might consider nuclear use.

So, maybe that's not the nicest thing to say about the NPR, but I appreciate what they were trying to do because I think all of us appreciate the challenges that the U.S. government faces in reducing the risk of use are serious and whether there are cyber or nuclear or other challenges we face, I think we recognize that as an appropriate thing for both the Defense Department and the whole of government to be wrestling with.

The problem with the NPR is everything looks like a nuclear nail and so everything is going to be solved with a nuclear hammer and there aren't solutions to many of the problems that are identified in the NPR, the nuclear space that do come with tremendous baggage.

So, what I was asked to do is to talk about one part of that baggage, which is the budget and I guess I was in part picked on to talk about this because I worked at Monterey Institute with the kind support of the Nuclear Threat Initiative with Jeffrey Lewis and Mark Quint to produce I think, the first comprehensive report of what the U.S. Nuclear Modernization Program was going to cost, which we dubbed, "The trillion-dollar nuclear triad." I have a running joke that I get a nickel every time anybody uses that statement, so I have to pay myself.

Since then, of course, we have gotten new information, the latest CBO report suggests that cost is actually closer to $1.25 trillion and if you look at out your dollars, you're looking about $1.7 trillion. The answer is, we don't know how much the nuclear budget is going to cost and we don't know it for a couple of reasons, but the main reason is because the Pentagon refuses to put together a standalone nuclear budget.

They have been asked not once, but twice by the GAO to actually produce a nuclear budget that takes into account all of the disparate pieces from development, deployment, operations, disposal, personnel, healthcare—everything across the board and the answer from DOD, I kid you not is, "We don't want to do that because that's too hard." That's a response to the GAO.

But interestingly, we were talking about this before. In the budget document, the Pentagon takes on this argument and I think that's an opening that many people should be looking to exploit. You hear from advocates for the nuclear mission that this is affordable. This is only a small percentage of the overall nuclear budget and if you look at the document, it talks about how at the height of the Cold War in 1984, we were spending 13.4 percent of the budget or 13.4 percent of the Defense budget on nuclear, we are only looking to spend 6.4 percent of the Defense budget on nuclear.

So, it's interesting. They don't talk about exactly, you know, what the absolute number was, not including dismantlement and disposal, which Joan as refugees from the Department of Energy understand is a problem without a solution yet; but if you look at just the raw numbers are out there and some quick math, we spent roughly $50 billion in 1984, if you take the Pentagon's numbers on the nuclear mission.

They're proposing that we would spend roughly $42 billion a year on the nuclear budget in 2029, so you say, "Well, well that's actually pretty small. It's reasonable, right?" In 1994, sorry, 1984 was the height of the Cold War. We were planning to fight and win a nuclear war. Is that the environment that the Pentagon sees us being in in 2029? If it does, I'm sorry, but 6.4 percent of the budget is not going to cut it, right? I mean, Ronald Reagan was right, you can't win a nuclear war, so don't fight one. But the idea that somehow these numbers can be compared and since we are below where we were back at 84 or in 62, we're OK, ignores the budget reality that we exist in

It's not a question of whether it's affordable, it's a question of whether it is sustainable, and it is a question of whether it's advisable and if you look at the national priorities that we have on the plate, you are going to be seeing a lot of Pentagon brass and officials ask you want two new nuclear systems. Are these priorities for you? You want a new nuclear arms SLCM? Do you want that, or do you want the F-35? Do you want to modify the D5 submarine launch ballistic missile and put a small (U-warden) on it? Well, do you want to finish the B-61 Mod 12, the AirDrop tactical nuclear weapon that we have slated for deployment in Europe? Do you want this one instead?

What you see in the NPR is not a prioritization or strategy, it's a laundry list. We want every capability that's possible. We have a President who is prepared to allow us to go for all of the things that we might conceivably want to use at some point? But none of these things are going to come in on budget or on time and if you have any doubts about that then ask the question, why did Secretary Mattis, when he took the job asked to be relieved from the budget caps for the nuclear mission?

That was one of the first things he approached OMB for when he took over the job in the Pentagon. The same as his predecessors did, because they know that they can't fit that nuclear square in the round hole or sorry, the nuclear square peg into the round budget hole that they have to work with.

So, as you work through these budget priorities, you then also have to ask the question, "Where else can we be spending this money?" And I'm not going to do the traditional guns and butter, let's take it out of the NPR itself. What do they point to as the preeminent threats that they don't think we can handle with our existing nuclear arsenal and therefore, we need to develop new capabilities and we to expand the role of nuclear weapons?

Well, one of the ones that is on many people's minds is cyber. It's not explicitly mentioned in the NPR, but it's referenced in the National Security Strategy and is clearly a concern that is rightfully to be wrestled with by the U.S. government.

In the last National Cyber Strategy that the Obama ministration released, we haven't gotten one out of the Trump Administration yet, the document stated that they requested $19.5 billion in cyber capabilities in 1990s—sorry, in 2016. That's how much we were planning to spend, right? How much are we going to spend any one of the individual legs on the nuclear triad. The LRSO, the lowest budgeted item in the nuclear capability is $25 billion to $ 30 billion, total. More than we spend annually on cyber, but if we are going to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in response to a cyberattack, why aren't we investing more money in our own cyber capabilities.

If the damage that can be done to us through cyber is so consequential, yet we are the cyber superpower, right? President Obama said clearly that our capabilities are second to none. I guarantee you that Russia is more vulnerable than we are to cyber, not to say, less formidable countries.

So, it seems me instead of investing money where Russia is trying to go to become stronger, we should be playing to your own strengths, which is in conventional capability, cyber capabilities, automation, integration—the things that were talked about in the third offset of the Pentagon, as opposed to trying to re-create some Cold War nuclear capability that doesn't match up with the threats that we face today.

Two last things I'll mention. I really want to talk to as many people in the Navy as possible about this Nuclear Posture Review. There are two things that really worry me. If you've talked to any nuclear operator in the last 20 years, they will tell you without an exception that they were thrilled to be relieved of the nuclear mission on the surface fleet and in the attack submarine fleet, right?

These things were complicated, and they made the Commanding Officer's life really complicated. You had to have security on board. You had to have different operations when you had nuclear missions. This is not like going into any port, you have to actually go to special nuclear weapons ports if you're going to be handling and shipping these things. You had additional training time, additional costs were associated with that. They lost all of that. They were supposed to be investing that in conventional operations.

Now, clearly, we have some challenges in the nuclear Navy as we stand or sorry, in the conventional Navy is as we are finding out, but the idea that we're going reintroduce this thing under the surface fleet and the attack fleet is something that's going to cost money, it's going to influence operations and it's going to be a real challenge for the surface fleet and for the attacks of force, and I'm not sure they are going to be very enthusiastic about.

The second issue is and I'm getting smarter on this. Joan talked about the discrimination problem when you launch an SLBM—is it one or all of them? Remember what our subs were designed for and built for. These are $5 billion shadows. They are meant to be secret and quiet and we spent a lot of money to keep them that way. We built them so they would be our ultimate retaliatory force if, God forbid, deterrence failed and some country launched out at us, we had the ability to destroy them.

One submarine alone was enough to basically destroy most countries on earth; maybe two would be necessary if you had a major adversary. So, now we are going to take these quiet secret ships that spent their whole lives trying to disappear and we're going to launch a small tactical nuclear weapon from it, which immediately makes the whole boat vulnerable. Any time I try to talk with the nuclear Navy about well, maybe we could change operations of this and maybe we could reduce cost with that. They said, "Look, our biggest fear is Russian anti-submarine warfare capabilities. We cannot allow them to catch up and to make the oceans invisible." So, now we're basically going to have a giant dinner bell for every Russian attack sub to say, "Here it is."

And people tell me, "Look, we practiced into the Cold War. We launch. We go deep. We run fast. You have a big part of the ocean." Well, that might have been true in 1984, but Russians have been investing a lot of money in their ASW capability, and so as we ask questions in Congress of the Navy and of the military, how do they feel about these? Are these priorities? I think we also have to start asking some operational questions because they really do pose challenges that I think are going to get us into the nuts and bolts. I have gone a little long, but that should be plenty to talk about. Thank you.

REIF: Thanks very much, Tom, Joan and Jon. Great representations. Stayed within the allotted time limit which was beautiful and lots and lots to chew on—I mean, I could jump in on any of the numerous points that they made, but I'd like to open the floor to those of you in the audience for your questions and comments. The floor is yours, questions.

(UNKNOWN): We probably have mics coming too.

REIF: And we do—we will have mics coming around as well, thank you very much, (Sean). Right here, Jon.

QUESTION: Great, thank you. Jon Harper with National Defense Magazine. In terms of the cost estimates for developing a new sea-launch cruise missile and also a new low-yield warhead, you know, roughly what do think the price tag would be for that and also just, you know from a technical perspective and kind of layman's terms, can you sort of explain what would be required to actually create these new weapons?

WOLFSTHAL: Yes, and I will defer to Joan who of course has deep knowledge on how NNSA operates. What I will say is that what the draft NPR lays out is two things. One, they want to go immediately for this modified low-yield warhead for the submarine launch capability. They talk about that being a relatively low-cost option with a short timeline. The idea that's been pushed is we have thermonuclear weapons, two-stage nuclear weapons. We have a small fission primary, which has a smaller yield, a couple of kilotons, maybe less, maybe more, which then drives a second larger explosion, the thermonuclear part. That then brings up many hundreds of kilotons.

The idea would be that they would simply remove the secondary, so they would just keep the primary and put in ballast or something that wouldn't affect the trajectory or the center of gravity in the warhead. That's something that the laboratories probably could effectuate in a relatively short period of time. Relatively short—a couple of years. It depends on how they want to affect the throughput of all the other life extension programs that were currently underway.

