Nuclear Weapons

The Nuclear Posture Review

04.08.10 | 12 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
The Nuclear Posture Review enshrines nuclear disarmament as a real goal for U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the first time.

By Hans M. Kristensen

It’s finally here! Hot off the press after a three months delay. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States has published a Nuclear Posture Review report.

Granted, it’s a sanitized version, but the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) contains strong language that commits the United States to work for nonproliferation. And for the first time, the goal of elimination of nuclear weapons is enshrined into the NPR.

By incorporating a broader range of policy issues in setting the nuclear posture, the review represents a break with the Bush administration’s NPR, which was more focused on military capabilities. As such, the new NPR is more a nuclear policy review than a nuclear posture review.

At the same time, the new NPR comes across as a surprisingly cautious document that recommends curtailing the U.S. nuclear posture further in the future but for now preserves many of the key nuclear weapons force structure and policy elements of the previous administration.

Proliferators and Peer Adversaries

The truly new in this NPR is that a good portion of it has very little to do with the U.S. nuclear posture and more to do with policies intended to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons to others. As such, this NPR has a much broader horizon than previous versions. A much needed update.

The NPR illustrates how proliferation has had and continues to have a real effect on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. This is most vivid in the sections dealing with the role of nuclear weapons and regional deterrence.

In the end, however, the NPR illustrates that proliferation is a side-chapter for the sizing and characteristics of the U.S. nuclear posture, which continues to be dominated by planning against Russia and China.

As such, it is in the regional mission that most of the change that President Obama has promised may eventually emerge.

Clarifying the Nuclear Carrot

The NPR adopts a much needed simplification and clarification of the U.S. negative security assurance, an important “carrot” intended to help persuade countries not to acquire nuclear weapons. This is not a new policy by any means, but the NPR surely clarifies it:

The NPR clarifies and simplifies the “nuclear carrot”

The “United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

Compare that to the Cold War version most recently repeated by the Bush administration in 2002:

The United States “will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT], except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a state toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.”

Oy ve! There were so many exemptions buried in the old version that it was hard to understand what it meant. The new version fixes that: sign and abide by the NPT and you’re covered!

Yet as soon as you begin thinking about how this policy would be applied in the real world, questions arise.

Take Iran, for example, a non-nuclear weapon state that has signed the NPT, but is not – how to say it – on the best terms with the regime. How much in breach of its obligations under the NPT does Iran have to be before the policy kicks in? In other words, at what point would the president decide to include or exclude Iran from the list of potential adversaries he orders the military to plan nuclear strikes against?

Likewise, the negative security assurance only relates to Iran’s nuclear status. But Iran is already a target for U.S. nuclear planning because of its chemical and biological weapons capabilities. And as the NPR makes clear, U.S. nuclear weapons continue to play a role in deterring chemical and biological weapons. So could a country that has signed the NPT and abide by its obligations still be a target because it has chemical and biological weapons? In other words, which part of the policy rules?

Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons?

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 in February this year that the “Nuclear Posture Review will reduce [the] role….”

At a first glance the NPR appears to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The document states in the executive summary that, the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.” (They’ll probably have to add “U.S. forces” to that list.)

While most of the debate so far has focused on what “fundamental” means, I think the important part of that statement is the word “nuclear.” Because the two previous administrations used a broader role: to deter weapons of mass destruction attacks.  Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a much broader category that includes nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. Nuclear strike plans against regional adversaries armed with WMD were added to the strategic war plan in 2003.

Under the section “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons” the NPR lists three overall conclusions about the role:

The “deter nuclear attack” and pursuit of “sole purpose” is clearly new language, and they would, if implemented, constitute a roll-back of the Clinton and Bush administrations’ policy of using nuclear weapons to deter all forms of WMD.

But a little further into the document, it soon becomes clear that the actual reduction in the nuclear mission – at least for now – is rather modest, if anything at all. In fact, it’s difficult to see why under the language used in this NPR, U.S. nuclear planning would not continue pretty much the way it is now.

