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.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

The Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review today, and those seeking clarity from the major newspapers must have come away more confused than ever.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com . His 1983 book about the nuclear strategists, The Wizards of Armageddon, is still in print.

The New York Times, in a front-page preview of the report headlined "Obama to Limit Scenarios to Use Nuclear Weapon," called the president's new strategy "a sharp shift from those of his predecessors."

Yet the Wall Street Journal, titling its story "U.S. Keeps First-Strike Strategy," shrugged off the report as "a status-quo document" that makes "only modest changes."

Both stories exaggerate. The actual 49-page report is neither dramatic nor ho-hum. In a formal statement this morning, President Barack Obama said it takes "specific and concrete steps" that "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national-security strategy."

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That's the most that can be said for it, but that's hardly trivial.

Disarmament activists had hoped for more. But, like the single-payer advocates in the health care debate, they were fooling themselves if they expected it.

The big issue—a matter of suspense in arms-control circles—was whether the document would declare that deterring a nuclear attack is the "sole" purpose of nuclear weapons or merely their "primary" purpose.

If it was the "sole" purpose, that would mean the president was declaring that the United States would never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack on U.S. or allied territory. It would signal a "no-first-use" policy.

If it was merely the "primary" purpose, that would mean the United States might use nukes in other circumstances, for instance in response to a chemical or biological attack or to a large-scale conventional invasion of an ally. We would, in other words, reserve the right to fire nuclear weapons first—as we have been doing, and declaring, since the atomic age began.

Obama's strategy carves out a novel, and very intriguing, chunk of middle ground. It rejects "no-first-use," noting that the United States is "not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons."

However, it does declare that the United States will not fire nuclear weapons first at any country that has signed, and is in compliance with, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The distinction may seem semantic, but in fact it's substantial. Throughout the Cold War and in the two decades since, presidents have always maintained a strategic ambiguity about when and whether they might use nuclear weapons. The commonly invoked phrase has been that "all options are on the table," sometimes with eyebrows raised while saying "all."

Obama is now saying that in conflicts with countries that don't have nuclear weapons and aren't cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all options are not on the table. We don't need to brandish, much less use, our nukes. We can launch sufficiently devastating attacks with conventional weapons and defend ourselves against whatever those countries might throw against us.

This declaration has three tangible effects. First, the nuclear war-planners at U.S. Strategic Command are, in effect, ordered to stop looking for targets in treaty-compliant countries—and to stop listing "requirements" for more nuclear weapons to hit those targets.

Second, it provides another incentive for countries—even unfriendly countries—not to develop nuclear weapons (if they believe the U.S. declaration, anyway).

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.

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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