We have a limited number of facilities. We have a limited number of staff and so, it's not clear how that would affect the life extension program for the W-88, the life extension program for the W-76, the life extension program for the B-61 Mod 12, so it would throw off some of the schedules.

The second part is that they don't say they want to absolutely go for a SLCM, they want to have a study. The study then might lead to an assessment of alternatives, which is their contracting parlance and then they would get to a record of decision, choose an option. This is many years away. It's clearly going to extend beyond the Trump term in office, assuming one term in office, it might be something that they could sort of get to a prototype later in the second term if that happens. But in terms of the actual decision-making, I'd defer to Joan if she has some thoughts on...

ROHLFING: I don't have more on the decision-making and I agree with everything you just said to the question of cost. I think I can't offer a clear answer and it really would depend, Jon, is right. You can make a relatively modest, though not trivial modification to an existing weapon to convert your SLBM weapon to be one that's low-yield in the near term. The much bigger project is the development of a low-yield weapon for a SLCM and if you assume that you're repurposing an existing nuclear package rather than trying to design a new weapon from scratch, you might find that it's in the same neighborhood of cost as the new air launched cruise missile called the LRSO that they're working on that Jon cited, about $25 billion price tag for.

If you were trying to manufacture something from—to design it from scratch, that would most likely necessitate nuclear testing. That's a whole different ball of wax, much longer program, more expensive and not to mention, the significant cost from a diplomacy and National Security standpoint if we had to resume testing to prove a new weapon design.

COUNTYMAN: And just add, Jon, quickly to what Joan has said, I mean, I think, it's absolutely right to say it would depend. I mean, if you look at the missile—potential missile for a new SLCM, the DOD, the Navy is going to do an analysis of alternatives, presumably to look at different options. It would seem to me that the lowest cost option would be some way to spin off a current or a future block of the Tomahawk missile and use that.

Whereas the most expensive option would be some kind of totally new missile that they would have to design and then on the warhead sign, warhead side excuse me, there has been talk in an article actually that Jim Miller, a former Obama Administration Pentagon official and Sandy Winnefeld, the Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocating for a new sea launched cruise missile. They said at least for the warhead, you could build a modified—so a modified version of the W80-4, which as Joan mentioned is the planned warhead for that the new air-launched cruise missile, the LRSO and build a few more of them and put it on a on a sea-launched cruise missile is a relatively lower cost option.

So, I think potentially, range of cost, but the point is additional costs to a program of record that as Jon already pointed out is under tremendous stress and faces a major affordability and executability challenge.

ROHLFING: And can I just follow that with one point that I would really want to emphasize. I think the largest cost is not a financial one, it's the National Security implications as we discussed of deploying a new low-yield warhead that is destabilizing and increases the chance that a nuclear weapon will be used. That I think, is the most important point that I would make about a sea-launch cruise missile.

RIEF: Additional question. Yes?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sandra Erwin with Space News. Jon, to your point about capabilities that we do need like cyber, can you be more specific. I mean, do you mean satellites? What are some of the areas where we need to be more resilient and what specific capabilities would you recommend? Thanks.

WOLFSTHAL: So, I am not a cyber expert, but obviously, working in the administration and understanding both our capabilities and vulnerabilities, I think the question is what is it that the U.S. government is worried about in terms of our adversary's ability to use cyber capabilities against us? That makes us so vulnerable and that the impact could be so significant that it could approximate nuclear.

And the Pentagon, the NPR draft talks about this. It talks about both infrastructure, I think that would mean critical infrastructure, communications, energy grid, communications, banking, nuclear early warning command-and-control is another area that is specifically cited that could somehow disrupt our ability to have a reliable deterrent and so, I would put those at the top of my list that I want to make sure that we are doing defense to the extent necessary to protect the power grid, the communications grid, banking and financial system—those are things that I wouldn't argue that losing the communications grid would be akin to say a nuclear detonation in New York.

You know, we could learn to live without our cell phones for a couple days if we had to, but obviously, the implications are dramatic if we're so vulnerable that a country could bring it down, we should be spending more to protect it and defend it and helping states helping, and helping local municipalities, and helping utilities do that. We use some of that now, but clearly more is necessary.

And then in terms of space again, I am not a space expert, but clearly as we are developing the new satellite constellation both for early warning for communications and for military operations, this is something the Pentagon has been worried about for many, many years. This is another one of the things that you constantly hear program officers and Cabinet officers demanding and asking for more resources for and yet, there's a large pot of money here that in my view isn't matched up against the threat we face.

So, just for example, and we didn't get into a lot of nuclear doctrine here because you don't want to get bored and go right to sleep, but the idea here is that the Russians are threatening to use nuclear weapons against us or our allies because somehow, they doubt our nuclear capability, our 4,000 operational nuclear weapons aren't quite enough, the 1,000-low yield nuclear weapons aren't quite enough, so we need to have some exquisite new capability that will show the Russians we're serious.

When in fact what the Russians are doing is saying, "We are conventionally inferior to you. We can't fight you in a fair fight and, so we don't want to fight fair, we want the option to escalate to the nuclear level." And the NPR draft says, "They shouldn't be convinced that they can get away with that," because we have all of these other nuclear capabilities. That's a reasonable deterrent statement.

To then spend more money for some new capability that doesn't solve that problem strikes me as being—throwing bad money after good.

QUESTION: (OFF MIKE) (Inaudible)

WOLFSTHAL: I think that like most parts of the U.S. government, this is a stovepipe product of the nuclear establishment from the Joint Chiefs, from the OSD policy, from STRATCOM that's driving this. They said that we've already got a program of record, the incremental cost will be small and therefore, let's push this.

Now, if they were put in a room with the cyber people or the ISR people or the infrastructure people or the—you know, name your list, my guess is they would lose, but because there is this demand for Nuclear Posture Review, this sort of stands up and above and that's where Congress is really going to have to come in and prioritize, but of course, they are stove-piped in Congress as well. The people that handle cyber don't handle nuclear. People who nuclear don't handle conventional, and so we will continue to see the slicing of the salami pretty thin.

REIF: Yes, right here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the presentation. My name is Yuki Toda from Kerala News (ph). Most of you put it out that the destabilizing effect of its NPR on not only on the National Security, but also the arms control regime. So, please, could you tell me your prospect, your kind of vision about what's the impact of this NPR on INF Treaty and also the extension of the New START and another question is now, the United States tried to create new nuclear warheads and a nuclear weapon, so the other leading country over the NPT—NPT is losing credibility or not?

COUNTYMAN: On the new START Treaty, I am glad that the draft NPR leaves open the possibility of extension of the New START Treaty for an additional five years when the initial term expires in 2021. In my view, this is the single most logical step that Moscow and Washington could take, and they could take it today, that would provide additional strategic stability and also send a valuable signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. and Russian Federation, no matter what else they say, are still interested in limiting their nuclear arsenals.

On the INF Treaty, the NPR—the draft NPR talks quite a bit about the Russian violation, which is a serious concern. It correctly describes that arms control is made more difficult if existing agreements are not honored, but I think it does not provide an easy answer any more than the Obama Administration could provide an easy answer for how to bring the Russians back into compliance with their obligations under the INF Treaty.

It links the development of a submarine-launched cruise missile with the Russian violation and suggests that the U.S. might revisit development of a submarine-launched cruise missile if Russia returns to compliance. I don't believe that that's adequate by itself to get Russia to return, but it is appropriate for this NPR to take very seriously Russia's violation of the INF treaty.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has many challenges, the challenge posed by North Korea is by far the greatest. The challenge posed by Iran was addressed in the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action and the most significant step backwards that could be taken for the Nonproliferation Treaty is if any of the parties to the JCPOA walk away from that agreement. That would be the single biggest threat to the credibility of the NPT.

But at the same time, for this Administration to pretend that the U.S. has no legal obligation to continue to address reductions in its nuclear arsenal is damaging to our credibility not only as a leader in nonproliferation, but as a so-called leader on any of the issues that the U.S. has to deal with. It's why walking away from the JCPOA is a big challenge for the U.S. because it would signal to other countries that an agreement with the United States is not meaningful and can be easily reversed on the whim of a different President.

So, the challenges to the NPT are there and I fear that the statements contained in this draft NPR will erode the U.S. capability to lead the world on nonproliferation efforts.

REIF: Last one to—very good. Questions? Yes, right here.

QUESTION: Doug Sharp from the George Washington University. Thank you all for a great panel. I am given to reflect on Scott Sagan and Jane Vaynman's effort after the Obama Nuclear Posture Review to understand what its effects were on the nuclear posture is the attitudes about nuclear weapons of other states and I'm wondering if you could reflect on that topic, on how nuclear weapon state potential adversaries, allies and other states will react to this nuclear posture?

WOLFSTHAL: I'm thrilled you asked that question not only because Jane used to work for me here at the Carnegie Endowment, but because without a doubt, one of the best things I read when I was in government and this is including all the fine work that our intelligence community could produce was the work that they did try to understand how different countries saw the Obama NPR and to bring that into a feedback loop, so we can understand ourselves.

Did our outgoing message—was it received the way we wanted to? How did that affect our ongoing planning? And there was a significant deviation between what we planned and it then factored into a lot of our thinking, so my favorite example—this is every time we said we wanted to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, what the work that Scott and Jane put together, what Russia heard was, we want to be able to do whatever we want with conventional weapons anytime, anywhere.

Like, of course, you want to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. You are the conventional superpower. They didn't view that as a good thing. They viewed that as a very destabilizing thing that did not reassure them, so I think it would be very interesting to hear and see what foreign countries, adversaries and allies alike think about this NPR, but it gets to a fundamental problem which is, is this Trump's NPR or not?

