New Nuclear Weapons Employment Guidance Puts Obama’s Fingerprint on Nuclear Weapons Policy and Strategy


By Hans M. Kristensen

President Barack Obama’s Berlin speech failed to capture the nuclear disarmament spirit of the Prague speech four years ago. And no wonder. Back then Obama had to contrast with the Bush administration’s nuclear policies. This time Obama had to upstage his own record.

The only real nuclear weapons news that was included in the Berlin speech was a decision previously reported by the Center for Public Integrity that the administration is pursuing an “up to a one-third reduction” in deployed nuclear weapons established under New START.

Instead, the real nuclear news of the day were the results of the Obama administration’s long-awaited new guidance on nuclear weapons employment policy that was explained in a White House fact sheet and a more in-depth report to Congress.

From a nuclear arms control perspective, the new guidance is a mixed bag.

One the one hand, the guidance directs pursuit of additional reductions in deployed strategic warheads and less reliance on preparing for a surprise nuclear attack. On the other hand, the guidance reaffirms a commitment to core Cold War posture characteristics such as counterforce targeting, retaining a triad of strategic nuclear forces, and retaining non-strategic nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe. 

Pursue Additional Reductions

The top news is that the administration has decided that it can meet its security obligations with “up to one-third” fewer deployed strategic warheads that it is allowed under the New START treaty. That would imply that the guidance review has concluded that the United States needs 1,000-1,100 warheads deployed on land- and sea-based strategic warheads, down from the 1,550 permitted under the New START treaty.

It is not entirely clear from the public language, but it appears to be so, that these additional reductions will be pursued in negotiations with Russia rather than as reciprocal unilateral reductions.

Even though the nuclear weapons employment policy would allow for reductions below the New START Treaty levels, it does not direct any changes to the currently deployed forces of the United States. That is up to the follow-on process of the Secretary of Defense producing an updated Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy (NUWEP) appendix to the Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF), and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff then producing an update to the nuclear supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP-N).

These updates will inform the Commander of STRATCOM on how to direct the Joint Functional Component Command Global Strike (JFCC-GS) to update the strategic war plan (OPLAN 8010-12), and Geographic Combatant Commanders such as the Commander of European Command to update their regional plans.

So if an when Russia agrees to cutting its deployed strategic warheads by up to one third, it could take several years before President Obama’s guidance actually affects the nuclear employment plans.

Already now, many news articles covering the Berlin speech misrepresent the “cut” by saying it would reduce the U.S. “arsenal” or “stockpile” by one third. But that is not accurate. The envisioned one-third reduction of deployed strategic warheads will not in and of itself destroy a single nuclear warhead or reduce the size of the bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Reduce Launch Under Attack

The new guidance recognizes, which is important although late, that the possibility of a disarming surprise nuclear attack has diminished significantly since the Cold War. Therefore, the guidance “directs DoD to examine further options to reduce the role of Launch Under Attack plays in U.S. planning, while retaining the ability to Launch Under Attack if directed.”

Launch under attack is the capability to be able to launch nuclear forces after detection that an adversary has initiated a major nuclear attack. Because it only takes about 30 minutes for an ICBM to fly from Russia over the North Pole, Launch Under Attack (LOA) has meant keeping hundreds of weapons on alert and ready to launch within minutes after receiving the launch order.

Barack Obama promised during his election campaign in 2007 that he would work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger alert,” but the Nuclear Posture Review instead decided to continue the existing readiness of nuclear forces. Now the DOD is directed to study how to reduce LOA in nuclear strike planning but retain some LOA capability.

The guidance does not explicitly say – to the extent it is covered by the DOD report – that nuclear force will be retained on alert. The NPR makes such a statement clearly. The DOD guidance report only states that the practice of open-ocean targeting should be retained so that a weapon launched by mistake would land in the open ocean.

Despite the decision to reduce deployed strategic warheads and reduce Launch Under Attack, the guidance hedges against the change by stating that “the maintenance of a Triad and the ability to upload warheads ensures that, should any potential crisis emerge in the future, no adversary could conclude that any perceived benefits of attacking the United States or its Allies and partners are outweighed by the costs our response would impose on them.”

Counterforce Reaffirmed

The new guidance reaffirms the Cold War practice of using nuclear forces to hold nuclear forces at risk. According to the DOD summary, the new guidance “requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries” and explicitly “does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.”

