Nuclear Weapons

2018 Nuclear Posture Review

01.10.18 | 4 min read

Updated: 2/6/2018, 15:32

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is the Pentagon’s primary statement of nuclear policy, produced by the last three presidents in their first years in office.

Read Nuclear Posture Review

The Trump NPR perceives a rapidly deteriorating threat environment in which potential nuclear-armed adversaries are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons and follows suit. The review reverses decades of bipartisan policy and orders what would be the first new nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, the document expands the use of circumstances in which the United States would consider employing nuclear weapons to include “non-nuclear strategic attacks.”

You can view the first version of the document here.
You can also view the leaked draft document here.


See Tweets
Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons

The 2018 NPR says US nuclear forces “contribute uniquely to the deterrence of both nuclear and non-nuclear aggression” (208). Conventional forces, it states, “do not provide comparable deterrence effects,” and “do not adequately assure many allies,” (851), many of whom rely on US conventional deployments for their security. In addition, the document states they contribute to assuring allies, achieving US objectives if deterrence fails, and hedging “against an uncertain future”  (981). The review also raises the possibility of a nuclear strike against any group that “supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices,” extending previous language (2051).

The review also creates a new category of cases in which the United States would consider use of nuclear weapons—“significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” to include attacks on “civilian population or infrastructure” (9171026). This new category helps serve as justification for “supplements to the planned nuclear force replacement program” (1751).

Assumptions about Adversaries

Overall, the NPR argues that a range of Russian and Chinese activities have caused the international threat environment to worsen (636), but it does not fully explain why these activities require increased reliance on nuclear weapons. It states that other nuclear-armed adversaries have failed to follow America’s lead in reducing reliance on nuclear weapons (678). In this, it claims that Russia plans for “limited nuclear first use” to prevail in limited conflict (694), though there is thin evidence that this is Russian doctrine. The document concedes that China has not altered its doctrine, while North Korea’s capabilities are so rudimentary that “increased reliance” has little meaning.

The Nuclear Modernization Program

The United States is engaged in a 30 year effort to refurbish or replace nearly every warhead and delivery vehicle in air, sea, and land legs of the nuclear triad. The modernization program (formally known as the Program of Record) was initiated by the Obama administration and the Trump NPR has pledged to continue this effort. Despite calls from some external sources, the 2018 review makes no reductions in Obama’s modernization plan. Instead, the NPR calls for new nuclear SLCM and a low-yield SLBM warhead. The NPR also seems to call for retention of the 1.2 megaton B83 nuclear bomb (which had been slated for retirement once the B61-12 enters service) with contradictory statements for when the warhead may be retired (462 & 1900 vs. 325 & 1529) and what the replacement might be.

New Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM)

The NPR promises to “in the longer term, pursue a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) which “will provide a needed non-strategic regional presence, an assured response capability, and an INF-Treaty compliant response to Russia’s continuing Treaty violation” (3951729). The document also hopes that the program will help convince Russia to “negotiate seriously a reduction of its non-strategic nuclear weapons,” and return to compliance with the INF Treaty. Critical experts believe that a new SLCM would inhibit US forces from carrying out their conventional missions, add little new capability, and would be more likely to cause Russian reprisal than compliance.

New Low-Yield Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

The NPR calls for modifying “a small number of existing SLBM warheads to provide a low-yield option” (1715) that “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities” (1724). It is a policy directly contrary to the Obama NPR’s affirmation that warhead development “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities;” there currently are no low-yield SLBM warheads in the arsenal. The Trump NPR argues that this new capability would provide the option to rapidly strike a target with a lower nuclear yield than current options, hoping to communicate limited intentions or limit collateral damage. The new capability would blur the distinction between strategic and non-strategic weapons by what appears to be a sub-strategic SLBM mission. Launch of a low-yield SLBM would expose the submarine and its other warheads to retaliation and there is no guarantee that an adversary would understand the strike was limited, whether while in the air or once detonated.

Costs of the Arsenal

The NPR document calls the nuclear mission “an affordable priority,” (1647) noting that “even the highest” of cost projections is “approximately 6.4 percent of the current DoD budget” (1660). Yet, Obama administration officials, military leaders, and federal research agencies have all warned that there is currently no plan to pay what CBO had estimated as the $1.2 trillion cost of operating the arsenal over the next thirty years. If Congress appropriates additional funds to meet the NPR’s requirements (and if there are cost overruns in the acquisition programs), this figure will increase.

