The Nuclear Posture Review: A Just in Time Restrained and Credible Deterrent Plan

by PETER HUESSY February 12, 2018


The nuclear posture review or NPR has been produced by the Trump administration to guide the nation's future nuclear deterrent and nuclear modernization effort.

Contrary to much obviously uninformed criticism, the posture review is "not a sea change" from previous nuclear reviews according to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, USAF General Paul Silva.

The nuclear doctrine of United States will remain perfectly consistent with prior doctrine, where the United States if attacked has sufficiently survivable nuclear forces to be able to retaliate in a credible and capable way. This requires holding at risk those assets--military, industry and leadership--our adversaries and enemies value the most, without which they cannot achieve their war aims.

To secure such a retaliatory force, the United States will continue to modernize a mix of nuclear platforms, often referred to as the Triad. This includes land-based missiles, sea-based missiles and submarines, and a new US strategic bomber with cruise missiles.

The last time the United States fully modernized its nuclear forces began with the Reagan administration, and then such efforts fell sharply at the end of the Cold War. This "procurement holiday" has now resulted in each element of the nuclear force, including platforms, command and control and warheads, having to be modernized sequentially over the next two or more decades.

Much has been made of the cost of this endeavor. But many modernization cost estimates have been artificially inflated by including 30 years of sustainment of old systems and all strategic bomber costs, even those associated with its conventional mission. Reasonable estimates of the acquisition and research and development costs of new nuclear modernization, including an estimate of 10% of the bomber costs, are around $325 billion for all these elements, even adding in inflation over 30 years. 

During that same period of time, should the defense budget remain unchanged, the acquisition cost of nuclear modernization would be less than 2% of the entire defense budget, a highly reasonable cost for building the modernized deterrent force upon which our nation's survival depends.  

Would nuclear weapons be used under an expanded number of scenarios according to the new posture review? Again, according to General Paul Selva, the idea, for example, that the new NPR document will support nuclear retaliation in response to a "cyber attack" is "actually not supported by the document."

On the other hand, consistent with long-standing US policy, when the U.S. population or infrastructure is attacked "with significant consequence," which includes "command and control and communication that are important to our detection of an attack," the United States reserves the right to use whatever retaliatory force we need to maintain deterrence.

In addition, the review will continue our policy of moving to only 5 types of strategic warheads from the 12 currently in the inventory. This is hardly consistent with the charge that the review is endorsing the production of "more" nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has for the seventy years of the nuclear age changed the mix and types of warheads we have kept in our inventory. We are now down to a deployed number of strategic weapons some 85% less than we had at the height of the Cold War.

The average yield of our weapons are also markedly lower than they were, as holding at risk our adversaries appropriate military and industrial targets requires changes in our capabilities. That is simply deterrence 101. Part of that requirement is lower yield weapons which the review  proposes for our sea-based submarine missiles and for a naval theater capability.

All of the U.S. effort will be playing "catch-up" with both the Russia and Chinese modernization plans. Russia announced recently that fully 90% of its nuclear forces are now modernized and will be completely updated by 2021.

Even though the U.S. is staying within the 2010 treaty limits, the Chinese announced this week they are going to build up their number of nuclear weapons because of Russian and U.S. modernization plans, although to date the U.S. has not produced a single new missile, submarine, or bomber.  

On top of which, numerous studies have revealed Russia could easily climb to 8000 deployed nuclear weapons, both at the strategic and theater level, far in excess of any U.S. capability. As top defense analysts Mark Schneider and James Howe have detailed recently, the Russians are scheduled to have deployed such a number of strategic and theater nuclear warheads within the next decade, double the total number of warheads the United States has in its deployed and non-deployed stockpile.  

In fact, as Professor Paul Bracken has rightfully written, the NPR is a remarkably retrained policy in the face of this very large and significant nuclear build-up by Russia, to say nothing of the similar Chinese buildup as well.

Thus, while the U.S. intends certainly to stay within the arms control limits of the 2010 New Start treaty, we should not be complacent in that the treaty contains serious loopholes and verification gaps that allows Russia very large path-ways to grow nuclear deployments far in excess of the agreed upon limits for strategic weapons.

Especially worrisome is the current Russian build-up of theater nuclear weapons, none of which are under arms control agreed limits, as well as Russian serial violations of the 1987 INF treaty banning intermediate range ballistic missiles.

In fact, Russia may have anywhere from 2000-5000 such theater nuclear warheads while the U.S. has deployed in Europe only 180-200 such weapons aboard tactical aircraft.

Thus, the NPR simply proposes that we develop not more nuclear warheads or even new nuclear warheads, but a different mix of theater weapons, again quoting General Silva, that "deters our adversaries from actually believing that they could engage in a limited nuclear strike because none of the weapons we have are appropriate to be a proportional answer."

The nuclear posture review thus, in summary, lays out a forceful, credible and appropriate plan for the modernization of our nuclear forces. It is very affordable, as reasonable estimates are that we are spending today some $28 billion on all nuclear elements including sustainment of old systems, out of a defense budget that could end up at $700 billion annually.

If the defense authorization budget as signed into law this year is funded at that level by a subsequent appropriations bill, total sustainment and modernization of the nuclear deterrent come in at 4% of the defense budget. If acquisition of submarines, land-based missiles and bombers are your benchmark, the cost falls to between 1-1.4%.

All in all, the nuclear posture review lays out an affordable, credible, and reasonable nuclear deterrent path forward, one which is also perfectly consistent with our arms control and non-proliferation obligations but which puts at the head of the nuclear requirements the need to maintain and strengthen deterrence. 


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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