This reaffirmation is perhaps the single most important indicator that the new guidance fails to “put and end to Cold War thinking” as envisioned by the Prague speech.

Because “counterforce is preemptive or offensively reactive,” in the words of a STRATCOM-led study from 2002, reaffirmation of nuclear counterforce reaffirms highly offensive planning that is unnecessarily threatening for deterrence to work in the 21st Century. This condition is exacerbated because the reaffirmation of counterforce is associated with a decision to retain – albeit at a reduced level – the ability to Launch Under Attack if directed (see below).

The “warfighting” nature of nuclear counterforce drives requirements for Cold War-like postures and technical and operational requirements that sustain nuclear competition between major nuclear powers at a level that undercuts efforts to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons.

No Sole Purpose…But

Four years after the Nuclear Posture Review decided that the United States could not adopt a sole purpose of nuclear weapons to deter only nuclear attacks, the new guidance reaffirms this rejection by saying “we cannot adopt such a policy today.”

Even so, the guidance apparently reiterates the intention to work towards that goal over time. And it directs the DOD to undertake concrete steps to further reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

The decisions regarding non-strategic nuclear weapons are disappointing because they fail to progress the issue. In fact, the White House fact sheet explicitly states that the guidance review did not address forward deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe.

Even so, the guidance decides to retain a forward-based posture in Europe until NATO agrees it is time to change the posture. The last four years have shown that NATO is incapable of doing so because a few eastern NATO countries cling to Cold War perceptions about nuclear weapons in Europe that blocks progress.

In effect, the lack of initiative now means countries like Lithuania now effectively dictate U.S. policy on non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Hedging Against Hedging

The guidance also directs that the United States will continue to retain a large reserve of non-deployed warheads to hedge against technical failures in deployed warheads.

This both means enough extra warhead types within each leg to hedge against another warhead on that leg failing, as well as keeping enough extra warheads for each leg to hedge against failure of one of the warheads on another leg.

Now that warhead life-extension programs are underway, the guidance directs that DOD should only retain hedge warheads for those modified warheads until confidence is attained. This is a little cryptic because why would the DOD not do that, but the intension seems to be to avoid keeping the old hedge warheads longer than necessary.

Moreover, the guidance also states that all of the hedging against technical issues will provide enough reserve warheads to allow upload of additional warheads – including those removed under the New START Treaty – in response to a geopolitical development somewhere in the world.

This all suggests that we should not expect to see significant reductions in the hedge in the near future but that much of the current hedging strategy will be in place for the next decade and a half.


The Obama administration deserves credit for seeking further reductions in nuclear forces and the role of Launch of Warning in nuclear weapons employment planning. A White House fact sheet and a DOD report provide important information about the new nuclear weapons employment guidance, a controversial issue on which previous administrations have largely failed to brief the public.

The DOD’s report on the new guidance reiterates that it is U.S. policy to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but helpfully reminds that “it is imperative that we continue to take concrete steps toward it now.” This is helpful because Obama’s recognition in Prague that the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons might not be achieved in his lifetime has been twisted by opponents of reductions and disarmament to mean an affirmative “not in my lifetime!”

The guidance directs that nuclear “planning should focus on only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century.” The force should be flexible enough, the guidance says, to be able to respond to “a wide range of options” by being able to “threaten credibly a wide range of nuclear responses if deterrence should fail.”

Unfortunately, the public documents do not shed any light on what those objectives and missions are or which ones have been deemed no longer necessary.

Instead, the official descriptions of the new guidance show that its retains much of the Cold War thinking that President Obama said in Prague four years ago that he wanted to put an end to. The reaffirmation of nuclear counterforce and retention of nuclear weapons in Europe are particularly disappointing, as is the decision to retain a large reserve of non-deployed warheads partly to be able to reverse reductions of deployed strategic warheads achieved under the New START Treaty.

In the coming months and years, these decisions will likely be used to justify expensive modernizations of nuclear forces and upgrades to nuclear warheads that will prompt many to ask what has actually changed.

