By John Erath
The Biden administration is currently completing work on its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which is the set of policies that will guide how the U.S. nuclear force is structured and oriented for the next several years. The NPR will deal with a number of important issues, among them the fate of several weapons systems, the future of the nuclear triad and how to respond to the development of new offensive weapons by competitor states. These rightly should be the main areas of focus for the NPR, but at the same time there should be room for some minor initiatives that could potentially have a positive influence on U.S. and global security.
One of these should be to clarify the role of nuclear weapons. As a candidate, Joe Biden said he was committed to “reducing the role of nuclear weapons,” but gave little indication of what this might mean.
One hint emerged in the January 3, 2022 statement by the five nuclear weapons states: ” nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” It would be a positive step at this point were the NPR to amplify this statement in policy terms and make defense the guiding principle for future decisions on force structure and doctrine. Doing so would serve both the foreign policy and security interests of the country. The challenge would be actualizing what a “defensive purpose” might be, a seemingly incongruous term for a device that can destroy a city. It would make little sense to try to divide weapons of mass destruction into offensive and defensive groups, so a distinction should be drawn in doctrine.
In practical terms, basing the U.S. nuclear posture on defense would begin with the ongoing modernization of the nuclear force. Decisions on which weapons to procure and update should be judged on how they contribute to national security in the context of defense and deterrence. Making such decisions could potentially result in considerable cost savings as weapons of a more offensive character would not be funded — an important point as the administration tries to cope with runaway spending growth. In this way, the United States can develop a safer, more modern nuclear force while making more efficient use of resources.
The same approach should be applied to nuclear policy. The current NPR, from 2018, maintains that the United States will only use nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances to defend vital interests.” The defensive nature of the nuclear force should be reinforced through Presidential guidance to the military that planning for potential use of nuclear weapons should focus on defensive scenarios. It is when services begin to imagine new uses for nuclear weapons that ideas for costly new systems follow. The President can put a stop to this practice of trying to think of new uses for weapons we hope never to use. The U.S. military is the most capable in history, and remains able to strike any target effectively without using nuclear weapons.
Should a situation arise in which conventional capabilities would not suffice, it would surely meet the threshold of defending national interests in extreme circumstances. In non-extreme circumstances, moving away from imagining more uses — which inevitably are more offensive than defensive — for nuclear capabilities would enable the nuclear force to focus more clearly on deterrence and allow conventional forces to concentrate on their core missions.
There would also be foreign policy benefits to emphasizing a defensive nuclear posture. At a time when Russia is announcing exotic new weapons, which, if they work, would have a more offensive character, it would undermine some of Putin’s more paranoid propaganda for the United States to assume a more defensive posture while maintaining a credible deterrent. Similarly, a more restrained U.S. stance would set a sharp contrast with China’s program of building new weapons and delivery systems. This would provide a great benefit in future arms control and related negotiations by forcing Russia, for example, to defend why it needs hundreds of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe when such devices have no real deterrence or defensive purpose.
Without weakening its own deterrent, the United States could open the door to a new generation of arms control in which there could be reductions in weapons not needed for defense and deterrence and, ultimately, to fewer nuclear weapons overall.