The NPR appears to continue nuclear planning against regional adversaries with weapons of mass destruction

The NPR explicitly rejects the adoption of a “sole purpose” policy for now, and leaves it up to future presidents to possibly change the policy in that direction. The price for a “sole purpose” policy, it seems, is more conventional weapons.

Changes in the role of nuclear weapons are much harder to see when it comes to Russia and China, where the NPR appears to continue the Bush administration’s policies. The retention of the Triad and an upload capability seem explicitly tied to those scenarios. Indeed, the NPR bluntly states that “Russia’s nuclear force will remain a significant factor in determining how much and how fast we are prepared to reduce U.S. forces.”

The first test of how and when the role of U.S. nuclear weapons might be reduced will come in a few months when president Obama issues his first presidential directive with nuclear weapons planning guidance to the military. The U.S. nuclear war plan is currently based on NSPD-14 from June 2002.

Reducing the Number of Nuclear Weapons?

President Obama also pledged in the Prague speech that he would “reduce the number of nuclear weapons” to “put an end to Cold War thinking.”

The NPR force structure analysis was the basis for the New START limits of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. Those limits represent a reduction compared with previous limits set by the 1991 START and 2002 Moscow Treaty.

But, as I’ve said earlier, and president Obama acknowledged in his interview with the New York Times, the New START reduces the limit for how many warheads can be deployed but not the actual number of warheads in the arsenal.

Surprisingly, the NPR does not identify how the New START limits will be achieved. Potential areas for the reductions are: a retirement of two SSBNs from the nuclear mission; a cut of about 50-100 additional Minuteman III ICBMs; conversion of some of the B-52s to conventional-only aircraft.

The NPR continues the conversion of the ICBM force to single-warhead configuration. That decision implements a decision made by the 1994 NPR, but which the Bush administration modified to allow for a few ICBMs to continue to carry multiple warheads. They were not many, though, so the reduction in warheads from finishing the conversion will be modest, although a decision to reduce the number of ICBMs further would increase the reduction.

The NPR and START “will not affect the number of deployed nuclear warheads on SSBNs”

One apparent example of the effect of not counting bomber weapons under the START ceiling is the NPR decision that even a retirement of two SSBNs “will not affect the number of deployed nuclear warheads on SSBNs.”

The NPR does not clearly direct a reduction in the size of the total nuclear weapons stockpile, which currently contains about 5,000 warheads. The Bush administration reduced the stockpile by nearly 50 percent between 2004 and 2007, and announced an additional 12 percent reduction by 2012, leaving about 4,600 warheads.

A change might come from a reduction in the inventory of non-deployed warheads. The Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to retain a Responsive Force of reserve warheads that can be loaded back onto missiles and bombers if necessary received a lot of criticism for making a mockery of arms cuts. There are currently an estimated 2,500 active warheads in that hedge. The new NPR says that the U.S. will “significantly reduce” the size of the hedge, but that the United States will retain the ability to ‘upload’ some nuclear warheads as a technical hedge against any future problems with U.S. delivery systems or warheads, or as a result of a fundamental deterioration of the security environment.” Whether the reduction will happen unconditionally or be dependent on Congressional approval of new bomb factories is unclear, but it appears to depend on construction of the new facilities.

Overall, the NPR retains the Cold War force structure of nuclear weapons deployed on a Triad of delivery vehicles and concludes that, “the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be retained for the present.” President Obama’s campaign pledge to “work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert” appears to have been put on hold.

No doubt, retaining a Cold War posture with only modest reductions and delaying decisions about where the cuts will fall will help win crucial votes in the Senate for ratification of the New START treaty and the CTBT.

With the modest reductions recommended by this NPR, the report states that president Obama has already directed a review of future reductions of nuclear weapons. But potential reductions are conditioned on further strengthening regional deterrence, maintain strategic stability with Russia and China, provide nuclear umbrellas over allies, and building new bomb making factories.

