How revolutionary is Obama's nuclear posture?

Military analysis.
April 6 2010 6:53 PM

Nuclear Dreams and Nightmares

Obama's new and old policy on The Bomb.

(Continued from Page 1)

Third, it further isolates those countries that are in violation of the NPT—which is to say, Iran and North Korea.

"The United States wishes to stress," the document adds, that it will consider using nuclear weapons only "in extreme circumstances" and that it will seek to create the conditions for a no-first-use policy in the future (though it's vague on just what those conditions might be). Perhaps with this in mind, the authors write that deterring nuclear attack is the "fundamental" purpose of nuclear weapons—a somewhat firmer variation on "primary" but stopping well short of "sole."

In a telephone conference with columnists this afternoon, Jim Miller, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said that officials discussed all the options in interagency meetings but that a strict no-first-use policy was rejected early on. He also emphasized that President Obama made the ultimate decision on the matter.

First, he said, officials agreed that there were strategic reasons for preserving the first-use option under some circumstances against some potential foes. Second, Robert Einhorn, undersecretary of state for nuclear security, added, in the same phone conference, that several allies in Asia and Europe—who were consulted throughout the drafting process—said that they would find a no-first-use policy "very unsettling." The Cold War concept of the "nuclear umbrella"—in which the United States guarantees an ally's security by threatening to use nuclear weapons in its defense—is still alive.

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And yet Obama's narrowing of this umbrella does mark a departure from past policy. In the last Nuclear Posture Review, released in 2002 by President George W. Bush, the umbrella was widened. The Bush document (which was classified, though portions were leaked) declared, "Nuclear weapons … provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats. … Greater flexibility is needed with respect to nuclear forces and planning than was the case during the Cold War. … Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities." (Italics added.)

Several officials in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon were trying to integrate nukes into the arsenal as a legitimate and broadly useful weapon of warfare. They didn't quite succeed. Their proposals to build earth-penetrating nuclear warheads and very-small-yield battlefield nuclear weapons never got off the drawing boards or were roundly rejected by Congress.

One thing Obama's review does is to reject the very concept—in effect, to rip up the drawings.

The report signals a few new policies about the U.S. nuclear arsenal. First, it says that the 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs, most of which are fitted with three nuclear warheads apiece, will be modified to carry no more than one warhead. This will greatly reduce—it should eliminate—any fear in the Kremlin that the United States might be planning a disarming first-strike against Russia. This could do much to build trust and stabilize relations.

Second, it says the United States will not build any new nuclear warheads, period. The existing arsenal will be maintained through "life-extension" programs, facilitated by fairly big increases in the weapons laboratories' budgets. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had been pushing for the new "reliable replacement warhead"; this is one case where Obama seems to have sided against him.

Third (though many will see this as moving in the opposite direction), the report solidifies what appears to be Obama's commitment to developing and deploying missile defenses. His "phased" approach is more limited than Bush's goals were, but still, this is a program of which he was once extremely skeptical.

On face value, the Nuclear Posture Review presents a forward-looking but hardly radical agenda. Whether it endures as just that, or as the first step toward Obama's long-term vision of a world without nuclear weapons, will depend in part on what happens in the next few months and years.

The final section of the report lays out the goals of future reductions beyond those of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev will sign this week in Prague. The goals include sharper reductions not only in long-range missiles but also in tactical, short-range weapons and in spare warheads currently stored in warehouses. Russia has more of the former; the United States has more of the latter. Reducing both will require revisions in military planning, reassessments of national-security interests, and much more intrusive inspection procedures to verify that the cuts have actually been made.

This next step is where the negotiations could get very complicated, extremely testy, and, if they succeed, truly radical.

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