by Kingston Reif [contact information]
Fact Sheet: The Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study
Updated February 11, 2013
The President in 2009 and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) articulated the goal of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in US security strategy. In 2011 the President asked the Pentagon to lead an interagency review to develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives. This NPR Implementation study is well underway.
The Pentagon’s January 5, 2012, strategy document titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” stated that “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” The President and some Pentagon officials have publically indicated that the United States maintains more nuclear weapons than it needs for deterrence.
A February 14, 2012, news story by Associated Press reporter Robert Burns divulged that as part of the NPR Implementation study, an interagency review group has prepared options that could pave the way for further reductions with Russia below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. A July 2 news story by Burns indicated that there appears to be consensus in the interagency about reducing to 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads. On February 8, 2013, citing unnamed administration officials, R. Jeffrey Smith reported that there is indeed consensus among the President’s advisers that the United States can reduce to 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads.
A deployed force of 1,000-1,100 warheads would allow the United States to retain a triad of nuclear delivery systems (long-range ballistic missiles and bombers) and continue to hold at risk Russia's ability to wage a nuclear war. According to Smith, the administration considered even lower warheads numbers in support of a "deterrence-only" posture but decided that it was not feasible at the current time.
As of this writing, the President has yet to officially sign off on new guidance and force levels, though he is said to be in support of the interagency’s recommendation. Once he does, STRATCOM will translate that into specific operational plans, and the interagency will consider what force limits might be proposed in a future negotiation with Russia. Smith and other reporters have indicated that the administration has already begun initial outreach to Moscow on the possibility of further mutual reductions within the framework of New START. Previously the administration has indicated that it would like the next arms control agreement with Russia to limit not only deployed warheads, but non-deployed and non-strategic warheads as well.
- It is prudent to reexamine the assumptions that drive the structure, size and targeting requirements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. These assumptions have not been reexamined in over a decade, since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. Since then the international security environment has changed dramatically. The NPR did not examine the question of the desirability and feasibility of deeper reductions below New START, and the treaty levels were based largely on the Bush administration’s guidance.
- There is a growing bipartisan consensus that the United States can maintain its security and that of its allies with a much smaller number of nuclear weapons. Former US military leaders such as Gen. James Cartwright and Gen. Dirk Jameson argue that the assumptions that dictate our current arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons were devised for a bipolar conflict with the Soviet Union that no longer exists. Such a large arsenal does nothing to address 21st century threats such as terrorism and cyberattack. It also provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force. Apart from the United States and Russia, no other nuclear-armed state is believed to possess more than 300 nuclear weapons. The more nuclear weapons and material there is around the world, the greater the chances weapons or material could be stolen by terrorists and the greater the risks of the unauthorized, miscalculated, or accidental use of nuclear weapons.
- Current plans for replacing all three legs of the nuclear triad are unaffordable in light of the current budget environment. A smaller arsenal could obviate the need to build as many new delivery systems and free funds for more essential Pentagon programs.
- The NPR Implementation study falls well within the normal range of activities administrations undertake on nuclear weapons policy. Time and again, the Pentagon, its various defense boards and affiliated think tanks have been tasked with looking at a range of force structures and sizes.
- The George W. Bush administration determined requirements for deterrence independent of how many weapons Russia or China had. In 2001, the Bush administration articulated a requirement for 1,700-2,200 operational strategic warheads, independent of what other countries maintained. From 2001-2009 the Bush administration cut the total stockpile by 50 percent.
Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.