Nuclear Weapons

A New Defense Strategy: A New Nuclear Strategy?

01.05.12 | 3 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Obama administration today presented a new defense strategy that it says is needed to realign U.S. military forces and doctrine with the reductions in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the new fiscal constraints created by the financial crisis.

There are few details in the new strategy for how this will be done but more will come in the Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget request expected in early February.

On nuclear forces the new strategy reaffirms the commitment to maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear arsenal as long as nuclear weapons exist. “We will field nuclear forces that can under any circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.” The strategy appears heavily focused on the Pacific region and the Middle East. China and Iran, more so than North Korea, appear to be the primary potential adversaries, although Russian is by far the largest potential nuclear adversary.

In Prague in 2009, President Obama forcefully committed the United States “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” that it was necessary to “ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change,” that the “United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons,” and that “To put and end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy….” The New START treaty requires some reductions in deployed strategic forces, and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reaffirmed the commitment to nuclear disarmament and further reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

The new defense strategy language comes across as somewhat timid, stating only: “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” This language presumably reflects the preliminary findings of the administration’s so-called Post-NPR Analysis, an ongoing effort within the administration to make “preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions” with Russia through “potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures.”

FAS has long argued that U.S. nuclear forces can and should be reduced further and that a sufficient nuclear deterrent can be maintained with far fewer weapons, lower operational readiness, and by changing the presidential guidance for how the military is required to plan for the potential use of nuclear weapons.

In Europe, which was the focus of U.S. strategy during the Cold War, FAS has argued that the demise of the Soviet threat and the fundamentally different security challenges requiring NATO’s attention today permit the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. The new U.S. defense strategy concludes that the changed security landscape allows changes in the European posture that, while maintaining the US security commitment to NATO, require development of a smarter posture that is better suited to meet the challenges of today’s world. Whether this language envisions a withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe remains to be seen, but it appears to make make it harder to justify continued deployment.

It is important that the commitment in the new defense strategy to maintaining a nuclear deterrent does not overshadow the equally important commitment to reducing the size and role of nuclear forces. The clear message to other nuclear weapons states must be that the emphasis of U.S. policy is the nuclear disarmament trajectory described in Prague and that it is in their interest to follow the lead. Billions of dollars can be saved over the next decade by reducing the nuclear forces and removing nuclear doctrine further from the warfighting thinking that characterized the Cold War and which is still prevalent in today’s planning. That, not indefinite nuclear modernizations, ought to be the priority for the 21st century.

Further reading: “Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama’s Words Into Action,” Arms Control Today, November 2011

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.