by Kingston Reif
The Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the U.S. Department of Defense to undertake a Nuclear Posture Review, a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy and policy for the next five to ten years. The review, which began in the Spring of 2009, was originally scheduled to be submitted to Congress in December 2009, but it has been delayed until March or April 2010.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review marks the third such comprehensive study since the end of the Cold War. The first was completed by the Clinton administration in 1994 and the second by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. While the 1994 and 2002 reviews were classified, the current study will produce an unclassified report as one of its products.
President Obama’s April 5, 2009, speech in Prague presenting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons provides the backdrop for the NPR. The review will attempt to strike a balance between the President’s pledge to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons and his commitment to maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile so long as nuclear weapons exist.
Specifically, the review will weigh in on such important issues as:
• the role and purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal
• the appropriate number, types, and composition of U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles (i.e. the missiles and bombers used to deliver nuclear warheads to their targets) necessary to meet the designated role and purpose
• the resources and facilities required to maintain U.S. nuclear arsenal
• preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and know-how to additional states and terrorists
The Nuclear Posture Review will influence the implementation of the President’s agenda to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons laid out in Prague. This agenda includes pursuit of a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired on December 5, 2009, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), safeguarding and eliminating all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide within four year, a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) to ban the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes, and a successful Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010.
Since ratification of the START follow-on agreement seems unlikely in the first half of 2010, the Nuclear Posture Review will be one of the – if not the – principal completed U.S. actions before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference begins in May 2010. A review that does not depart from the status quo could contribute to a perception among the non-nuclear weapon states that the nuclear weapon states are not living up to the basic bargain of the treaty. This could in turn make the non-nuclear weapons states reluctant to approve further nonproliferation measures, such as enhanced inspection protocols or support for tougher measures against Iran and North Korea.
Though not yet fully completed, some of the early results of the review have already had an impact on U.S. nuclear policy and planning. Some examples include:
• The early work on the review established the direction of the START follow-on negotiations with Russia. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 9, 2009, General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “We prioritized in the Nuclear Posture Review…the activities and the analysis that would be necessary to support the timelines associated with…the follow-on START negotiations.”
• The review has delivered an early verdict on the President’s pledge in Prague to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile so long as nuclear weapons exist. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman stated in a February 17, 2010 speech that “the early analysis from the Nuclear Posture Review concluded that providing that assurance, especially at lower numbers of nuclear weapons, will require increased investments to strengthen an aging physical infrastructure and to sustain scientific and technical talent at our nation’s national security laboratories.”The Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request, which was released on February 1, 2010, devotes $7 billion for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile and complex, and for related science and technology programs, an increase of $600 million over what Congress appropriated last year.
Other tentative results of the review have begun to emerge:
• In keeping with President Obama’s elevation of nuclear terrorism as the principal threat to U.S. national security, the review seems ready to make the prevention of nuclear terrorism a goal equal to the traditional objectives of preventing both state-led nuclear weapon development and usage.
• The review appears poised to call for the retirement of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear, a sea-launched cruise missile that during the Cold War was deployed on some U.S. attack submarines but has remained in storage at military bases on the U.S. mainland since the early 1990s.
According to a June 2009 Department of Defense terms of reference fact sheet, the review was being conducted simultaneously with the Quadrennial Defense Review (released on February 1, 2010), the Ballistic Missile Defense Review (released on February 1, 2010), the Space Policy Review, the START-follow on negotiations, and preparations for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
The Nuclear Posture Review has been led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff, in consultation with the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of State. Primary responsibility has resided with the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Cartwright.
The process has embraced a ‘whole of government’ approach, meaning that the Department of Defense has consulted with other government departments and agencies, Congressional committees, and even nuclear scholars from think tanks, advocacy organizations, and academia. The results of the review will guide nuclear policy across the entire U.S. foreign policy making apparatus.
