Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Policy Paper Embraces Clinton Era “Lead and Hedge” Strategy

09.25.08 | 8 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

The new nuclear policy paper National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century published quietly Tuesday by the Defense and Energy Departments embraces the “lead and hedge” strategy of the first Clinton administration for how US nuclear forces and policy should evolve in the future.

Yet the “leading” is hard to find in the new paper, which seems focused on hedging.

Instead of offering different alternative options for US nuclear policy, the paper comes across as a Cold War-like threat-based analysis that draws a line in the sand against congressional calls for significant changes to US nuclear policy.

Strong Nuclear Reaffirmation

The paper presents a strong reaffirmation of an “essential and enduring” importance of nuclear weapons to US national security. Russia, China and regional “states of concern” – even terrorists and non-state actors – are listed as justifications for hedging with a nuclear arsenal “second to none” with new warheads that can adapt to changing needs.

Even within the New Triad – a concept presented by the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review as a way to decrease the role of nuclear weapons and increasing the role of conventional weapons and missile defense – the new paper states that nuclear weapons “underpin in a fundamental way these new capabilities.”

In defining the role of nuclear weapons, the paper borrows from and builds on statements, guidance and assertions about the role of nuclear weapons issued by the Clinton and Bush administrations during the past 15 years. This consensus seeking style presents a strong reaffirmation of the continued importance – even prominence – of nuclear weapons in US national security.

Threat-Based Analysis After All

Officials have argued for years that US military planning is no longer based on specific threats and that the security environment is too uncertain to predict them with certainty. But there is nothing uncertain about who the threats are in this paper, which seems to place renewed emphasis on threat-based analysis. The earlier version from 2007 did not mention Russia and China by name, but both countries and their nuclear modernizations are prominently described in the new paper.

Russia is said to have a broad nuclear modernization underway of all major weapons categories, increased emphasis on nuclear weapons in its national security policy and military doctrine, possess the largest inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the world, and re-incorporated theater nuclear options into its military planning. This modernization, resumption of long-range bomber patrols, threats to target US missile defense systems in Europe with nuclear weapons, have created “considerable uncertainty” about Russia’s future course that makes it “prudent” for the US to hedge.

China is said to be the only major nuclear power that is expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal, qualitatively and quantitatively modernizing its nuclear forces, developing and deploying new classes of missiles, and upgrading older systems. The paper repeats the assessment from the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review that “China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive technologies that could, over time, offset traditional U.S. military advantages.” To that end, the paper indirectly points to China as having influenced the US force level planned for 2012 in “retaining a sufficient margin over countries with expanding nuclear arsenals….”

Regional “states of concern” – formerly known as rogue states – with (or developing) weapons of mass destruction are also highlighted in the paper as an enduring mission for US nuclear weapons. This broadened role for US nuclear weapons, which evolved during the 1990s and in 2003 led to incorporation of nuclear strike options into the US strategic war plan, focuses on Iran, North Korea and Syria. But the paper warns that a significant change in the “alignment among states of concern” in the future may require “adjustments to US deterrent capabilities.”

“Violent extremists and non-state actors” – commonly known as terrorists – are also listed as potential missions for US nuclear weapons. Most analysts agree that terrorists cannot or do not need to be affected by nuclear threats, so the paper instead declares that it is US policy “to hold state sponsors of terrorism accountable for the actions of their proxies.”

In addition to these potential threats, the paper describes how regional dynamics lead other nations, “such as India and Pakistan, to attach similar significance to their nuclear forces.” Israel is not mentioned in the paper.

And if all of this fails to impress, the paper also includes France and the United Kingdom to show that they have already committed themselves to extending and maintaining modern nuclear forces well into the 21st century.

These trends “clearly indicate the continued relevance of nuclear weapons, both today and in the foreseeable future,” the paper concludes. Therefore, it asserts, it is prudent that the United States maintains a viable nuclear capability that is “second to none” well into the 21st century.

Sizing a “Second to None” Nuclear Arsenal

“Second to none” means a US arsenal that is better than Russia’s arsenal. At the same time, the paper states that the criteria for sizing the US arsenal “are no longer based on the size of Russian forces and the accumulative targeting requirements for nuclear strike plans.” This has been said before and has confused many; some officials have even claimed that target plans do not affect the size of the arsenal at all. So the paper adds a lot of new information – probably the most interesting and valuable part of the paper – to clarify the situation:

“Prior to the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, force sizing considerations were based on target defeat criteria with the objective of rendering a nuclear-armed adversary incapable of prosecuting conflict, and terminating any conflict on terms favorable to the United States. U.S. Forces were sized to defeat all credible nuclear-armed adversary targets, and the United States retained a small reserve to ensure sufficient capability to deter further aggression in any post-exchange, post-conflict environment. Weapons were dedicated to specific targets, and the requirements for target defeat did not change dramatically year-to-year….”
The 2001 NPR “made distinctions among the contingencies for which the United States must be prepared. These contingencies were categorized as immediate, potential, or unexpected….”
“Instead, the size of the U.S. nuclear force is now based on the ability of the operationally deployed force, the force structure, and the supporting nuclear infrastructure to meet a spectrum of political and military goals. These considerations reflect the view that the political effects of U.S. strategic forces, particularly with respect to both central strategic deterrence and extended deterrence, are key to the full range of requirements for these forces and that those broader goals are not reflected fully by military targeting requirements alone.”

Still confused? What I think they are trying to say is that the target sets for some contingencies no longer have to be covered by operationally deployed nuclear warheads on a day-by-day basis.

What has permitted this change is not a deletion of strike plans against the Russian target base per ce (which has shrunk considerably since the 1980s), but rather the extraordinary flexibility that has been added to the nuclear planning system and the weapons themselves over the past decade and a half. This flexible targeting capability – which ironically was started in the late 1980s in an effort to hunt down Soviet mobile missile launchers – has since produced a capability to rapidly target or retarget warheads in adaptively planned scenarios. Put simply, it is no longer necessary to “tie down” entire sections of the force to a particular scenario or group of targets (although some targets due to their characteristics necessitate use of certain warheads).

The more flexible war plan that exists today, which the 1,700-2,200 operational deployed strategic warhead level of the SORT agreement is sized to meet, is “a family of plans applicable to a wider range of scenarios” with “more flexible options” for potential use “in a wider range of contingencies.” And although they are no longer the same kind of strike plans that existed in the 1980s, some of them still cover Russia to meet the guidance of the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy document from 2004:

“U.S. nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world.”

Concluding Observations

The political motivation for this paper is Congress’ demand for a comprehensive review of US nuclear policy before considering whether to approve industrial-scale production of new nuclear warheads. To that end, the paper presents the Defense and Energy department’s nuclear weapons requirement “logic” in an attempt to create a basis for anyone who is considering changing US nuclear weapons policy, strategy, and force structure.

The paper says the US has already made “historic reductions” in its deployed nuclear forces – a fact given the Cold War only happened once and has been over for two decades – and comes tantalizingly close to acknowledging that the warhead level set by the SORT agreement essentially is the START III level framework agreed to by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

Indeed, by closely and explicitly aligning itself with policies pursued by the Clinton and first Bush administrations, the paper seeks to tone down the controversial aspects of the current administration’s nuclear policy and portray it as a continuation of long-held positions. Whether that will help ease congressional demands for change remains to be seen.

Yet for a paper that portrays to describe the role of nuclear weapons “in the 21st century” – a period extending further into the future than the nuclear era has lasted so far – is comes across as strikingly status quo. A better title would have been “in the first decade of the 21st century.”

It offers no options for changing the role of nuclear weapons or reducing their numbers beyond the SORT agreement – it even states that “no decisions have been made about the number or mix of specific warheads to be fielded in 2012.” The only option for reducing further, the paper indicates, is if Congress approves production of new nuclear warheads (including the RRW that Congress has rejected) that can replace the current types. And even that would require a production far above the currently planned level.

The central message of the paper seems to be that two decades of nuclear decline is coming to an end and that all nuclear weapon states will retain, prioritize, and modernize their nuclear forces for the indefinite future. The US should follow their lead, the paper indicates, and “maintain a credible deterrent at these lower levels” for the long haul. To do that, the United States needs nuclear forces “second to none” “that can adapt to changing needs.”

Background Information: National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century | US Nuclear Forces 2008 | 2001 Nuclear Posture Review Report (reconstructed)