Obama and the Nuclear War Plan

The current U.S. strategic war plan is directed against six adversaries. Guess who.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

While the completion of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review continues to slide, FAS today published an issue paper on how a decision to reduce the role of nuclear weapons might influence the U.S. strategic war plan.

President Obama pledged in his Prague speech last year that he would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” and reaffirmed earlier this month that the “Nuclear Posture Review will reduce [the] role….”

How to reduce the role in a way that is seen as significant by the global nonproliferation community, visible to adversaries, and compatible with the president’s other pledge to “maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary…as long as these weapons exist” apparently is the subject of a heated debate within the administration.

Click image to download report.

The most persistent rumor is that the review might remove a requirement to plan nuclear strikes against chemical and biological weapons; reduce the mission to the core role of deterring use of other nuclear weapons. I recently described that the Quadrennial Defense Review stated that new regional deterrence architectures and non-nuclear capabilities “make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

A reduction of the mission to only deter nuclear use would roll back much of the expansion of nuclear doctrine that happened during the Clinton and Bush administrations. But it would not “put an end to Cold War thinking,” but to post-Cold War thinking.

To put an end to Cold War thinking, the reduced role would have to affect the core of the war plan that is directed against Russia and China.

The issue paper describes how the strategic war plan is structured, how it has evolved, and discusses options for reducing the mission and the war plan itself.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

One thought on “Obama and the Nuclear War Plan

  1. Interesting reading, thank you!

    Some things smell of the “prolongued nuclear war” idea of the Reagan era. All these reserve and hedge angles have a touch of staffers’ masturbation and mine shaft gap to them …

    And as usually I’m troubled by the apparent lack of a clear distinction between strategic and tactical systems or planing. In the end I’m not sure why to do a nuclear war plan at all, if the options and scenarios are as widely and as fuzzily formulated, as seems to be the case.

    What I think would be needed for a substantial reduction of the overall forces yield (what you usually call “minimum deterrence”) is a limitation of the strategic threat/deterrence to strategic-capable (potential) opponents with capabilities against CONUS (Russia, China, UK, France), coupled with a “no first use of strategic nuclear weapons” policy and declaration (plus some honesty and realism in targeting! – talking about the strategic counterforce approach), but at the same time also a robust tactical capability with a wide array of potential delivery systems (Global Strike comes in here).

    I’m afraid the NPR will basically maintain the status-quo. As for one the insisting and backward-looking powers in the national security establishment that have a very anti-Russian attitude are dominant, and then the financial costs of going to a smaller, yet equally, or even more survivable strategic nuclear deterrence force would be higher than just changing nothing. (Referring here mostly to the oversized/shorthanded Ohio boats and their oversized UGM-133 missiles, and the fact that the design tender for the missile compartment for SSBN(X) again seems to have called for UGM-133 sized tubes).

    Reply: Just a note to say that we call it “minimal deterrence” to distinguish our proposal from some nuclear weapon states who say they have a minimum deterrent. HK

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