My interpretation and I wouldn't speak for anybody else is that Donald Trump is probably unlikely to read any of this document, that this is Secretary Mattis' NPR and it's a product of him, General Selva who is the Vice Chairman, General Hyten, the Commander of STRATCOM and Rob Soofer who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Missile Defense who is very knowledgeable and I think did an excellent job sort of pulling these threads together, but it doesn't reflect Trump thinking.

And so, I don't know what our allies think, and I don't know what adversaries think because it—does Mattis runs nuclear policy or Trump? And if you have any doubts about that, just look at the NPR language itself. It says on the one hand, our commitment to our allies are ironclad and our assurances mean something, that's not Donald Trump language. And it says that any decision to use nuclear weapon would follow a deliberative process.

Does anybody believe that that is the way that President Trump will think about using nuclear weapons? It's clearly the way that our military and our civilians in the Pentagon think about it, but that's not what we would see out of this White House.

ROHLFING: I just like to add a simple kind of one sentence. I think the overall take away from this NPR is that we need more weapons and more roles for our nuclear weapons in our National Security and if the U.S. as the most powerful nation, the biggest most powerful military on earth needs more nuclear weapons for its National Security that sends a big signal that others needs them too and it really undermines our nonproliferation objectives and makes us less safe over time.

REIF: Back there in the red.

QUESTION: My name is Alicia Dressman. I am an independent consultant. When I read these section on the NPR on tailored deterrence towards Russia, which featured a very outdated view of Russia's nuclear posture, the escalated to de-escalate strategy, I don't think has been relevant in a recent National Security Strategy coming out of Russia in quite some time. I completely wrote off that there was an actual foreign-policy component that was competent and that this is more a technocratic objective introducing his new-yield low warhead.

My question to you would be, how much of the NPR introducing the—may be resuming the W80 Mod 4 redesign for a SLCM, how much of that is the NNSA perhaps looking at the DOD NNSA three plus two programs in saying, "Okay, we have efficiencies. We can open up a new assembly and maybe use nonnuclear parts from the LRSO warhead for the SLCM, because they have a similar warhead design et cetera" and how much of this comes from this grand strategy perspective of our considering, you know, nuclear threats around the globe and proposing new warheads to meet those threats? Thank you.

ROHLFING: I'll take a crack at that. I think it's both, and, but I do think it's primarily an attempt to address, perhaps a misinformed view of Russian doctrine and strategy. It's just taken as a given in this town that the Russians are seriously pursuing this strategy of escalate to de-escalate and I know among the experts, that's actually controversial and some of the experts I trust think it's not real, but I do think it is the primary driving factor behind seeking these new capabilities and then I think secondarily, as Tom mentioned, there's a component to creating some trade debate to try and get the Russians back to the table on INF.

I would put both of those things in front at the NNSA trying to expand its mission space. They already have enough on their plate and not enough resources to tackle what they have been asked to do for their program of record.

WOLFSTHAL: So, Joan is right. There is a discussion and debate about whether Russia really has an escalate to de-escalate. There is no such debate inside the U.S. government. When we looked in the Obama Administration where we continued to see what Russia is doing with their nuclear capabilities, with their capabilities of developing in violation of the INF and in addition to their statements and planning, there is a willingness to use nuclear weapons to escalate their way of a failed conventional crisis. That may not even be a dominant, it may not even be a likely capability, but is one that worries our planners and I think is appropriately worrying our planners.

I can't speak for what it's like in this administration. I could tell you that as much as we valued and looked to the input of NNSA, they were not a strategy driver in the Obama NPR, I think it's very unlikely that they were a driving strategy. I don't think you have to look too far to see who really is the brainchild of these or who is the author of these brainchild. There was a lot of input for the NPR from Keith Payne at the National Institute for Public Policy who has written about tailor deterrence. You could actually take the sections, I mean, it's almost font matching in terms of what they are putting forward.

So, these arguments have been out for a while. Frank Miller, the same who was a key official in the Bush administration for nuclear policy and defense and Brad Roberts also who worked on the Obama NPR is now at Livermore have been talking about these ideas for many, many years and I think they just found very fertile soil in the Trump Administration.

COUNTYMAN: If I could comment on that. I don't know whether or not the Russians have an escalate to de-escalate doctrine or not. It does concern me that although the authors would deny it, we run the risk of slipping back into Cold War knee-jerk responses that if the Russians have such a policy, we must match that capability and that concerns me.

I'm sure that the authors would see that comment as unfair, but there's a risk that we're moving in that direction, but the larger question about Russian statements and thinking, I think ties back to Doug's question about how other countries react and the fact is that even in the very hard world of military policy and nuclear weapons, words matter. Rhetoric matters.

What I saw a few years ago as the most negative development for strategic stability and nonproliferation in the world was the fact that Vladimir Putin started talking about Russia's nuclear weapons as a key element of national power as what made Russia great. The kind of language that the North Korean leadership uses and that you heard sometimes in the past from Pakistan or India, but most countries had abandoned that language for a long period of time.

And to have Putin again talking about nuclear weapons as what makes a country great was I think negative if the goal is to discourage still more countries from building nuclear weapons. And to have the United States President embrace that kind of language, even if less grammatically, I think further undermines our ability to discourage other nations from pursuing nuclear weapons. So, that's the part of Russian rhetoric that is separate from doctrine, but should be deeply concerning.

REIF: We're getting closer to our time and I see that we have more questions out there. I am going to take a few at a time to ensure we get more questions, so first, Daryl and if you just wait to respond to Daryl's and I'll take another one.

KIMBALL: Thanks, everybody. I'm Daryl Kimball, your host today. I wanted to draw Tom's attention and ask for comment about one part of the NPR that has gotten a lot of attention, but I think you're well equipped to address. One passage says, the United States is committed to arms-control efforts that advanced U.S. allied partner security are verifiable and enforceable.

So, I think the Arms Control Association would agree that you know, that advanced U.S. allied partner security, yes, are verifiable, yes, but enforceable. What do you think the NPR authors mean? What might that entail? To my knowledge, there isn't a single arms-control treaty that contains an enforcement provision per se. So, your thoughts about that and quickly, Joan—back to the nuclear testing issue with your experience at NNSA and your work with a guy named Ernie Moniz at MTI (sic) who used to be at the Energy Department, as you know, the NNSA's Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan also has a line and it came out a few months ago that says the United States test readiness timeline should be reduced to 6 to 10 months for a simple test. What is your interpretation of what that is about? What its implications could be?

REIF: Real quickly before responding to Daryl. Sir, right here, yes?

QUESTION: Stephanie Cooke with Nuclear Intelligence Weekly. I wanted to ask a little bit more about the clauses to do with disarmament and the ambiguity at best in these clauses. I've asked, we've talked about it with Tom Countryman and I'd like to ask if you think that that will be softened or hardened? I mean in the sense that it will become stronger in the final document.

We heard Chris Ford saying that he questioned that as a goal in April when he was at Carnegie, so you didn't mention his involvement in this review, but I wondered if someone—if you would comment on that and if you see a chance that that might be argued down so that we get stronger language on disarmament?

REIF: Well, let's take those two and then we will...

COUNTYMAN: Well, very quickly on the last point. I'm glad that Dr. Chris Ford is now in the office I previously held, Assistant Secretary for International Security in Nonproliferation. He is highly intelligent, highly experienced in this field and a substantial cut above the average appointee of this administration in any agency.

I don't know how strong his role has been. I know that he was at the White House coordinating the drafting process, but the drafting was done primarily at DOD. I don't know if it will change and maybe I'm not far enough removed from government service, but it still bothers me when things of this magnitude get leaked. As journalists, as NGOs, it's great to comment on a leaked document, but the fact is that it's now harder for there to be any changes made to this document particularly with this White House.

So, that if there is any argument still going on about particular clauses, it's probably hard for them to walk back now and that's unfortunate in my view. Very quickly on Daryl's points. The reference to future arms-control agreements is bothersome in two ways. First, because it says they have to be enforceable. There does not exist an enforceable arms-control agreement in part because no U.S. president would ever be willing to say that the United States will subject itself to enforcement action by an international body. In other words, this administration wants agreements to be enforceable on everybody else, but optional for the United States, and that's very much the White House point of view on the JCPOA.

So, it sets an artificially high standard, an impossible standard. More importantly to me is the very phrasing denotes passivity. We remain open to arms-control agreements. Maybe somebody else has a terrific idea, but no claim of U.S. leadership, no claim that the U.S. is going to press forward on arms-control agreements. I understand in part why it lists in great detail the obstacle placed by the Russians through their INF violation, but to write off the U.S. leadership role and condemn Washington to passivity on an existential question for the planet is distressing.

ROHFLING: So, let me tackle the test readiness question. I found it curious as well, Daryl, I think it sends a signal that they're adopting a much more muscular approach, that they are risk-averse, I guess, I perhaps there is some question about their confidence of enduring weapons in the stockpile. I personally don't see why you would need such a compressed timescale to have changed from—we were looking at a timeframe of years to resume testing to now, possibly six months. I'm not—it's a pretty stressful scenario to even put a test package together within that timeframe.

There are extraordinary costs associated with ramping up the capability to resume testing within six months, so it certainly wouldn't be on my list of priorities for what we should be investing in when we have so much competition for resources, so that's something I'd like to learn more about. It simply makes no sense to me.

WOLFSTHAL: And just briefly since Tom mentioned it, I'll put in a plug for an article that is out front that Rick Burton and I wrote in the National Interest on abandoning the arms-control role that the U.S. has played and how in fact, we can shape the international environment that so worries the Pentagon that they have to threaten early use of nuclear weapons and arm-control has been successful in actually reducing those threats in the past. We need to get back to thinking about shaping the environment and not having environment shape us.

In terms of the language on disarmament, so I heard Chris Ford same as you at the Carnegie conference. I actually view that as one of the ways the document has already improved. They recognized there was no need to take on a fight that had no payoff by insulting the entire international nonproliferation system and parties to it and so, I think the language could get—it could be better and I actually and Tom have a slightly different view.

I mean, I'm with you. I hate leaked documents and I wish that they hadn't come to me and I know that I got burned by documents being leaked when I was in the White House not to our advantage, but that being said, I actually did the Pentagon didn't like the reaction that there was a bit of a feedback loop going on that somehow this is worse than they thought.

Secretary Mattis had asked that the NPR do three things. Deter our enemies, reassure our allies and not upset what there is of support for modernization in the Congress and the fact that this document may not achieve all three of those goals, may lead them to consider some changes, but I don't think that necessarily spoke about what they are hearing on the language for disarmament because while it's not good, it probably will get them a passing grade among some of the countries that we have to work with.

And with Chris Ford's role, just a modification, Tom may have more information than I do. I think it was the Defense Director at the White House of the National Security Council that's coordinating the document, Mild Office, Armstrong nonproliferation had input into these particular sections, but was not a driver when it came to much of the policy.

ROHLFING: ... an issue with something, you just said Jon and surprisingly, I think you give the review you too much credit for what it does say about disarmament. I have a somewhat more alarmist reaction to it. I mean, if you actually look at the designated section that talks about arms-control, nowhere in there does it actually mention that we are pursuing a goal of a world without nuclear weapons...

WOLFSTHAL: But if you were Tom, and I've sent him in the lion's den at the NPT, you would say, "Oh of course, we recommit ourselves to the elimination of nuclear weapons." It's here in the preamble...

ROHLFING: Right, but this occurs within the context of a much broader global debate right now that's broader than just the NPT that has to do with the test ban and the absence of a reaffirmation of what the U.S. has publicly said for decades that it is committed to achieving the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons. I think that's really problematic.

WOLFSTHAL: I agree that it is problematic. It is a problem among many. I think it probably is a fig leaf for the diplomatic (inaudible)...

REIF: Excellent colloquium among colleagues there. I see a few hands raised, so let's see if we can get the final outstanding questions before we wrap. Yes, Alexey.

QUESTION: Thank you, I am Alexey Fomenkov, Second Secretary for the Russian Embassy. There have been a lot of talk here about Russians, so I was wondering whether I could say a couple of words without probably asking a question, would that be OK?

REIF: Yes, you may.

QUESTION: Thank you. So, first on escalate to de-escalate, I would like to point out that there is a standing Russian military doctrine. It's public. It's in English. And it specifically says under which circumstances Russia would consider using nuclear weapons and that is when the existence of the state is under jeopardy and when its territorial integrity is in question so that's very specific and it's much more specific than in U.S. documents, both current and supposedly, the future ones.

Also, on the rhetoric, I would like to point out that the NATO, in its documents, it says that nuclear weapons remain the supreme guarantee with security, so I would say that comparisons between Russia and North Korea would not be very appropriate in this context. Thank you.

REIF: Any of the panelists want to comment on that, you are free to do so, but let's see if we can get additional question. Greg?

QUESTION: Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association Board Member. Congress in recent years has been quite skeptical of arms-control and defense spending arguments given the deficit hawks seem to go into hibernation, so I wonder if could list a comment on what the Congressional reaction will be to the NPR and is it possible that nuclear policy issues over the nuclear programs will be an issue in the fall elections to the U.S. Congress?

REIF: Like I said, one more and—yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Hi, I am Emma Fruy (ph) from Global Zero and as I understood the NPR, there was a point about ramping up plutonium production as part of the renewal process for existing nuclear weapons. I was wondering if you could comment on the potential consequences of that and how this compares to earlier NPR's?

REIF: Let's answer those final three questions and then any closing comments that you might have.

WOLFSTHAL: Maybe just a word on the Congressional reaction, we can talk Emma, anytime you want since we're both Global Zero now, welcome. So, I won't answer her question and Joan is better suited for that anyway.

I have a prediction about politics although, I mainly worked for the Vice President who told me, "Look, you may be the smartest man in the world, but you don't know anything about politics." I think it's going to fall into two camps, Greg. I think partly this is going to fall into the resistance, right, Donald Trump can't be trusted with nuclear weapons. He is pushing for new nuclear options more usable. He wants to push the button, which is bigger than Kim Jong-un, you know, it sort would fit into that. I think this will provide plenty of fodder for that.

In the discussions we've been having, I think there is a real interest on the Hill in the programmatic side of when it comes the—not just the cost, but also just the operations. How this will impact on the DoE complex, how it would impact on the on the other parts of the modernization.

I don't think it's going to have—I don't think it's going to have a big electoral impact. I quite frankly, while, I was pleased as a lifelong arms-controller and a person who doesn't like nuclear weapons thrilled that there were nuclear commercials for the presidential election but quite surprised. I mean, I think this will fit into the narrative, but I think the real battle here is going to be on the budget for the new systems with the hope that it will inspire the Congress to exercise the oversight it should be exercising over the full suite of these capabilities.

We have now door opening on the President's authority unfettered to use nuclear weapons. I think that's been very positive and helpful for shining light in this issue. I hope we will see a similar thing on the budget, but I don't expect to rise to a very high political national level.

COUNTYMAN: In answer to Greg's question, just based on the past year, I predict that the Congressional majority will bring to this issue the same intellectual honesty, concern about deficits, non-partisanship, readiness to compromise and honest public statements that they've brought to every issue for the last 12 months.

ROHLFING: Well said. I am not going to add to the Congressional budget question, but just a quick answer to the plutonium production. The review contemplates a ramp up to production facility that could produce 80 pits per year, which is actually consistent with the program of record under the Obama Administration that's been under discussion for a while, that's been on the books as part of the outgoing Stockpile Stewardship Plan, so it's obviously an increase from the onesie, two-sie capability that we have now, but not something new.

Just one comment on the gentleman from Russia about the NATO statement, he's right. There is a statement about nuclear weapons being "the supreme guarantee of NATO's security" and what this represents is a greater emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons within the European context and I think this is a whole area, if we had more time, we could spend a whole session just talking that the role of U.S. forward deployed weapons in Europe, the role of nuclear weapons in Europe in general. I think, I would really matter have seen this review taking a completely different approach which is looking at how we can consolidate those weapons back to the United States, rather than reinforcing their role and underscoring that we need to keep them there for all.

REIF: With that, let me thank our panelists for an excellent discussion. Let me thank all of you for coming. The conversation about the Nuclear Posture Review and the Trump Administration's nuclear weapons policy has just begun as has the Arms Control Association’s engagement on this question, so keep a lookout for future events, for additional resources on our website.

My coworkers have informed me that I must conclude with two final housekeeping notes before I'm allowed off the podium. The first is a note that the transcript of this event will be available by the end of the week for those of you who are interested in consulting it and then a final note that the Arms Control Association, we have a date for our annual meeting which will be April 19th here at Carnegie and this year's annual meeting will focus on the challenges facing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and nonproliferation regime on the occasion of that 50th birthday of the treaty, so please, we hope to see you join us at that event on the 19th and with that, thank you all for coming and let's thank our panelists.



Posted: January 23, 2018

Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority

U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

January/February 2018
By Bruce Blair

U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

From a Navy E-6 Mercury flying above the Pacific Ocean, an Air Force officer monitors the status of an unarmed Minuteman III missile being test launched April 26, 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, by a control system aboard the aircraft. The E-6, a version of the commercial Boeing 707 aircraft, is intended to provide a survivable communication link from the president and other elements of the National Command Authority to the U.S. nuclear forces. (Photo: Keifer Bowes/U.S. Air Force)The virtues of the protocol—the procedures and timelines for ordering the use of nuclear weapons and for carrying out such an order—are twofold. First, it concentrates launch authority at the highest level of the executive branch, the presidency, taking it out of the hands of the military and others. This is a function of paramount importance. The principle of civilian control over weapons of mass destruction must never be compromised. Together with the imposition of organizational and technical safeguards on the weapons and their handlers, the protocol elevates the locus of launch capability, as well as of launch authority, to the highest practical level.1

Second, it is designed to allow the president and the nuclear forces under his command to respond rapidly and decisively in the face of an enemy attack by nuclear-armed missiles that can fly from the opposite side of the planet to U.S. territory in 30 minutes or from forward-deployed submarines in 15 minutes.2 This is of critical importance in view of the acute vulnerability of U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications, as well as of a large portion of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, particularly the silo-based missile force and the bomber fleet in its normal peacetime posture.3

Despite fast-flying inbound warheads, the protocol on paper provides enough time for detecting and assessing an attack, convening an emergency conference between the president and his top nuclear advisers, briefing the president on his options and their consequences, authenticating the president’s decision, and formatting and transmitting a launch order to the launch crews in time to ensure the survival and execution of their forces.

The flip side of these virtues are serious liabilities. The protocol concentrates authority and emphasizes speed to such a degree that it may allow a president to railroad the nuclear commanders into initiating a first strike without apparent cause and quickly executing an order that may be horrifyingly misguided, illegal, or both. A demented commander-in-chief could start a nuclear conflagration that no one could forestall, veto, or stop.

Equally deleterious, a president can become hostage to the protocol itself, like a conductor on a runaway train, if an enemy nuclear strike appears underway. He may be pushed into hastily ordering “retaliation” in response to a false alarm. Rationality would be lost in the fog of crisis under a short deadline fraught with confusion and emotion.

Protocol for Intentional First Use

If the president wishes to order the first use of nuclear weapons, he would be expected to do so in close consultation with his top national security advisers, particularly the secretaries of defense and state (statutory advisers on the National Security Council), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser, and the senior generals who command the military forces. Depending on the urgency of the situation, this could be a protracted process with extensive planning, heightened force readiness, and regular briefings of the president, or it could be truncated to minutes if an imminent attack is perceived.

