Rewriting US Presidential Nuclear War Planning Guidance

How will Obama reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the strategic war plan?

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Obama administration has begun a review of the president’s guidance to the military for how they should plan for the use of nuclear weapons. The review, which was first described in public by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, is the ultimate test of President Obama’s nuclear policy; the rest is just words: to what extent will the new guidance reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the war plan?

Although the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is widely said to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t actually reduce the role that nuclear weapons have today because all the adversaries in the current strategic nuclear war plan are exempt from the reduction. They are either nuclear weapon states, not members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or are in violation of their NPT obligations and have chemical or biological weapons. The new guidance would have to remove some of these adversaries from the war plan to reduce the role, or reduce the role that nuclear weapons are required to play against each of them. There are many ways this could be done:

  • Reduce the numer of target categories that are held at risk with nuclear weapons.
  • Reduce the damage expectancy to be a achieved against individual targets.
  • Reduce the number of adversaries in the plan.
  • Reduce the number and types of strike options against each adversary.
  • Remove the requirement to plan for prompt launch of nuclear forces.
  • Remove any requirement to plan for damage limitation strikes.
  • End counterforce nuclear planning.
  • End the requirement to maintain standing fully operational strike plans.

Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the war plan requires direct and continuous presidential attention to avoid that the commitments to reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons are watered down by bureaucrats and cold warriors in the National Security Council, Department of Defense, military commands and Services, as well as former officials who are busy lobbying against a reduction.

To support president Obama’s vision of dramatically reduced nuclear arsenals and a reduced role of nuclear weapons on the way to deep cuts of nuclear weapons and eventually disarmament, we published a study in 2009 that proposed a transition from counterforce planning to what we called a minimal deterrent. A study from 2010 further described the current strategic nuclear war plan (OPLAN 8010-08 Change 1 from February 1, 2009 – this plan is still in effect). Building on those two studies, we have a new op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that describes what a new presidential directive could look like: A Presidential Policy Directive for a new nuclear path.

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.

3 thoughts on “Rewriting US Presidential Nuclear War Planning Guidance

  1. Great article, but “ending counterforce targeting” will be a hard sell. It is another way of saying that the US should implement a countervalue, or population bombing, strategy. History has shown us that population bombing is not very effective, and often just strengthens civil resolve against the attacker.

    Reply: Non-counterforce is not necessarily city-busting, but can be something in between directed against important industrial or infrastructure facilities. And, no, just because a facility is industrial doesn’t mean it is in a city. And don’t forget that current targeting is not pure counterforce but has elements of countervalue. There are nuclear targets in or near cities in current targeting strategy as well. Even pure counterforce creates considerable collateral damage and would result in millions of civilian casualties, depending on the scenario. There is no such thing as a “clean” or “humane” nuclear war. The point of this exercise is to find a new way of targeting that takes the dynamic out of nuclear planning and the demand for ever more capable systems, which continues to be dominated by cold war-like targeting requirements. “Holding at risk” the adversary’s nuclear forces (and the other target categories) creates postures with high operational requirements that make it harder to move toward deep cuts and reducing the role of nuclear weapons. The chalenge is to break that cycle. HK

  2. Actually the United States is heading towards a vast upgrade in the “usefulness” of nuclear weapons.

    Tactical air delivered nuclear weapons will be upgraded with a stealth aircraft delivery platform and tactical nukes that have strategic effects because they will be delivered with high precision. (Thus shifting the balance towards counterforce and away from countervalue.)

    Hopefully the current road towards American allies armed with F-35s carrying J-DAM(N)s will shock the entire world into banning so-called tactical nuclear weapons. If not, then any future conflict between say Israel and its neighbors might go nuclear within hours.

  3. Abolishment of nuclear weapons is not realistic (once out of the box …) I think what is needed is a clear, concise, and PUBLIC doctrine.

    Large population centres of other nuclear powers are the only targets worth the strategic nuclear arsenal. Coupled with an iron no-first-strategic-use doctrine. With survivability of the complex as number one priority. It has to be clear for all targeted countries (China, Russia, France, UK, plus whoever might develop a strategic capability) that a U.S. retaliation for a NBC attack on CONUS and Alaska (not the outlying territories!) means the end of their world. With that the role of the *strategic* nuclear weapons could be ramped down, the readiness lowered, and probably another 300-400 deployed strategic warheads retired to go to the minimum deterrence level. Btw, I’d take the strategic nuclear weapons out of the military chain of command and place them directly under the NSC (not the POTUS).

    But the current de-facto strategic-only setup is dangerous – for all sides. What is required is the reintroduction of *tactical* nuclear weapons on all levels of the forces. The shields against salami tactics and gives the U.S. forces the punch that is needed against numerically highly superior forces (read Chinese). And then I’d increase the say of the UCCs’ in the question of the use of these nuclear weapons. No special doctrine for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, rather a seamless extension of means within the forces continuum.

    Re your policy directive draft:
    — “… and our allies”. No! No entanglement. That inclusion is unnecessary. No restrictions of the use, but also no point that can potentially endanger the whole doctrine in case it fails the test (E.g.: Chinese nuclear attack on Japan – would the U.S. be willing to risk SFO and LAX to retaliate against China? Don’t think so. But if it’s in the paper and not implemented in case, the whole policy is in trouble).
    — “New targets”: see my bilge above

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