by Robert G. Gard
The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by an inter-agency task force and published as an unclassified document in April 2010, included as one of its five strategic objectives a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. This declaration was important in countering actions taken by the George W. Bush administration that undermined the essential objective of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons by recommending new kinds and uses of such weapons.
In 2002, the Bush administration published National Security Policy Directives on “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces” and “Nuclear Weapons Policy Guidance.” Leaks of the contents of the classified versions of these documents revealed provisions for U.S. preventive attacks with nuclear weapons on countries that may possess or try to develop weapons of mass destruction. Specifically mentioned are Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the charter members of the “Axis of Evil,” along with Libya and Syria.
The previous administration also proposed developing new low yield nuclear weapons to reduce qualms over using nuclear weapons that otherwise would cause far more extensive damage to cities and people. This search for more “usable” nuclear weapons blurred what generally had become recognized as a distinct line between conventional and nuclear weapons and their use. The administration also advocated the development of other new nuclear weapons, including a “reliable replacement warhead” and a “robust nuclear earth penetrator.”
These actions collectively sent a clear signal that the United States considered the potential use of nuclear weapons an important part of our national security strategy despite the fact that we have a vastly superior conventional military capability. A study prepared at the request of the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2007 concluded that “The world sees us as shifting from nuclear weapons for deterrence and as a weapon of last resort to nuclear weapons for war fighting roles and first use.”
The Obama Administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review specifically reduced the potential uses for nuclear weapons. It specified that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations, although the document reserved the right to adjust to bio-weapons threats. What is particularly striking is that the document noted that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack, not to be used first, and that the U.S. would work to establish conditions for this to become the sole mission of its nuclear arsenal.
In March 2011, the President directed the Department of Defense to lead an inter-agency study to implement the provisions of the Nuclear Posture Review by re-examining our strategic nuclear posture; developing potential changes in requirements for targeting potential enemies; determining how many weapons, if any, are needed to be maintained on high alert for possible quick use; and presenting options for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The results of the study have not been released, but R. Jeffrey Smith, a reporter and analyst with the Center for Public Integrity, published an article on 8 February 2013 stating that the inter-agency task force had reached consensus on consulting with Russia to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons from 1,550, as specified in the New START Treaty, to a range of 1,000 to 1,100.
Until 2003, the U.S. maintained a SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan, for employing nuclear forces, focused on the Soviet Union, later Russia, and China. Targets included both nuclear and conventional military forces; national and military leadership, including command and control capabilities; and economic and industrial facilities. The 1976 plan targeted at least one industrial facility in the most important 250 urban areas in the Soviet Union and in 125 urban areas in China!
The Bush administration shifted in 2003 to what was designated OPLAN 8044, encompassing a set of plans expanded to regional states and applicable to a wide range of contingencies to counter not only nuclear-armed adversaries but also states with, or developing, other mass destruction weapons, including chemical and biological. It included options for a first strike on six adversaries: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, and against an attack by a non-state actor in collusion with a rogue state. The latest version of that plan, approved in early 2009, targets military forces, including the infrastructure for weapons of mass destruction; national and military leadership, along with command, control, communications and intelligence facilities; and war-supporting infrastructure and other economic targets to prolong post-war recovery.
This Bush nuclear operational plan remained in force during the Obama Administration’s negotiation of the New START Treaty. The Nuclear Posture Review implementation study, only partially leaked to the press so far, will lead to guidance from the President for revisions in U.S. nuclear strategy and posture, and eventually to a new U.S. war plan. This will be a lengthy process: based on the President’s guidance, the Secretary of Defense will send more detailed guidelines to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn will amplify the guidelines and provide instructions to the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command to prepare a revised war plan. The war plan will be reviewed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and then by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for final approval by the Secretary.
Hopefully, the President will take the time required to ensure that his guidance is not distorted by this extensive bureaucratic process, which, by its nature, tends to cling to the status quo.