The so-called nuclear football, kept close to a president by a military aide, is a briefcase containing nuclear war plans and options (not communications gear) to enable a president to act in an emergency. This retired satchel was put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  (Photo: Jamie Chung/Smithsonian Institute)When a decision is imminent, the process goes critical. The commander-in-chief would be connected to his key advisers via a secure communications network designed to support nuclear emergency actions. The president could initiate this conference anytime, even abruptly in the night, through his military aide who is always nearby with the “football”—a satchel containing the nuclear war plans, including a one-pager graphically depicting the major options at his disposal.

The best location for conferencing would be the blast-resistant emergency operations center under the East Wing of the White House. Advisers could be assembled there, and others linked by secure phone. Such a conference could be convened almost anywhere, from Mar-a-Lago or other locations or aboard his ground-transport vehicles and dedicated aircraft, including Air Force One and his “doomsday” plane.4 Secure communications are far less reliable when the president is traveling or in the process of being evacuated to a safe location.

The advisers may or may not join the conference in a timely way. If a brewing crisis suddenly escalates and catches them off guard, key advisers may fail to get on the call before a president decides the time to strike has arrived. During nuclear release exercises and real-world incidents involving North Korea and other nations over the past decade, missile launch preparations or actual firings posing a potential threat triggered emergency conferences, but notification often failed to reach key advisers in time. Sometimes none of the advisers checked in, leaving the president and the head of Strategic Command (StratCom), whose role is to brief the president on nuclear options and their consequences, alone in the hot seats.5

After this briefing, the president may seek advice from any, all, or none of the advisers in the room or on the telephone before rendering a decision, which likely but not necessarily involves choosing a preprogrammed option.6 Formally, he does not need any approval or consent, although StratCom or others on the call could attempt to dissuade the president if his thinking or final decision veer into the realm of the obviously misguided or illegal.7 Even the defense secretary has no particular role other than offering advice if asked. Contrary to widespread belief, he does not confirm the order or otherwise bless it in any way. But this is their last chance to change the president’s mind before a formal launch order is prepared by the Pentagon, disseminated, and inexorably implemented.

Listening in on the exchange is the Pentagon war room, a kind of boutique service dedicated to executing the orders of the president and the defense secretary.8 Following the drift of the conversation, this entity would start preparing a launch order. When the president finally declares his choice of option, it would challenge the president to authenticate using a special code known as the “biscuit,” or Gold Code. This would take a few seconds. If the codes match properly, it would quickly format and transmit a launch order over multiple communications channels directly to the submarine, bomber, and underground launch crews.

This would take a couple of minutes. Shorter than the length of a “tweet,” the order would specify the war plan, the time to begin the strike, an unlock code needed by the firing crews to release their weapons, and a Sealed Authentication Code that must match the codes in the firing crews’ safe. If the codes match, the crews assume the order originated with the president, even though all the codes in the launch order are held exclusively by the Pentagon war room and alternate command centers such as StratCom itself.

The underground Minuteman crews could complete their launch checklist in a little more than a minute. Today, as many as 400 missiles could be launched from their underground silos in less than five minutes after the president gave the order.9

Submarines and bombers would be the primary attackers in a scenario involving North Korea. With two boats typically on launch-ready patrol in the Pacific Ocean, the sub force would be capable of quickly firing about 200 warheads roughly 15 minutes after the president gave the order.10 If the order came without a prior raising of alert readiness, however, the boats would surface to confirm its validity.

Bombers on full alert with bombs and cruise missiles loaded,11 as they would be in times of heightened tension, would need eight hours or so to fly from their U.S. bases to near the border of their target countries, where they would fire cruise missiles at inland targets or proceed to fly into enemy airspace to drop gravity bombs. They could deliver upward of 500 weapons.

Protocol for Second-Strike Scenarios

A decision to strike back in retaliation theoretically could be drawn out for days and weeks, but the protocol is designed to yield one in minutes. The basic procedures are the same for first and second use of nuclear weapons, but the timelines shrink in the latter case. Reactions from the bottom to the top of the chain of command to an apparent attack are driven by checklists and virtually preordained. The action could be described as a rote enactment of a prepared script with very high expectations in all quarters that a nuclear response would be authorized immediately.

U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney (right), then-U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other officers monitor from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., a Minuteman III missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 20, 2015. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan pre-delegated nuclear release authority extensively to military commanders. Recognizing that could compromise civilian control, such delegation was rolled back at the end of the Cold War. (USSTRATCOM courtesy photo)Historically, the notion of riding out an attack has been operationally anathema to the military. As General Lee Butler, a former head of the strategic forces, stated, “Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks…. Yet at the operational level it was never accepted…. They built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead…a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack.”12

This is called “jamming” the president, or pressuring him to quickly authorize retaliation while under apparent or confirmed attack.13 Jamming is still the norm in current nuclear operations. Although President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to reduce our reliance on launch on warning and find ways to increase warning and decision time, nuclear exercises still feature this high-pressure tactic. In some high-threat situations, the StratCom commander’s briefing of the president may be compressed to as little as 30 seconds, and then the president may be pressed to “deliberate and decide” in six minutes or less.

The persistent vulnerability of the nuclear command system and hundreds of U.S. missiles requires extremely fast reaction at all levels. In truth, everyone gets jammed. The risk of mistaken launch on false warning remains significant even today, 25 years after the end of the Cold War. It also creates pressure to pre-empt an imminent attack.

To relieve the jamming pressure today, the protocol must start earlier and under conditions of greater uncertainty about the degree of threat posed by missile launch preparations or actual firings. During the Cold War, even the really close calls did not rise to the level of presidential notification.14 Today, there are more missile launches than ever to track, and assessing whether they pose a threat has become more difficult.15

Ironically this surge, which has happened over the past decade or so, has spawned great unpredictability, complicated assessment, and led on multiple occasions to presidents being notified of an ambiguous imminent threat in progress.16

Reforms: Toward a True Retaliatory Posture

A six-minute deadline for deliberation and decision is ridiculous. The president needs much more warning and decision time to rationally cope with indications of a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. He must no longer be jammed to authorize what could be a civilization-ending response to attack indications that may be false. The risks of miscalculation and irrational decision-making leading to incoherent operations and further escalation are unacceptably high.

This terrifying reality has been ignored for decades. Reform is long overdue.

Protesters from the Global Zero movement attend a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing November 14, 2017, on the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)This means that the current prompt-launch posture must be drastically altered. Use-or-lose forces such as the silo-based missile force should be eliminated. Launch on warning should be eliminated. Reducing the vulnerability of command, control, and communications to kinetic attack and cyberattack should be the top priority of the nuclear modernization plan, even if it means cutting spending on replacement forces in the pipeline. The submarine force has already become the premier leg of the strategic triad, the central component of U.S. deterrence policy. This force can patiently wait for months for direction from higher authority.

Equally overdue is the adoption of a policy that eschews the first use of nuclear weapons. A clear marker would be established in limiting the president’s leeway to initiate a first strike.17 If taken seriously, the operational plans would also be modified in ways that would hamstring any effort to order the use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause.

Congress has considerable legal standing to pass legislation that prohibits first use. A recent bill introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is a step in this direction,18 but a law would draw real redlines around the policy. Crossing them would make the president accountable and even impeachable.

The Trump administration appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Its nuclear review in the works is leaning toward the deployment of smaller-yield nuclear weapons (e.g., a primary-only warhead on Trident missiles) that will make them more usable in both first- and second-use scenarios. It is also leaning toward widening the conditions under which nuclear weapons may be used first in response to non-nuclear strategic aggression and toward revoking Obama-era assurances given to non-nuclear countries that the United States would never attack them with nuclear weapons.

The key challenge is moving to a true retaliatory posture19 that allows the president and his successors to provide enduring command and control over the submarine force. The nuclear protocol would thus place priority on their quick and safe evacuation to survivable and enduring command centers.

Other Promising Reforms

No single reform suffices. A combination of reforms is needed to reduce risk.

The Markey-Lieu bill. The premise of this bill is that employing nuclear weapons is tantamount to going to war and this responsibility belongs to the U.S. Congress, not the president, under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.20 The president therefore is to be prohibited from employing nuclear weapons first unless Congress has declared war and provided specific authorization for their use. The president would still retain the authority to order their use in the event of a confirmed nuclear attack against the United States or U.S. allies.

The bill might tie the president’s hands too much in some situations, such as an imminent and seemingly irrevocable nuclear strike by a country such as North Korea. Even if it did not, it might take too long to secure congressional approval. Additionally, if specific authorization is granted but the crisis drags on or takes a turn in unanticipated directions, the president would remain empowered and could still unilaterally make a terribly bad call later.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Pennsylvania transits the Hood Canal August 2, 2017, as it returns home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash. A submarine on patrol could launch its nuclear missiles as quickly as 15 minutes after a president gives the command. (Photo: Amanda Gray/ USSTRATCOM)The Betts/Waxman solution. Among the many proposals for adding more people to the chain of command, one of the strongest is to require the defense secretary to confirm that a presidential first-use order came from the president and the attorney general to certify that it is a legal order.21 This reform would address the growing danger of cyber intrusion generating deceptive presidential commands and authentications, and it adds a high-level legal oversight to first-use decisions. If the latter is going to be more than a rubber stamp, however, much deeper consideration of the legal issues will have to be undertaken and firm guidelines drawn in advance.

Although it is debatable whether Congress has the standing to dictate the chain of command within the executive branch, whose commander-in-chief possesses clear authority over the armed forces under Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress could press the Pentagon to devise its own solution that thickens the protocol with additional heads. Congress could exert its power over the purse to encourage compliance, for instance by withholding funds for nuclear modernization until the executive branch reformed the protocol in a satisfactory way.