Arms Control

Overall, the NPR seems to deemphasize and downplay the prospects for strategic arms control. The document says that the United States “remains willing to engage in a prudent arms control agenda,” (556) adds a new qualification for arms control agreements—that they be “verifiable and enforceable” (514, 540). This standard may prohibit agreements like President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which were largely voluntary. Furthermore, it is not clear whether any international agreement can be “enforceable.” Additionally, the document also states that the government “does not support ratification” of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which could allow the government to pursue activities incommensurate with the spirit of the treaty.

FAS Expert Analysis
Director, Nuclear Information Project
Hans Kristensen
Status of Worldwide Nuclear Arsenals,
Nuclear Policy and strategy, De-alerting,
Nuclear Weapons

email: hkristensen @
twitter: @nukestrat

Status of World Nuclear Forces (with R. Norris)
FAS Nuclear Notebook series (with R. Norris), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
New Data Shows Detail About Final Phase of US New START Treaty Reductions FAS Strategic Security Blog, 1/2018
NNSA’s New Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan FAS Strategic Security Blog, 11/2017
The Flawed Push For New Nuclear Weapons Capabilities FAS Strategic Security Blog, 6/2017

Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Posture Project
Adam Mount
Global nuclear politics,
North Korea

Trump’s Troubling Nuclear Plan Foreign Affairs, 2/2018

Letting It Be An Arms Race The Atlantic, 1/2018

The Case Against New Nuclear WeaponsCenter for American Progress, 5/2017

Adapting Nuclear Modernization to the New AdministrationBulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2017

Setting Priorities for Nuclear Modernization (with L. Korb), Center for American Progress, 2/2016

Fact Checks

Edited nuclear modernization chart from the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review with corrections and annotations. (Hans Kristensen/FAS)

 NPR chart earns three Pinocchios for misleading public: “A Pentagon chart misleadingly suggests the U.S. is falling behind in a nuclear arms race,” Washington Post, 2/12/2018

Geography graphics across the three versions of the Nuclear Posture Review (draft, official version, and updated version) with corrections and clarifications. (Hans Kristensen/FAS)

Other Expert Analysis

Anna Péczeli, “Continuity and change in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2/20/2018

John R. Harvey, et al., “Continuity and Change in U.S. Nuclear Policy,” Real Clear Defense, 2/7/2018

Steven Pifer, “Questions about the Nuclear Posture Review, Brookings, 2/5/2018

Matthew Harries, “A nervous Nuclear Posture Review,” IISS, 2/5/2018

Rebecca Hersman, “Nuclear Posture Review: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same,” Defense Outlook 2018 (CSIS), 2/2018

James Acton (CEIP), “Command and Control in the Nuclear Posture Review: Right Problem, Wrong Solution,” War on the Rocks, 2/5/2018

Andy Weber, “Trump Call for New Nukes Will Make America Less Safe,” The Cipher Brief, 2/4/2018

The Washington Post editorial, “Trump’s request for even more nuclear weapons is flawed overkill,” 2/3/2018

Alicia Sanders-Zakre (Arms Control Association), “Why we should reject Trump’s dangerous nuclear plan,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2/2/2018

Tom Z. Collina (Ploughshares), “Give Trump more nuclear weapons and more ways to use them? Not a good idea,” CNN, 2/2/2018

Rachel Bronson, Sharon Squassoni, Hans M. Kristensen, and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “The experts on the Nuclear Posture Review,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2/2/2018

Anne Armstrong and Cassandra Varanka, “Taking on Trump’s Dangerous Nuclear Posture Review,” Ms. Magazine blog, 2/2/2018

Jon Wolfsthal (Global Zero), “US Approach to Russia in New Nuclear Posture Review Risks Boosting Chances of Conflict,” Russia Matters, 2/2/2018

Joe Cirincione (Ploughshares), “Nuclear Nuts: Trump’s New Policy Hypes The Threat and Brings Us Closer to War,” Defense One, 2/2/2018

Michaela Dodge (Heritage), “5 Myths About the Nuclear Posture Review,” Daily Signal, 2/2/2018

Mark Perry, “Trump’s Nuke Plan Raising Alarm Among Military Brass,” The American Conservative, 2/2/2018

William J. Hennigan, “Donald Trump Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Nuclear Poker,” Time Magazine, 1/1/2018

Paul Bracken (Yale), “The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Signaling Restraint with Stipulations,” FPRI, 2/1/2018

16 US Senators, Letter to the President on the NPR, 1/29, 2018

Rep. Adam Smith, “Smith Statement on the Nuclear Posture Review,” House Armed Services Committee Democrats, 1/24/2018

Lisbeth Gronlund and Stephen Young, “The U.S.’s Dangerous New Nuclear Policy,” Aviation Week, 1/26/2018

Michaela Dodge (Heritage), “Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review Must Keep us Safe,” National Review, 1/22/2018

Andy C. Weber (Harvard), “Trump Wants New Nukes. We Can’t Let Him Have Them,” Huffington Post, 1/19/2018

Michèle Flournoy, Interview with WNYC, 1/18/2018

Michael Krepon (Stimson), “The Most Dangerous Word in the Draft Nuclear Posture Review,” Defense One, 1/23/2018

Fred Kaplan, “Nuclear Posturing: Trump’s official nuclear policy isn’t that different from his predecessors.‘ That’s what makes it so scary,” Slate, 1/22/2018

Vince Manzo (CNA), “Give the Low -Yield SLBM its Day in Court,” Defense One, 1/22/2018

Joan Rohlfing, Jon Wolfsthal, Thomas Countryman, Arms Control Association briefing, Press Briefing with Experts on the Trump Nuclear Posture Review, 1/23/2018

George Perkovich (CEIP), “Really? We’re Gonna Nuke Russia for a Cyberattack?,” Politico, 1/2018

Loren Thompson (Lexington), “Trump’s Nuclear Strategy Is Basically The Same As Obama’s,” Forbes, 1/2018

Jon Wolfsthal and Richard Burt (Global Zero), “America and Russia May Find Themselves in a Nuclear Arms Race Once Again,” The National Interest, 1/2018

Tom Z Collina (Ploughshares Fund), “Give Trump new nukes and we are that much closer to war,” The Hill, 1/2018

The New York Times Editorial Board, “False Alarm Adds to Real Alarm About Trump’s Nuclear Risk,” 1/13/2018

Daryl G. Kimball, (Arms Control Association), “Trump’s More Dangerous Nuclear Posture,” Arms Control Today, 1/2018

Jon Wolfsthal (Global Zero), “Say No To New, Smaller Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks, 11/2017

Brad Roberts (LLNL), “Strategic Stability Under Obama and Trump,” Survival, 7/2017

Jon Wolfsthal (Global Zero), “How Will Trump Change Nuclear Weapons Policy?” Arms Control Today, 11/2017

Robert Einhorn and Steven Pifer (Brookings), “Meeting U.S. Deterrence Requirements,” Brookings, 9/2017

Resources on Previous NPRs & Past Policy
Obama NPR (2010)

The third Nuclear Posture Review set out from the start to produce an comprehensive public document. In this way, the review served several purposes: it provided an opportunity to interpret President Obama’s Prague commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, to explain the strategic benefits of the New START treaty and to establish the force structure to comply with it, and served as a prominent and public way of communicating with allies and adversaries. The central compact was that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective deterrent. In this way, the NPR could endorse modernization and sustainment investments while reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons. Though relatively modest in terms of force structure changes, the document’s main innovation was to declare that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapons states that are party to and remain in compliance with their obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.


Bush NPR (2002)

The second NPR was marked by inventive concepts and poor public relations. The intention was to produce a classified document that would be briefed publicly. In open testimony, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith described the NPR as an attempt rethink deterrence for a world where Russia was no longer an enemy. The nation’s strategic posture would no longer depend on Mutual Assured Destruction, but one Feith said would have “the flexibility to tailor military capabilities to a wide spectrum of contingencies.” Operational concepts would rely more on prompt conventional strike and defensive capabilities. To enhance flexibility, the NPR seemed to endorse development of new earth-penetrating warheads and also required a responsive infrastructure that could quickly produce and test new capabilities if a threat arose. Moving away from MAD allowed for a reduction of deployed warheads below 2,200, but the NPR mandated no further modifications to force structure. Three months after the initial briefing, selections of the classified report leaked to the media and were widely criticized by arms control groups and foreign officials. Fairly or unfairly, many read the leaked sections as blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons and refusing to accept mutual vulnerability. Administration officials scrambled to clarify but never fully dispelled concerns, leaving more questions than answers.


Clinton NPR ( 1994)

President Clinton ordered the first NPR to examine the role of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. A five-person steering group led six working groups. The established process broke down in the summer of 1994 over tensions the steering group and the military stakeholders. In the end, the review failed to generate a unitary document; its results were briefed to the press and to Congress. The 1994 NPR established a force structure to comply with the START II Treaty and ordered cuts to each leg of the triad: conversion of four Ohio-class submarines and all B-1 bombers to conventional missions, reduction in B-52 and Minuteman III inventories, and elimination of Minuteman II and Peacekeeper ICBMs. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry summarized the NPR as an attempt to provide leadership for further reductions while hedging against the emergence of threats.