Extended Deterrence and Nuclear Weapons

The NPR does a good job of underscoring that extended deterrence is much more than nuclear weapons. There has been an unfortunate tendency in the public debate to equate extended deterrence for NATO allies with a need to forward deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Unfortunately, the NPR does not recommend reducing or withdrawing the approximately 200 nuclear bombs currently deployed at six bases in five European countries. Instead, it says the U.S. “will consult with our allies regarding the future basing of nuclear weapons in Europe, and is committed to making consensus decisions through NATO processes.” This is probably intended to formally leave a decision to NATO’s Strategic Review process scheduled for completion in November.

For a document that emphasizes nonproliferation and adherence to NPT obligations, the description of “NATO’s unique nuclear sharing arrangements under which non-nuclear members participate in nuclear planning and possess specially configured aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons” does come across as somewhat out of sync. Training and equipping non-nuclear countries to deliver nuclear weapons is not a standard the Obama administration should support.

The NPR recommends production of a new nuclear fighter (F-35) with a new nuclear weapon (B61-12)

Regardless of what NATO might decide, the NPR concludes that some of the Joint Strike Fighters (F-35) will be equipped to deliver the new B61-12 nuclear bomb to “retain the capability to forward-deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons in support of its Alliance commitments.” So even if NATO decides the weapons can be withdrawn, a tactical nuclear fighter capability will remain.

Nuclear Tomahawk sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM/Ns) that previously supported extended deterrence of NATO and Pacific allies will be retired and the NPR correctly concludes that the remaining nuclear forces provide amble capability to both signal and deter. This brushes aside warnings from the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission and others. As for the future role of nuclear weapons in regional scenarios, the NPR states:

“U.S. nuclear weapons will play a role in the deterrence of regional states so long as those states have nuclear weapons, but the decisions taken in the NPR, BMDR, and QDR reflect the U.S. desire to increase reliance on non-nuclear means to accomplish our objectives of deterring such states and reassuring our allies and partners.”

Warhead Dismantlement and Production

There are currently about 4,500 retired nuclear warheads in queue to be dismantled. At the low dismantlement rate currently used (200-400 warheads per year) it will take more than decade to dismantle the backlog. More retired warheads will come from the decision to “significantly reduce” the hedge, further extending the timeline.

Dismantlements compete with warhead maintenance and production for limited capacity at the Pantex Plant in Texas. The NPR recommends full-rate production of the W76-1 warhead, followed by the B61-12, and possibly the W78.

These programs are described as extending the lives of existing warhead designs, although modifications can be significant. The NPR pledges that

“The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

This policy leaves the door open for extensive modifications of nuclear warheads – it would even permit production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), although officials insist that program is “dead” – and the NPR states that the full range of warhead work will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.

Mindful of how controversial a decision to build replacement warheads is, the NPR assures that decisions to modify warheads “will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse” rather than replacement.


The NPR elevates nonproliferation to the same level in U.S. nuclear policy as the nuclear weapons posture. It enshrines eventual nuclear disarmament as a central goal for U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the first time, and it sets the stage for possible future reductions in the role and numbers of nuclear weapons.

For those of us who looked forward to the NPR to clearly and significantly reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons, however, the report is a disappointment. President Obama has cautioned that his vision of a nuclear free world might not happen in our lifetime and the NPR shows why he might be right.

The options for how to reduce nuclear weapons are vague in the NPR but probably buried in the classified version. Some of those options, including how deep many reserve warheads will be retired, and how many ICBMs, SSBNs and bombers will be cut, will be made in the months and years ahead.

Above all, the NPR is a pragmatic policy document that combines maintaining a strong nuclear arsenal, modest reductions in nuclear weapons, nonproliferation efforts, and a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons to position the Obama administration for the April Nuclear Summit, the May NPT Review Conference, and ratification of the New START treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Successful outcomes of those milestones are essential for the prospects of future reductions in the role and number of nuclear weapons, as is honest critique of when initiatives don’t go far enough.

There is a risk here, of course, that after having galvanized international hopes and expectations about dramatic changes to decisively move the world toward nuclear disarmament, the modest NPR instead will be seen by the international community as a sign that Cold Warriors managed to block much of president Obama’s vision.

Hopefully that won’t happen, but there sure is a lot of work ahead.

Further Reading: 1994 NPR | 2001 NPR

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.