Deepening consultation with Congress. In order to further check and balance the first-use authority vested in the president, Congress should pass legislation requiring the defense secretary to consult closely with the top four leaders of the Senate and House, as well as the chairs and ranking members of the committees responsible for defense spending, on matters pertaining to U.S. nuclear war plans. These leaders would be given greater access to the wartime plans that govern conventional and nuclear operations and be apprised of any changes to those plans that move the nation closer to their implementation. The defense secretary would be held accountable for timely briefings and answer sessions to ensure that these congressional leaders will be informed of pending military actions and able to assert their war powers and if necessary bring the full Congress into the debate. He would also be required to inform the president, vice president, and national security adviser if ongoing nuclear mission planning does not accord with the consensus view of congressional leaders.

Should the president’s operational direction of the nuclear forces overstep the consensus of the congressional leaders, particularly if it entails the first use of nuclear forces, the vice president could consider whether the president’s state of mind warranted invoking the 25th Amendment.

The Nuremburg solution. Both a former and the current head of StratCom recently claimed publicly that disobeying an illegal nuclear strike order offers a safeguard against a president gone berserk.22 They were attempting to allay the widespread concern about the temperament and character of the current commander-in-chief and the perception that the nuclear forces are under erratic and unreliable control. If not staunched, these worries could generate public hysteria and put the $1.3 trillion 30-year nuclear modernization program in jeopardy.

The assurances of the generals were not very convincing. First, a launch order normally would be transmitted by the Pentagon directly to the firing crews at the bottom of the chain, and StratCom and other senior military commanders receiving it at the same time could not interfere at this late stage. StratCom could scramble to issue a termination order but it would almost certainly arrive too late to stop the launch.23 Second, their comments suggested that they could not refuse a horrifyingly bad call by the president, but rather only an illegal one. Third, insubordination seems a weak reed to lean on given the deep-seated obedience to civilian control engrained in military culture, training, and its code of justice. By the same token, to the extent that it would be an effective safeguard, it may well undermine the sacred tenet of civilian control over the military. Fourth, they provided no clues as to what would constitute an “illegal” order and indeed created the impression that they would defer broadly to a president’s judgment of what constitutes an imminent threat warranting a pre-emptive or even preventive first strike. There was no opinion proffered, for instance, that President Donald Trump’s threat to prevent North Korea from acquiring the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead by missile to any target in the United States would be illegal if it means mounting a preventive conventional or nuclear strike, and no clear indication that the military would ever resist such orders on legal grounds.

The literature on the law of war, international humanitarian law, and other constraints on the use of force such as Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter, a treaty to which the United States is bound by law to observe, indicates that much is amiss already in U.S. nuclear war planning. It is a stretch indeed to reconcile these legal tenets with a nuclear target plan that includes upward of 1,500 nuclear aim-points, many hundreds located inside cities in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.24

The target plans have already been vetted by military lawyers and legally certified for prosecution under certain circumstances, a fact that plants serious doubt that legal desiderata have been applied scrupulously. Dubious rationales such as “belligerent reprisal” to justify killing millions of civilians, departures from the law of war (proportionality, distinction, and necessity), and the self-defense clause of the UN Charter to justify pre-emption and even preventive strikes appear to be too readily invoked.25

The absence of crystal clarity in this arena begs for elucidation. The time is ripe for a reckoning of the legality of specific nuclear plans on the books, a serious endeavor to teach and train nuclear commanders in this area, and the international court of justice to revisit the question of the legality of using nuclear weapons.

Extralegal back channels. During the dark days of the Watergate scandal engulfing President Richard Nixon, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly instructed the Pentagon to check with them before carrying out any strange orders from Nixon.26 This may have been a prudent intervention, however dubious in legal terms, but it represents only a stopgap measure that is not reliable and sets a bad precedent with insidious long-term effects on presidential governance. It is notable that these secretaries were civilians without military backgrounds. The current crop of senior advisers surrounding Trump are former senior generals who lack any proclivity to conspire against the commander-in-chief.

25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Should a president bark out an obviously illegal order, senior officials could notify the vice president in a bid to invoke the 25th Amendment. It provides a mechanism for the vice president to become the acting president. If the vice president secures in writing the concurrence of one-half or more of the Cabinet secretaries declaring the inability of the president to perform his duties for physical or mental reasons, then the vice president takes over as soon as this letter is delivered to the leaders of Congress. Unfortunately, the launch protocol is so streamlined that this constitutional intervention may prove too slow and cumbersome, but it does provide a potential recourse in some situations.

Enforce the War Powers Act of 1973. The law allows the president to send U.S. troops into combat for 60 days without congressional approval, during which time Congress must authorize the mission or else the troops must be withdrawn within 30 days after the 60-day grace period expires. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, the pre-eminent authority on this law, argues that the 60-day period begins when the president threatens to commit the forces,27 a somewhat controversial interpretation that suggests Trump’s tweeting and talking about destroying North Korea already started the 60-day clock, which has now run out. Congress has been too reluctant to exercise its war powers and needs to assert them vigorously.


1 These safeguards are the “two-person rule” prohibiting access or control by any single person other than the president, and the locking of weapons to prevent their use electro-mechanically unless and until unlock codes are provided to the firing crews. The unlock and launch authorization codes needed by the bomber, silo-based missile, and submarine crews are held exclusively by high-level military command centers, not the president. The locking devices were installed on these strategic forces in 1970, 1977, and 1997, respectively.

2 Bruce Blair, “Trump Could Face a Nuclear Decision Soon,” Politico, November 16, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/trump-north-korea-nuclear-crises-214457.

3 Although U.S. nuclear deterrence policy is conceptually predicated on the notion of maintaining a credible capability to absorb an enemy’s maximum assault and strike back with sufficient force to destroy the aggressor’s country, the practical reality is that these persistent vulnerabilities render the United States heavily reliant on extremely rapid reaction if an enemy attack is imminent or underway with incoming warheads streaking toward U.S. territory at four miles per second.

4 This plane is a militarized Boeing 747 airborne command post kept always on runway alert (home-based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha or forward-deployed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington) or shadowing the president during his travels abroad. It possesses all the codes needed to issue the “go-code” and the communications equipment to transmit it directly to the forces, including a five-mile-long trailing antenna to reach submarines.

5 In fact, he has become the primary initiator of the conference as a result of the surging proliferation of ballistic missiles and their prolific testing over the past decade.

6 A pre-planned option would take only minutes to execute. An innovated option could take hours to days.

7 David Welna, “What the Law of War Says About Nuclear Strikes,” NPR, November 29, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/29/567313562/what-the-law-of-war-says-about-nuclear-strikes.

8 This joint operations cell of the National Military Command Center is headed by a one-star flag officer. Normally, a colonel is the ranking officer on duty. See Ben Smith, “Kirk: ‘I Command the War Room in the Pentagon,’” Politico, May 21, 2010, https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/05/kirk-i-command-the-war-room-in-the-pentagon-027162.

9 The Editors, “No One Should Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack,” Scientific American, August 1, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/no-one-should-have-sole-authority-to-launch-a-nuclear-attack/. Although the missiles are normally aimed at the open ocean, changing them to their wartime targets, preset in the missile’s memory for aim-points in Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran, is as easy as changing TV channels. They would not be involved in a nuclear strike confined to North Korea because they would have to fly over Russia and risk triggering mistaken retaliation by Russia against the United States.

10 Dave Merrill, Nafeesa Syeed, and Brittany Harris, “To Launch a Nuclear Strike President Trump Would Take These Steps,” Bloomberg Politics, January 20, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2016-nuclear-weapon-launch/. The crew positions the boat at the proper launch depth (150 feet) and spins up the missiles’ gyroscopes for flight navigation to the designated targets. Missiles would emerge from their tubes one at a time every 15 seconds.

11 In peacetime, the entire nuclear bomber force is not armed with nuclear weapons. It takes 12-24 hours to load the weapons from local storage bunkers. Bruce G. Blair, “De-Alerting Strategic Forces,” in Reykjavik Revisited: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, ed. George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2008), http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/9780817949211_ch2.pdf .

12 Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), pp. 191-194.

13 Reason would likely be the first casualty, as U.S. presidents and their key advisers recognized. Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, “A sudden massive attack would put the American leaders under extraordinary psychological pressure, capable of inducing erratic behavior and hesitation.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, “From Arms Control to Controlled Security,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 1984. Brzezinski spoke from experience, having received a shocking call in the middle of the night in 1979 informing him of the launch of 220 Soviet submarine missiles at the United States. A second call indicated that 2,200 missiles were streaking toward the United States—an all-out first strike. His biggest worry at this stage was figuring out how he would convince a groggy president that this was the real thing requiring an immediate nuclear response. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 2009 conversation with author. As he prepared to call President Jimmy Carter, he received a call ending the nightmare. A defective computer chip had caused the false alarm. See “The 3 A.M. Phone Call,” The National Security Archive, The George Washington University, March 1, 2012, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb371/.

14 There was much predictability in the U.S.-Soviet strategic confrontation. The United States knew much about Soviet missiles and their ranges and test practices. By mutual agreement, the United States received advance notification of their launches.

15 Over the past decade, countries in Asia having nuclear weapons—China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan—and Iran have accelerated their ballistic missile programs. Every day, events occur, often involving civilian or military missile launches, that require a look by the early-warning crews at Petersen and Offutt Air Force bases. They are tasked to provide a preliminary assessment whether North America is under nuclear missile attack within three minutes after receiving the first reports from satellites and ground radar.

16 This notification process now runs through two distinct channels, NORAD and StratCom, with the latter striving to get a head start and activating the protocol before an attack is confirmed or even before a missile lifts off from North Korea, China, Iran, or elsewhere.

17 In January 2017, Vice President Joseph Biden argued that “[g]iven 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. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means.” Joe Biden, “Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security,” American Presidency Project, January 11, 2017, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=121419.

18 H.R.4415, 115th Cong. (2017).

19 Bruce G. Blair, Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1985), pp. 289-295.

20 Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, H.R. 669, 115th Cong. (2017).

21 Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal.

The popular misconception that the defense secretary already plays a role may stem from the fact that he and the president constitute the “national command authorities.” It may also stem from the law that reorganized the Department of Defense in the 1980s. Under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chain of command is stipulated to run from the president to the defense secretary and then to the combatant commanders, but this law contains a loophole. It says this is the chain of command unless the president directs otherwise. See Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-433, 10 U.S.C. 111 (1986).

22 See Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, November 14, 2017, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/111417_Kehler_Testimony.pdf; Kathryn Watson, “Top General Says He Would Resist ‘Illegal’ Nuke Order From Trump,” CBS News, November 18, 2017, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-strategic-command-gen-john-hyten-resist-illegal-nuke-order-from-trump/.

23 Under some circumstances, StratCom would assume the duties of the Pentagon war room and would be in a position to withhold the transmission of a launch order. “U.S. General Says Nuclear Launch Order Can Be Refused, Sparking Debate,” Fox News, November 20, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/20/generals-comments-on-illegal-nuclear-launch-by-president-sparks-debate.html.

24 The author estimates that there are 80 aim-points in North Korea; half that many in Iran; 900-plus in Russia, including 250 economic and 200 leadership aim-points largely concentrated in cities (100 in greater Moscow alone); and more than 400 in China, including 250 and 60 such economic and leadership aim-points, respectively.

25 For discussions on international law as it applies to nuclear weapons use, see Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review, Vol. 41 (1997), pp. 163-165; Theodore T. Richard, “Nuclear Weapons Targeting: Evolution of Law and U.S. Policy,” Military Law Review, Vol. 224, No. 4 (2017): 862-978.

26 Garrett M. Graff, “The Madman and the Bomb,” Politico, August 11, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/11/donald-trump-nuclear-weapons-richard-nixon-215478.

27 Bruce Ackerman, “How to Stop Trump Blowing It Up,” The New York Review of Books, November 28, 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/28/how-to-stop-trump-blowing-it-up/.

Bruce Blair is a member of the Princeton University research faculty in the Program on Science and Global Security and co-founder of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.


Posted: January 10, 2018

The Enduring Challenge of Nuclear Security Coordination

Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists can kill millions and wreak the world. This essential truth underpins the enduring, bipartisan U.S. commitment to enhancing the security of nuclear weapons and the materials that can make them.

January/February 2018
By Laura S.H. Holgate

Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists can kill millions and wreak the world. This essential truth underpins the enduring, bipartisan U.S. commitment to enhancing the security of nuclear weapons and the materials that can make them.

President Donald Trump sits beside his national security adviser H.R. McMaster as he talks with South Korea's President Moon  Jae-In during their summit meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on November 7, 2017. (Photo: JEON HEON-KYUN/AFP/Getty Images)This task has become more multifaceted over time, and the bureaucratic machinery by which the United States pursues these goals has grown in size and complexity. Aligning the legal authorities, available funding, and institutional capacity of more than a dozen departments and agencies involved in policymaking and programmatic implementation for nuclear security is an enduring challenge—one made more difficult in the absence of senior political appointees.

U.S. nuclear security policies are pursued through a variety of avenues, including public and private statements by senior officials in bilateral and multilateral settings; scientific research on threats and the technologies to thwart them; training and capacity building with partners at home and overseas; negotiation of treaties and other international instruments; design and enforcement of national laws and regulations; provision, installation, and maintenance of equipment domestically and abroad; intelligence gathering and analysis; partnerships with related industries and civil society groups; and formal and informal international counterpart relationships at all levels and across all agencies.

Coordination of these myriad actors on a global stage is critical to achieving intended outcomes and to effective use of taxpayer resources. Absent deliberate and accountable coordination at all levels, messages get muddled, money gets wasted, equipment goes unused, gaps go unnoticed, opportunities are missed, and good will is squandered. No one wins awards or makes headlines with this thankless task. Yet without it, U.S. security is at greater risk; and aspiring nuclear terrorists are more likely to acquire the materials, skills, and opportunities to kill millions and inflict economic and political havoc on a global scale.

Effective coordination starts at the White House and engages more than a dozen departments, agencies, and offices. Even the best leadership will struggle with enduring coordination challenges, such as internally aligning programs and policies, working with Congress, liaising effectively with international partners, and facilitating information flow. President Donald Trump’s delays in filling key positions dealing with these matters makes coordination more difficult and reduces U.S. influence in addressing these vital issues internationally.

The National Security Council

The National Security Council (NSC) is at the apex of interagency coordination and closest to the president but often less visible to those outside the interagency process. Within the NSC, the lead player in nuclear security coordination is the directorate designated to deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), typically led by a senior director, but which changes its name, structure, and size with each administration.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s interest drove the planning for a series of biennial nuclear security summits. In this photo, Obama speaks April 1, 2016, during a closing session at his fourth and final nuclear security summit in Washington. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images)Other NSC offices are also involved; a dedicated staff member in each of the regional directorates often handles significant nuclear issues, such as East Asia, South Asia, and Russia. Depending on the issue, other NSC offices are also relevant, particularly those dealing with counterterrorism, multilateral affairs, and intelligence. NSC offices responsible for legislative and public affairs frequently are key partners.

As with the rest of the U.S. government, there is a built-in tension between regional and functional offices. In noncrisis times, this usually manifests itself in disputes over the agenda and talking points for meetings of the president or the national security adviser with his or her counterparts. The regional offices control the preparatory efforts for such engagements and have the last chop on the paper flow, and the regional senior directors are usually the last NSC staff person to brief the president before conversations with other heads of state.

This puts a premium on building strong day-to-day relationships between the WMD office and the regional offices so that key nuclear security issues are not being hashed out at the last minute as papers are due to the Oval Office, but rather that the regional teams understand the nuclear security landscape with key countries and work routinely with the nuclear team to frame and prioritize issues. In this sense, intra-NSC coordination is as critical as interagency coordination and depends heavily on the culture and expectations set by the national security adviser.

Alongside the NSC, the Office of Science and Technology Policy provides critical technical input and shares some of the coordination and writing burden. Its involvement can also be an important signal of credibility to the scientific community that its concerns are visible during the policy process.

Sometimes, the National Economic Council (NEC) is a relevant participant, especially where nuclear energy and nuclear security intersect, such as "123 agreements” for peaceful nuclear cooperation and spent nuclear fuel storage. The international economics team is typically dual-hatted between the NSC and NEC, and it runs the interagency processes related to the Group of Seven and the Group of 20, where nuclear security topics are often addressed.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plays a key role in coordination between policy and resources. The OMB’s visibility on the ebb and flow of policy enhances its own carefully choreographed annual budget process. Ideally, the OMB national security team is on good, transparent terms with the NSC nuclear team and will seek views from the policy side as it is considering agency budget submissions. Yet, that does not always happen, and it takes effort and intention to make it work.

The NSC’s role is fundamentally coordination of the myriad U.S. government actors involved in developing and implementing nuclear security policy. A presidential directive, usually the first one issued by a new administration, establishes this process. Most coordination happens through interagency meetings at rising levels of seniority, from sub-interagency working groups led by NSC staff to interagency working groups led by NSC senior directors to deputies committees led by a deputy national security adviser to principals (cabinet officials) committees chaired by the national security adviser to formal NSC meetings of cabinet officials chaired by the president.

Christopher Ford was confirmed in December 2017 as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, the department’s primary office for nuclear security issues. Previously, he served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation at the National Security Council. (Photo: Terry Atlas)These meetings are used to prepare for events such as presidential meetings or multilateral gatherings; to develop response options for crises or ongoing issues, such as North Korea or Russia; to formally approve major policy documents, such as presidential directives; to obtain buy-in from senior officials who will need to be personally involved in policy implementation; and to resolve any other major interagency disagreements. Most nuclear security issues are determined at the working group levels because office directors, deputy assistant secretaries, and assistant secretary-level officials usually are adequately empowered to make the necessary programmatic, budget, and policy decisions regarding nuclear security issues and because the deputies and principals committees’ schedules are so constrained and the calendars of the deputies and cabinet secretaries are so packed that they rarely have time for nuclear security issues. Senior directors are generally expected to solve as many problems as possible at their level or below, but also to crystallize open issues and help agencies prepare their deputies or cabinet secretaries for participation in deputies and principals committees.

The NSC also coordinates interagency activity through paper review of press guidance, briefing memos and talking points for senior officials, instructions for delegations and embassies, and congressional testimony. Jointly with the OMB, the NSC leads discussions on agency budgets, although the sanctity of the OMB’s unique authority over agencies on budgetary decisions is important to preserve.

Departments and Agencies

The primary Department of State office for nuclear security issues is the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, led by an assistant secretary. The bureau is home to a large number of career civil servants who become deep subject matter experts, working alongside Foreign Service officers assigned on a temporary basis. The bureau oversees a modest budget for a range of nuclear security activities, primarily in training, and has the interagency lead on treaties related to nuclear security. It also leads interagency coordination of routine bilateral and multilateral nonproliferation dialogues held by the assistant secretary or undersecretary.

Most nuclear security issues also involve one or more regional bureaus, and issues involving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations involve the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Embassies worldwide are responsible for facilitating delegations and providing ongoing connectivity and diplomacy with relevant international counterparts.

The Department of Defense has multiple offices and communities, and it has an enormous internal coordination burden. The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy nominally has the lead for interagency engagement, including representation at NSC meetings, where responsibility for nuclear security falls to the assistant secretary for global affairs and homeland security. In some instances, other parts of the department, such as the acquisition team, where policy is turned into contracts, or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which has programmatic responsibility for most Defense Department nuclear security efforts, work directly with interagency counterparts. The Joint Staff is also typically represented at interagency meetings. This gives the Defense Department two “votes” at the interagency table, although the Joint Staff position is statutorily subordinate to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Responsibility for synchronizing Defense Department's countering-WMD missions shifted from U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in October 2016. This adjustment reflected the growing recognition of the nonstate actor WMD threat after Islamic State forces formulated and used their own mustard agent in attacks in Iraq and Syria. SOCOM’s expertise in counterterrorism offers more applicable tools and an activist posture compared to the primary deterrence role of StratCom.

SOCOM appears to be taking a much more active role in the nuclear security mission, but it lacks familiarity with the nuclear interagency process. How engaged SOCOM and its policy counterpart, the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, will be in the interagency process remains to be seen. Unchanged, however, is the specialized role of SOCOM assets in responding to any suspected nuclear terrorism device or event overseas.

The Department of Justice and the FBI are less well-known participants on nuclear security issues. They lead the U.S. government response to any potential terrorist-related nuclear activity on U.S. territory. This uniquely sensitive role requires working painstakingly through the procedures for delegating presidential nuclear authorities down to specially trained FBI or military teams operating directly on a suspect device and on the interagency network that is generated to support a domestic or overseas incident. The FBI’s WMD Directorate plays a key role in liaising with law enforcement officials around the world and through Interpol, and it provides critical nuclear forensics capacity for use in domestic criminal investigations.

Staff at the National Counterterrorism Center, which brings together resources from various government agencies, wait for an address by President Barack Obama on October 6, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)The Department of Energy, through the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), currently makes the largest budgetary and programmatic contributions to U.S. nuclear security activities under the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, led by an assistant secretary-level appointee. This office combines policymaking and programmatic responsibilities. Many of the programs and activities of the NNSA, as well as other agencies, are executed by Energy Department national laboratories. These labs provide research and development, technical expertise, program management, and, in many cases, personal connections to counterparts overseas that ease doors open to nuclear cooperation.

In addition to the nonproliferation office, the NNSA Counterterrorism and Emergency Response offices play critical roles in preparations for searching and handling nuclear and radiological materials and in working with other countries to increase their radiological and nuclear response capacity, as well as to provide reach-back technical advice to those countries in real-time, real-life incidents. The Energy Department is responsible for the management of the 17 national laboratories and multiple industrial facilities involved in nuclear weapons production, nuclear energy research, and environmental cleanup, and the department establishes and oversees the nuclear security regulations for those sites.

The Department of Homeland Security’s main contribution to nuclear security comes through the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for research, acquisition, and deployment of radiation detectors around the country and among federal, state, and local officials. This office also has the interagency responsibility for centralized nuclear forensics analysis. By statute, it produces the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, which describes the placement and capabilities for nuclear detection across the U.S. government and internationally. The interagency process by which this document is created and approved helps focus international priorities, and the DNDO has its own international relationships with customs and immigration officials overseas.

The primary interagency representation of the intelligence community on nuclear security issues comes from three parts of the Directorate of National Intelligence, which sits above the various intelligence agencies: the national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction, the National Counterproliferation Center, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The CIA office known as the Weapons and Counterproliferation Mission Center is also active in bringing intelligence information and analysis into the policy and program communities. Most of the other intelligence agencies also have specific nuclear security expertise and missions, and most of the cabinet agencies mentioned above have an intelligence component that contributes through the intelligence community.

Coordination within the intelligence community on nuclear security issues has always been challenging, and a recent effort to create a dedicated, all-source, cross-community team focused exclusively on nuclear terrorism was not successful. More successful has been the decade-plus project hosted by the Energy Department intelligence office to gather all information about the security of nuclear material in storage and transport globally into a single platform known as the Nuclear Materials Information Program. This set of information helps inform presidential briefings on nuclear security threats and programmatic prioritization of countries and facilities.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations, which is organizationally and functionally separate from the State Department, is a key player for any aspect of nuclear security that takes place in New York. Activities related to UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Security Council meetings focused on nonproliferation and nuclear security, and the like are engaged in close coordination with the U.S. mission.

The independent status of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) puts it in a special category regarding coordination. On one hand, it does not take direction from the executive branch in setting the standards for domestic civilian nuclear facilities, including nuclear security regulations. On the other hand, they participate in policy discussions regarding nuclear security regulations and practices in other countries, and they have robust cooperative relationships with regulatory counterparts around the world.

The NRC plays a key role in reviews of security practices for U.S.-origin nuclear materials exported under "123 agreements” and provides significant expertise in consultations with the IAEA on nuclear security. Its independent status has created tensions based on concerns that interagency efforts to enhance international nuclear security standards or guidelines could add burdens to U.S. licensees or imply a critique of U.S. regulations.

All of these participants had roles in creating the success of the biennial nuclear security summits held from 2010 to 2016. The design and preparation of these events was driven strongly by the NSC, reflecting their origin as a personal priority of President Barack Obama, and the NSC led the small U.S. delegations to the summit planning meetings.

Determining the summits’ outcomes, however, required numerous sub-interagency and interagency working groups to refine policy goals for the summit communiqués, as well as to identify, prioritize, and extract high-impact deliverables from participating countries. Deputies and principals committees were used to gain leadership approval on the summit design and engagement in pursuing high-priority deliverables with their counterparts and to prepare cabinet officials for their own participation in the summits. Special intelligence products were developed, in coordination with interagency input, to brief Obama and other senior officials. The clear connection of priorities from action officer to the president and the empowerment that came from that connection were critical components of the summits’ impact in reducing nuclear material and preventing nuclear smuggling.

Coordination Challenges

The quality and effectiveness of coordination among these agencies varies greatly over time and among issues. Five enduring coordination challenges require attention, even if they are unlikely ever to be fully resolved.

First is the clarification and adjustment of programmatic roles and missions among the agencies in a way that aligns their legal authorities, budgets and capacities. Some of this is done around an NSC table, but often it is best done at operational levels on a topical basis among related programs. Obvious as this may be, stovepipes based on personality, information access, and turf will emerge from the best-intentioned coordination process and will always need to be broken down. Further, any informal coordination methods will reflect the peculiarities of the people and issues involved.

Second, it seems that every administration has to relearn the value of having common themes for agency witnesses to incorporate into their congressional budget testimony, given the distributed nature of nuclear security budgets and authorities across departments and across congressional oversight committees. In one example, a one-page overview of the agreed nuclear security strategy was developed for each department witness to place at the beginning of their testimonies in order to reflect how agency efforts complemented each other toward a coherent whole-of-government approach.

Third, management of the connection points with international partners is always a challenge. No country matches the depth and breadth of U.S. officials. U.S. delegations and programs are at constant risk of overwhelming the bandwidth of foreign partners. U.S. embassies often fight a losing battle in seeking to rationalize, prioritize, and sequence interagency activities. This is another good reason to build relationships in Washington between functional and regional teams so that embassy officials are hearing consistent messages from their own reporting chains and interagency delegations. Functional teams can also do a better job of finding ways to combine and prioritize contacts with overseas counterparts.

Fourth is the sharing of relevant information among all who need it to do their jobs. To best serve policymakers and program managers, clandestinely acquired information needs to be supplemented with tacit knowledge that any government official or contractor absorbs by virtue of their interactions in the course of doing their jobs. The responsibility to record and appropriately distribute this information extends from program implementers to senior officials, and it can be effectively performed without crossing sensitive lines between active collection and nonintelligence functions.

In this modern environment of diverse communications threads shifting from formal, old-fashioned cables to official emails and informal texts, opportunities can be missed to have a common picture of relevant facilities, communities, and technologies that feeds intelligence analysis, threat assessments, programmatic prioritization, and diplomatic engagement. When leaders make expectations clear and administrative barriers are low, this can work well, but it requires constant attention and development of trust over time.

The fifth point is the challenge of coordinating nuclear security policy with nuclear weapons and disarmament policy. In the United States, these are often managed by separate communities, and U.S. nuclear security and disarmament policies are not seen as interdependent, much less in conflict. For many other countries, especially non-nuclear-weapon states, this is not true, and many of them perceive the lack of progress on disarmament as more of a threat to their security than nuclear terrorism. They believe that terrorists are not sophisticated enough to build a weapon and that even if they did, it would be targeted at the United States or maybe Europe.

This perception has caused many countries and collectively the Non-Aligned Movement to perceive nuclear security cooperation as a favor they do for the United States and to hold global progress on nuclear security, such as at the IAEA, hostage in the absence of progress on disarmament. Although the process created by the new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty could provide a forum for countries to express their views on disarmament, it may only inflame the divisiveness in multilateral settings. This will require more coordination between U.S. positions and priorities on nuclear security and disarmament.

Effective coordination of policies, programs, and information flow is heavily dependent on the individuals involved. Many of the capable U.S. career officials have strong habits of working together, but the true character of coordination awaits the arrival of confirmed officials in assistant secretary-level positions, few of whom have even been nominated to lead the offices and bureaus described above.

Without confirmed officials in place, career staff can be unwilling to take risks or make decisions that could conflict with future policy direction from unknown bosses-to-be. “Acting” officials tend to have less impact in presenting and defending budgets internally and before Congress, and they often are not included in meetings with their cabinet secretary that generate guidance or decisions. In deputies and principals committees, acting officials can be less effective in debates with more senior, confirmed counterparts from other agencies. In a crisis, these leadership gaps can interfere with rapid decision-making, as well as the kind of authoritative interactions with international counterparts that would be required to build a collective response.

As long as the nuclear security interagency leadership remains thin, coordination will be incomplete, and the United States will be less capable to prevent or respond to a nuclear event. This should worry us all.

Laura S.H. Holgate is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a U.S. representative to the United Nations Office at Vienna and the International Atomic Energy Agency and a special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction on the National Security Council.



Posted: January 10, 2018


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