The New 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Smart, Credible, Reasonable

by PETER HUESSY February 5, 2018

The administration has now released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR, February 2, 2018) and it realistically confronts the challenges we face in the strategic environment, with both policies of continuity and modest but important changes. The United States is not building more warheads for its stockpile, and is not making any new warheads, contrary to the wrong-headed criticisms of the NPR earlier this month.

The NPR lays out the future in a credible, balanced and smart manner. As the NPR itself says, "In no way does this approach lower the nuclear threshold. Rather, by convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate, it in fact raises that threshold."

The NPR continues, "This review affirms the modernization programs initiated during the previous Administration to replace our nuclear ballistic missile submarines, strategic bombers, nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, ICBMs, and associated nuclear command and control. Modernizing our dual-capable fighter bombers with next-generation F-35 fighter aircraft will maintain the strength of NATO's deterrence posture and maintain our ability to forward deploy nuclear weapons, should the security situation demand it."

The administration also reiterated its continued commitment to non-proliferation and arms control. The NPR notes, "While we will be relentless in ensuring our nuclear capabilities are effective, the United States is not turning away from its long-held arms control, non-proliferation, and nuclear security objectives. Our commitment to the goals of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) remains strong. Yet we must recognize that the current environment makes further progress toward nuclear arms reductions in the near term extremely challenging. Ensuring our nuclear deterrent remains strong will provide the best opportunity for convincing other nuclear powers to engage in meaningful arms control initiatives."

The NPR then continues: "The United States remains committed to its efforts in support of the ultimate global elimination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It has reduced the nuclear stockpile by over 85 percent since the height of the Cold War and deployed no new nuclear capabilities for over two decades. Nevertheless, global threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries. The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before, with considerable dynamism in potential adversaries' development and deployment programs for nuclear weapons and delivery systems."

Key to the review is an explanation of what other nuclear powers have been modernizing their own forces, expanding their capability, and looking at using nuclear weapons as a coercive element of their security policy. The NPR warns: "While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space. North Korea continues its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in direct violation of United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolutions. Iran has agreed to constraints on its nuclear program in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nevertheless, it retains the technological capability and much of the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year of a decision to do so."

As the NPR underscores, "The United States does not wish to regard either Russia or China as an adversary and seeks stable relations with both. We have long sought a dialogue with China to enhance our understanding of our respective nuclear policies, doctrine, and capabilities; to improve transparency; and to help manage the risks of miscalculation and misperception. We hope that China will share this interest and that meaningful dialogue can commence. The United States and Russia have in the past maintained strategic dialogues to manage nuclear competition and nuclear risks. Given Russian actions, including its occupation of Crimea, this constructive engagement has declined substantially. We look forward to conditions that would once again allow for transparent and constructive engagement with Russia."

An important point the NPR makes is the role of nuclear forces in overall deterrence requirements: "U.S. nuclear capabilities cannot prevent all conflict and should not be expected to do so. But, they contribute uniquely to the deterrence of both nuclear and non-nuclear aggression. They are essential for these purposes and will be so for the foreseeable future. Non-nuclear forces also play essential deterrence roles, but do not provide comparable deterrence effects--as is reflected by past, periodic, and catastrophic failures of conventional deterrence to prevent Great Power war before the advent of nuclear deterrence."

The NPR is very clear that "The highest U.S. nuclear policy and strategy priority is to deter potential adversaries from nuclear attack of any scale. However, deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. Given the diverse threats and profound uncertainties of the current and future threat environment, U.S. nuclear forces play the following critical roles in U.S. national security strategy."

In addition, the NPR explains very clearly that the nuclear forces we have are for the purpose of "Deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack; Assurance of allies and partners; Achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails; and

Capacity to hedge against an uncertain future."

The NPR then further explains that "These roles are complementary and interrelated, and the adequacy of U.S. nuclear forces must be assessed against each role and the strategy designed to fulfill it. Preventing proliferation and denying terrorists access to finished weapons, material, or expertise are also key considerations in the elaboration of U.S. nuclear policy and requirements. These multiple roles and objectives constitute the guiding pillars for U.S. nuclear policy and requirements."

The NPR then concludes that "Potential adversaries must recognize that across the emerging range of threats and contexts: 1) the United States is able to identify them and hold them accountable for acts of aggression, including new forms of aggression; 2) we will defeat non-nuclear strategic attacks; and, 3) any nuclear escalation will fail to achieve their objectives, and will instead result in unacceptable consequences for them."

Of critical importance is that no one kind of deterrence fits all circumstances. There is no "one size fits all" for deterrence. Thus, the NPR lays out that "Consequently, the United States will apply a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts. Tailored deterrence strategies communicate to different potential adversaries that their aggression would carry unacceptable risks and intolerable costs according to their particular calculations of risk and cost."

Probably the most important part of the NPR is the emphasis that the "United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Nevertheless, if deterrence fails, the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies, and partners. U.S. nuclear policy for decades has consistently included this objective of limiting damage if deterrence fails."

That also means that the "The United States will continue efforts to create a more cooperative and benign security environment, but must also hedge against prospective and unanticipated risks. Hedging strategies help reduce risk and avoid threats that otherwise may emerge over time, including geopolitical, technological, operational, and programmatic. They also contribute to deterrence and can help reduce potential adversaries' confidence that they can gain advantage through a ‘break out' or expansion of nuclear capabilities. Given the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in potential adversaries' defense policies and strategies, and the uncertainties of the future threat environment, U.S. nuclear capabilities and the ability to quickly modify those capabilities can be essential to mitigate or overcome risk, including the unexpected."

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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