Each United States President has issued a foundational document outlining his administration’s policy regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons and the concept of nuclear deterrence. After a long delay caused successively by the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration finally issued its own Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on 27 October 2022. Compared with the NPR of the Trump administration, its language is less aggressive and apparently leans more towards a decrease in the reliance on nuclear weapons. However, it cannot avoid the impression of intrinsic contradictions due to conflicting domestic lobbies and pressure from allies as well as discrepancies between stated objectives (such as arms control and risk reduction) and the continuity of long-standing dangerous policies threatening world security.
Associate Fellow, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) – Senior Advisor, Gravity 4.0
Image: Tom Brenner/Reuters
Some differences with the Trump NPR
The 2020 NPR contains a few interesting differences from the 2018 NPR issued by the Trump administration, apart from its general tone despite its likely toughening after the Russian war against Ukraine.
1) While the 2018 NPR criticised the 2010 Obama NPR and the long-held objective of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US strategy as “outdated” in view of the Russian and Chinese nuclear arms build-up, the Biden administration returns to a more traditional goal of decreased salience of nuclear weapons. In particular, it considers that in the framework of a new concept of “integrated deterrence”, there will be a need to consider more non-nuclear responses to strategic threats. This should be confirmed in the future Nuclear Employment Guidance in order to rely less on nuclear weapons and more on new conventional capabilities.
2) Related to the previous point is the issue of when nuclear weapons can be used by the United States. The Trump NPR insisted to “retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a U.S. nuclear response” although it admitted that it would be “in extreme circumstances”. The Biden NPR keeps this notion of “extreme circumstances” but returns to language similar to the Obama NPR in that “the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners” and that the US seeks to “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment”. Although Biden, like Obama, was favourable to translating this into a policy of “no-first use” or “sole purpose”, excluding any nuclear first strike as a response to a non-nuclear attack, the NPR fails again to adopt such a policy. The argument against it, reflecting views from the military establishment and allies (in Europe and Asia-Pacific), is that it would lead to “an unacceptable level of risk in light of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by competitors that could inflict strategic-level damage to the United States and its Allies and partners”. However, as a concession to Biden’s preference, the US will “retain the goal of moving toward a sole purpose declaration and we will work with our Allies and partners to identify concrete steps that would allow us to do so.”
3) Also departing from the 2018 NPR is the decision to eliminate three components of that administration’s policy:
a) The B83-1 megaton gravity bomb had entered service in 1983, officially because of “increasing limitations on its capabilities and rising maintenance costs”. However, the Department of Defense is mandated to “develop an enduring capability for improved defeat of [hard and deeply buried] targets”, although no precise information is given on such a new weapon.
b) The programme of the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N) equipped with a low-yield nuclear warhead, which was intended in the Trump NPR to respond to Russian capabilities and for limited use in a regional conflict. The 2022 NPR considers that this programme would be too costly and not effective as a bargaining chip to negotiate a reduction of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons. In addition, it deems that the existing low-yield W76-2 warhead that equips ballistic missiles aboard submarines can fulfil the same task more effectively.
c) The role of nuclear weapons to “hedge against an uncertain future”: this innovation in the Trump NPR meant that US “nuclear capabilities and the ability to quickly modify those capabilities can be essential to mitigate or overcome risk, including the unexpected”. The Biden administration prefers, as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) wrote, to consider “hedging [as] part of managing the arsenal, rather than acting as a role for nuclear weapons within US military strategy writ large".
Status Quo and Contradictions
The 2022 NPR, apart from the above-mentioned differences with the previous one, maintains the constant US strategy based on “a continuing commitment to a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent”. The US confirms the far-reaching and long-term programme, started under Obama, of “modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) system, and production and support infrastructure, and to sustaining fielded systems through the transition to their replacements.” It also reaffirms its commitment to a “strong and credible extended deterrence” to “assure Allies and partners”. At the same time, it recalls the goal, proclaimed by Obama in his Prague speech of “a world without nuclear weapons”.
The overall impression is one of a juxtaposition of contradictory or ambiguous objectives, some of which are meant to placate the “nuclear hawks” or the military-industrial complex in flexing muscles vis-à-vis Russia and China while others are to reassure supporters of arms control, diplomacy, multilateralism, respect for international law, and conflict prevention.
1) Good v. Bad Modernization: in the risk analysis section of the NPR, a great deal is dedicated to describing the behaviour and policies of Russia and China, considered the main “strategic competitors and potential adversaries”. Russia is accused of having pursued for two decades “a wide-ranging military modernization program that includes replacing legacy strategic nuclear systems and steadily expanding and diversifying nuclear systems that pose a direct threat to NATO and neighboring countries”. China, in its turn, “has embarked on an ambitious expansion, modernization, and diversification of its nuclear forces and established a nascent nuclear triad.” The US thus considers that the modernization of its own nuclear forces is legitimate while the evolution of its competitors is threatening. It omits to recall that one of the reasons behind Russia’s and China’s investments is the development of the US defensive systems after President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2001 and their extension to NATO (European Phased Adaptive Approach) under Obama. Fearing that their second-strike capability would be weakened by US defensive systems facilitating a nuclear first strike, Russia and China began investing in multiple warheads (MIRV) and hypersonic missiles that can escape all defences. In terms of capabilities, the NPR estimates (without providing evidence) that China’s arsenal will reach 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the 2020s. Even if this turned out to be true, this would still represent only 19% of the US arsenal (for a population four times larger) or 7.8% of the total world arsenal.