Background: US Nuclear Forces, 2013Russian Nuclear Forces, 2013Reviewing Nuclear Guidance – From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence

This publication was made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

6 thoughts on “New Nuclear Weapons Employment Guidance Puts Obama’s Fingerprint on Nuclear Weapons Policy and Strategy

  1. As the reduced warheads before 2009 will not be totally dismantled before 2020, let alone those reduced after 2009, it seems that the total warheads owned by the united States will increase as new life-extended warheads will be coming along, especially due to the “hedging against hedging”

    1. Actually, no, the total warhead inventory will not increase but decrease. The “new life-extended warheads” you mention are not entirely new productions but re-productions of some of the warheads that are already in the inventory. Stockpiled warheads are temporarily removed from the stockpile and their components cleaned, reproduced, or replaced. After the process is complete, the warheads are retured to the stockpile. This does not happen on a one-for-one basis, however, because the life-extension programs tend to be smaller than the original production. Moreover, each year, 300-400 retired warheads are dismantled. As a result, the total warhead inventory (stockpiled + retired warheads) is decreasing at a rate of approximately 500 warheads per year.

  2. Hans,

    Great analysis! What about the reference made in the document to The Law of Armed Conflict? What do you make of that? In the strategic planning documents that I have so far read, I don’t recall ever having seen a reference to the international law that governs armed conflict. Would I be completely wrong to think that this might indicate that the President is asking military planners to (a) narrow their target sets to “only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century”, and (b) in so doing: pay greater attention to normative criteria for the use of force than before?

    How does this read, do you think, for those who transform these principles and aims into concrete strategy and war plans? Would they simply read that sentence and shrug their shoulders because it is a standard assumption that civilised nations – of course – take this into consideration, or does the paragraph, in fact, call for something more, i.e. an internal conceptual-ethical debate?

    Please correct me if I am way out on this!

    Thanks and best wishes,


  3. Hello,

    I just have a question to the term “Launch under attack”: I though this refers to the capability to outride an attack and launch the weapons after the enemies warheads have arrive (thus hardening silos or keeping the forces mobile). To my understanding, the capability to launch based on the early warning system before the enemies warheads arrived is “launch on warning”. Is that correct?

    Kind regards,


  4. Hello,

    In response to Martin’s question, I would like to be presumptuous and offer a reply. There has been a great deal of confusion about what is meant by the terms “launch-on-warning” and “launch-under-attack”. There have been a number of confusing and even contradictory definitions used in the US and Russia, which have hindered diplomatic discussion of the subject.

    In an effort to “fix” this problem, I co-authored an article (with Commander (ret.) Robert Green, Ernie Regehr, Colonel Valery Yarynich (dec.), and Robin Collins), which explains the differences between LOW and LUA, and offers a solution in terms of defining the events in terms of when a launch would occur in reference to nuclear detonation as opposed to warning of attack (Launch Before Detonation, Launch After Detonation). Please see “New Terms for a Common Understanding of De-alerting”,

    best regards,

    Steven Starr

    Senior Scientist, Physicians for Social Responsibility

  5. I’m puzzled by FAS’ lean here. Why would paring our nuclear arsenal, or reducing their readiness, be a good thing? Is this supposed to be self-evident? It’s not the kind of thing that could ever be self-evident. Is there a game theory framework behind this?

    One’s nuclear arsenal in a world where other large nuclear arsenals exist seems like the kind of thing where you wouldn’t want to aim for the minimum number needed for some worst case scenario. Not if the minimum doesn’t account for loss due to a surprise first strike. To be effective deterrents, we should want a large cushion. Given Russia’s complete modernization of their ICBM force (compared to our ancient early-1970s Minutemen IIIs, with no apparent plans to replace them), new boomers, etc. it’s odd to be talking about thinning out our forces. Add to that the bizarre — but clearly premeditated — pronouncements of Chinese generals re: nuking Los Angeles over Taiwan, we really ought to take our nuclear deterrent very seriously.

    If we go to 300 or fewer ancient Minuteman IIIs that are not on alert, our defense hinges on one element — the subs. If someone figures out how to neutralize those subs, that would leave us in a very dangerous situation. It’s never a good thing to depend on one pillar, hence the triad. A detection breakthrough, the right espionage (like another Walker spy ring), or even the right cyber-sabotage (perhaps through a lazy third-tier contractor) could conceivably neutralize our submarine-launched deterrent.

    As a scientist, I’m puzzled what being pro-reduction in this context or any other context has to do with science. Why does FAS lean so much in the direction of a weaker US military? I would understand it from a fiscal standpoint, but even then I wouldn’t think of it as a position that springs logically from one’s identity as a scientist. In any case, never underestimate the possibility of surprise — it’s America’s calling card, what with Pearl Harbor and 9-11. While I think it’s unlikely, we could certainly be hit with a surprise nuclear strike in the future, now that it’s officially no longer possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *