The Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review
On 27 October 2022, the Biden administration finally released an unclassified version of its long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The classified NPR was released to Congress in March 2022, but its publication was substantially delayed––likely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is the Pentagon’s primary statement of nuclear policy, produced by the last four presidents during their first years in office.
The NPR outlines the perceived global security environment, offers an overview of US nuclear capabilities, and considers plans for tailored deterrence, assurance, and arms control with allies and adversaries. The NPR can also be used to make changes to US declaratory nuclear policy, to consider alterations to the US nuclear stockpile, or to announce the introduction or retirement of specific weapon systems.
For more analysis, see: The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review: Arms Control Subdued by Military Rivalry
All of the nuclear-armed states––including the United States––plan to retain significant nuclear arsenals for the indefinite future.
All nine countries are modernizing their nuclear forces, several are adding new types, and many are increasing the role that nuclear weapons serve in military strategy and public statements.
For an overview of global modernization programs, see our annual contribution to the SIPRI Yearbook and our Status of World Nuclear Forces webpage. Individual country profiles are available in various editions the FAS Nuclear Notebook, which is published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and is freely available to the public.
A brief analysis of the 2022 NPR is available below; a more robust and detailed analysis is available on the FAS Strategic Security Blog.
Major Components of the NPR
Assumptions About U.S. Competitors
The NPR suggests that “[b]y the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This echoes previous statements from high-ranking US military leaders, including the former and incoming Commanders of US Strategic Command.
Given that the National Defense Strategy is largely focused on China, it is unsurprising that the NPR declares China to be “the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent.”
Echoing the findings of the previous year’s China Military Power Report, the NPR suggests that “[t]he PRC likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade.” According to the NPR, China’s more diverse nuclear arsenal “could provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. Allies and partners in the region.”
The NPR presents harsh language about Russia, in particular surrounding its behavior around the invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to the Trump administration’s NPR, the assumptions surrounding a potential low-yield escalate-to-deescalate policy are no longer present; instead the NPR simply states that Russia is diversifying its arsenal and that it views its nuclear weapons as “a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against [its] neighbors.” The NPR also suggests that “Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or Allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START.”
Nuclear Declaratory Policy
The NPR reaffirms long-standing policy about the role of U.S. nuclear weapons but with slightly modified language. This includes: 1) Deter strategic attacks, 2) Assure allies and partners, and 3) Achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.
The NPR reiterates the language from the 2010 NPR that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons “is to deter nuclear attacks” and only in “extreme circumstances.” The strategy seeks to “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment” and, if employment of nuclear weapons is necessary, “seek to end conflict at the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.”
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden spoke repeatedly in favor of a no-first-use and sole-purpose policy for U.S. nuclear weapons. But the NPR explicitly rejects both under current conditions.
Interestingly, the NPR states that “hedging against an uncertain future” is no longer a stated (formal) role of nuclear weapons. Hedging has been part of a strategy to be able to react to changes in the threat environment, for example by deploying more weapons or modifying capabilities. The change does not mean that the United States is no longer hedging, but that hedging is part of managing the arsenal, rather than acting as a role for nuclear weapons within U.S. military strategy writ large.
The NPR reaffirms a commitment to the modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command and control and communication systems (NC3), and production and support infrastructure. This is essentially the same nuclear modernization program that has been supported by the past three administrations.
But there are some differences. The NPR also identifies “current and planned nuclear capabilities that are no longer required to meet our deterrence needs.” This includes retiring the B83-1 megaton gravity bomb and cancelling the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). These decisions were expected and survived opposition from defense hawks and nuclear lobbyists.
The review also notes that “[t]he United States will work with Allies concerned to ensure that the transition to modern DCA and the B61-12 bomb is executed efficiently and with minimal disruption to readiness.”
Although the integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities into strategic deterrence planning has been underway for years, the NPR seeks to deepen it further. It “underscores the linkage between the conventional and nuclear elements of collective deterrence and defense” and adopts “an integrated deterrence approach that works to leverage nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to tailor deterrence under specific circumstances.”
This is not only intended to make deterrence more flexible and less nuclear focused when possible, but it also continues the strategy outlined in the 2010 NPR and 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by relying more on new conventional capabilities.
Beyond force structure issues, this effort also appears to be a way to “raise the nuclear threshold” by reducing reliance on nuclear weapons but still endure in regional scenarios where an adversary escalates to limited nuclear use. In contrast, the 2018 NPR sought low-yield non-strategic “nuclear supplements” for such a scenario, and specifically named a Russian so-called “escalate-to-deescalate” scenario as a potentially possibility for nuclear use.
A significant challenge of deeper nuclear-conventional integration in strategic deterrence is to ensure that it doesn’t blur the line between nuclear and conventional war and inadvertently increase nuclear signaling during conventional operations.
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The Biden administration’s review contains significantly more positive language on arms control than can be found in the Trump administration’s NPR. The NPR concludes that “mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.”
In that vein, the review states a willingness to “expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START,” as well as an expansive recommitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). However, the authors take a negative view of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), stating that the United States does not “consider the TPNW to be an effective tool to resolve the underlying security conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons.”
The Trump NPR perceived 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.”
- Nuclear Posture Review Report, February 2018
- FAS 2018 Nuclear Posture Review Resource Page
- Hans M. Kristensen, “New Data Shows Detail About Final Phase of US New START Treaty Reductions,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, January 2018
- Hans M. Kristensen, “NNSA’s New Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, November 2017
- Hans M. Kristensen, “The Flawed Push For New Nuclear Weapons Capabilities,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, June 2017
- Adam Mount, “Trump’s Troubling Nuclear Plan,” Foreign Affairs, February 2018
- Adam Mount, “Letting It Be An Arms Race,” The Atlantic, January 2018
- Adam Mount, “The Case Against New Nuclear Weapons,” Center for American Progress, May 2017
The third Nuclear Posture Review set out from the start to produce a 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.
- Nuclear Posture Review Report, April 2010
- Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States, June 2013
- Hans M. Kristensen, “The Nuclear Posture Review,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, April 8, 2010
- Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Posture Review to Reduce Regional Role of Nuclear Weapons,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, February 22, 2010
- Hans M. Kristensen, “New Nuclear Weapons Employment Guidance Puts Obama’s Fingerprint on Nuclear Weapons Policy and Strategy,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, June 20, 2013
- Hans M. Kristensen, “US Nuclear War Plan Updated Amidst Policy Review,” FAS Strategic Security, April 4, 2013
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.
- “Excerpts of Classified Nuclear Posture Review,” 1/2002
- Amy F. Woolf, “The Nuclear Posture Review,” Congressional Research Service, 1/2002
- Douglas J. Feith, Testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee on the Nuclear Posture Review, 2/2002
- Keith B. Payne, “The Nuclear Posture Review: Setting the Record Straight,” United States Nuclear Strategy Forum, 2005
- Hans M. Kristensen, “STRATCOM Cancels Controversial Preemption Strike Plan,” FAS Strategic Security, July 25, 2008
- Hans M. Kristensen, “The RISOP is Dead – Long Live RISOP-Like Nuclear Planning,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, July 21, 2008
- Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence, FAS Occasional Paper No. 7, April 2009
- Hans M. Kristensen, “White House Guidance Led to New Nuclear Strike Plans Against Proliferators, Document Shows,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, November 5, 2007
- Hans M. Kristensen, “The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge,” Arms Control Today, 9/2005
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.
- Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), “DOD Review Recommends Reduction in Nuclear Force,” 9/1994
- US Strategic Command, “Overview of Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Results,” 9/1994
- John Deutch and Adm. William Owens, Senate Armed Services Committee “Briefing on the Results of the Nuclear Posture Review,” 9/1994
- Hans M. Kristensen, “The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review,” nukestrat.com, July 8, 2005
FAS Expert Analysis
Adam Mount, “The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Obstacles to Reducing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2022
Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, “After Trump Secrecy, Biden Administration Restores US Nuclear Weapons Transparency,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, 6 October 2021
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