2) Long-term modernization v. disarmament commitments: the Biden NPR opposes, on the one hand, “the [US] long-term arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament goals” and the “goal of a world without nuclear weapons” and, on the other hand, not only the maintenance of nuclear deterrence (“for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrent effects”) but also the continued build-up of nuclear forces (“over the mid-to long-term, we will develop new capabilities”). It does pay lip service to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) although that Treaty has been obligating the US and the other nuclear-weapon states for over five decades to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament” and on “general and complete disarmament”. It reaffirms the need to further bilateral arms reduction talks with Russia but only “when conditions permit”. It supports entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), still delayed by its non-ratification among others by the US but considers that this will meet “significant challenges”. It advocates a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and a fissile material moratorium by China, but it says nothing of the existing stockpiles of such material maintained by the US and other nuclear powers that “would be sufficient to produce about three times as many nuclear weapons as countries possess” according to the International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM). Unsurprisingly, the NPR rejects the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as “not effective” to reach “the goal of a world without nuclear weapons”, not taking into consideration the “prevailing international security environment”, and being unable to “resolve the underlying conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons”.
3) Nuclear risk reduction v. rejection of practical measures to that end: more than in previous NPRs, the new one includes many references to nuclear risk reduction. It mentions the risk of “unintended nuclear escalation risk” stemming from “accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons”, risks of “miscalculation”, the risk of “inadvertent escalation” in the cyberspace and outer space, the risks from “inaccurate predictions”, etc. The US plans to “pursue engagement with the other nuclear-armed states where possible to reduce nuclear risks”. However, it rejects two of the most recommended practical measures to reduce the nuclear risk significantly. One is “de-alerting”: the NPR considers that the current “day-to-day” alert system and the exclusion of “launch-under-attack” are sufficient to give the President enough time to “consider courses of action”. The other is no-first use (or “sole purpose”), as mentioned above.
4) Destructive power v. Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC): as part of the traditional US doctrine to make nuclear deterrence more acceptable domestically and internationally, the NPR recalls that “the law of war governs the use of nuclear weapons just as it governs the use of conventional weapons”, and that the US “will not intentionally threaten” and “target civilian population or objects in violation of LOAC”. At the same time, the document stresses that a nuclear war “would have catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world”. Yet, the concept of nuclear deterrence includes “collective cost imposition” on the adversary. Moreover, although “a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent is foundational to broader U.S. defense strategy”, the NPR admits that warfighting and the use of nuclear weapons can occur “if deterrence fails”. Although the document does not give details on the US nuclear weapons’ destructive power, the data published by the FAS shows that most US nuclear warheads (including so-called non-strategic weapons) have a power many times superior to that of the Hiroshima (15 kt) and Nagasaki (21 kt) bombs that destroyed cities and killed some 200,000 civilians. This yield can be as low as 0.5 kt for the new B61-12 to be deployed in five NATO countries (although it can be increased to 50 kt) and as high as 1,200 kt for the B83 bomb to be eliminated, leaving 455 kt as the highest possible yield for the Mk4 submarine-launched missile (or 30 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb).
How can it seriously be stated, in such circumstances, that only military targets would be hit, and civilian populations spared?
5) Regional conflicts and competitors: in its analysis of the risks and threats posed to US national security by Washington’s competitors and regional conflicts, the NPR opposes the defensive character of the US nuclear posture to the alleged aggressive nature of other nuclear powers such as Russia, China, and North Korea, with a special characterization of Iran as a non-nuclear weapon state. The US claims to be “consistent with [its] commitment to put diplomacy first” and to “pursue new arms control arrangements that address the full range of nuclear threats and advance [its] global non-proliferation interests.” As for Russia, its “leaders have made clear that they view [nuclear] weapons as a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against their neighbors” while China’s nuclear arsenal “could provide [it] with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. Allies and partners in the region.” Regarding North Korea, “a crisis or conflict on the Korean Peninsula could involve a number of nuclear-armed actors, raising the risk of broader conflict.” Finally, with Iran, “U.S. policy is to prevent [it] from obtaining a nuclear weapon and is pursuing principled diplomacy in coordination with Allies and partners to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities.” At no time does the NPR admit that nuclear proliferation or build-up is a result of conflict-related threat perceptions and that, in the absence of conflict resolution efforts, this trend will not stop. It criticises the TPNW for not being “an effective tool to resolve the underlying security conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons” but it does not propose any alternative strategy to deal with this challenge. Moreover, it ignores other key actors in regional conflicts such as India and Pakistan, who may be involved in a nuclear war that would affect world security, or Israel, whose nuclear monopoly in the Middle East may act as an incentive for regional proliferation.
An increasingly irrelevant nuclear deterrence strategy
In their assessment of the international security environment, US planners and decision-makers should have displayed a more sober and humble approach. A large part of the collapse of the bilateral and the multilateral arms control architecture can be blamed on US decisions to withdraw from or abstain from joining key agreements (ABM Treaty, CTBT, INF Treaty, Open Skies Treaty, Arms Trade Treaty, JCPOA, etc.). Moreover, invoking international tensions for preferring a militaristic approach to arms control negotiations can only be self-defeating. Most of the defunct or surviving arms control agreements were negotiated after or during serious crises and helped avoid a major confrontation. Finally, by continuing to affirm that its vital interests are best protected by nuclear weapons, the US, like the other nuclear-armed states, not only contributes to world insecurity but also runs against its own non-proliferation goals by making such weapons attractive to more states. You can’t at the same time announce that you quit smoking and that you bought a container full of cigarettes to smoke for the rest of your life!