Recent reports have indicated that there was a lack of consensus among the participants in the review process on the future direction of U.S. nuclear policy. The release of the review was delayed from December 2009 to February 2010 and then again to some time in March or April 2010 because many of the key issues had yet to be resolved or approved.
Some of these issues have included:
The role and purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal
Since the end of the Cold War the United States has maintained a policy of “calculated ambiguity” regarding when it might use nuclear weapons. According to this policy, nuclear weapons are necessary to “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and largescale conventional military force.”
At issue is whether the U.S. should retain the current policy of calculated ambiguity or revise it in favor of something that is more in keeping with the objectives laid out by President Obama in Prague. One popular formulation is that the review should state that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S. and its allies. Some argue that the U.S. should be even more explicit and declare that the U.S. will never use nuclear weapons first, but only in response to a nuclear attack.
The appropriate number of nuclear weapons
As noted above, the Nuclear Posture Review has been closely coordinated with the START follow-on negotiations to inform the U.S. negotiating position. The early results of the review were reflected in the “Joint Understanding for the START Follow-On Treaty” agreed to by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in Moscow in July 2009. The Joint Understanding stated that the START follow-on agreement will limit the U.S. and Russia to 1,500-1,675 operationally deployed strategic warheads and 500-1,100 strategic delivery vehicles.
At issue is whether the U.S. can undertake even more significant reductions with Russia in the future. One view is that if the U.S. were to limit the purpose of nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear attacks on the U.S. and its allies, it could reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal far below the levels outlined in the Joint Understanding. Others argue that such dramatic reductions could undermine the confidence of U.S. allies in the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, thereby encouraging them to develop their own nuclear arsenals, and invite peer competition from smaller nuclear powers such as China.
Related to the total number of U.S. nuclear weapons is the number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. It is estimated that the U.S. deploys approximately 200 B61 gravity bombs at six bases in Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The review could call for the beginning of consultations with NATO to ultimately withdraw – or at the very least consolidate – the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. A passage in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated that the Nuclear Posture Review will outline “new, tailored, regional deterrence architectures” which will “make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” On February 19, 2010, a spokesperson for the Belgian Prime Minister proclaimed that Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway intend to demand within NATO “that nuclear arms on European soil belonging to other NATO member states are removed.”According to one commentator, “presumably, some coordination with Washington has taken place [regarding the statement].”
Maintaining U.S. nuclear warheads
Since announcing a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992, the U.S. has opted to maintain its existing arsenal of nuclear warheads through stockpile stewardship and life extension (also known as refurbishment). This has involved replacing aging, mostly non-nuclear components with parts that hew as closely as possible to the original design specifications. Some claim that selective parts replacement cannot extend the life of the existing arsenal indefinitely and that new warhead designs may be necessary to achieve President Obama’s pledge to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile so long as nuclear weapons exist.
However, a September 2009 report by the JASON defense advisory group concluded that “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” The bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States noted in its final report that existing life extension programs and new warhead designs represent opposite ends of a spectrum of options to maintain the arsenal. Others argue that new warhead designs could undermine U.S. nonproliferation objectives by encouraging other states to build new and more advanced nuclear arsenals.
In September 2009 Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher stated that the Nuclear Posture Review would not revive the now defunct Reliable Replacement Warhead program. Yet some observers point out that the Nuclear Posture Review could recommend making extensive changes to warheads – or even new warhead designs – under the auspices of the newly created Stockpile Management Program.
The Nuclear Posture Review’s recommendations will likely echo the many different voices that contributed to the review process. If the 2010 NPR does attempt to please all of its many authors, it will likely fall well short of President Obama’s transformational vision.
Not only will the Nuclear Posture Review determine U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the next decade, but it could also influence the attitudes of other states toward nuclear weapons. Reports indicate that the White House has instructed the Pentagon to present the President with options that reflect the transformational agenda he laid out in Prague. Continued Presidential involvement and attention will be required to ensure that the NPR does not merely perpetuate the status quo.