Nuclear Posture Review Calls for Changes to Nuclear Arsenal, Flexibility in Response to Attacks

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, center, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr., left, and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette brief the press on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon, Feb. 2, 2018. DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm.

The Pentagon on Friday outlined its plans for a new era of American nuclear power—emphasizing the possibility of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack and announcing the development of low-yield weapons that can provide more “flexibility” and the possibility of a more proportional nuclear response to a smaller-scale attack.

The Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review, ordered by President Trump shortly after he assumed office last January, is an extensive document outlining the administration’s and the Pentagon’s view on the place of nuclear weapons in the future of US national security.

“This NPR ensures we can deter any potential adversary, because they are not all alike,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in rolling out the review on Friday. “We must keep America’s deterrent credible by making it modern. The 2018 NPR calls for modernizing the nuclear triad and command and control system, which is necessary, affordable, and long overdue. Our nuclear triad has kept us safe for more than 70 years. We cannot afford to let it become obsolete.”

The last NPR, which was produced by President Obama’s administration in 2010, looked to decrease, but still modernize, the nuclear stockpile. However, the Trump document calls for an increase of smaller weapons, and emphasizes the need to use nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks.

“Given the range of potential adversaries, their capabilities and strategic objectives, this review calls for a flexible, tailored nuclear deterrent strategy,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis writes in a preface to the review. “This review calls for the diverse set of nuclear capabilities that provides an American President flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.”

In the short term, the draft calls for a modification of a “small number” of existing submarine-launched missiles to provide a low-yield option that is survivable. This option, once developed, will increase flexibility by not only providing a smaller-yield nuclear weapon, but also one that does not require host-nation support to base, unlike B61s, which are the primary strategic nuclear weapon for the B-2 bomber and can also be carried by F-16s, F-15Es, and eventually F-35s.

In the long term, the Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration want to make a new, low-yield submarine-launched warhead “to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses.” The review claims the changes will be in compliance with New START, while also providing a response to Russia’s treaty violation from its reported deployment of a new cruise missile.

Much of the current nuclear stockpile is too powerful to be an effective enough deterrent, according to the review, and a less-devastating capability means the US would be more ready to use these weapons if prompted.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva expanded on this effort before the review was released, telling reporters the lower-yield weapon deters “adversaries from actually believing that they could engage in a limited nuclear strike” because they would know the US could use a smaller weapon to respond to a smaller attack.

“Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict,” the review states. “… Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative.”

There is no automatic nuclear response from the US if there is a nuclear attack, the review aims to provide flexibility and more options for response, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told reporters.

The Pentagon on Friday would not release a timeline or cost for either option, just that it would be included in the President’s Fiscal 2019 budget request expected to be released on Feb. 12. The short-term option would be a “modest amount,” since it is based on existing missiles, Rood said.

The review also emphasized the possibility of a nuclear launch to respond to a non-nuclear attack, such as a debilitating cyber attack or one that causes significant damage to US infrastructure such as the power grid.

“The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” states the review. “Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on the US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

This capability will only apply to potential strikes against states that have nuclear weapons and are in compliance with non-proliferation objectives, the review states.

“Given the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and US capabilities to counter that threat,” the review states

Selva sought to temper the response to this claim, saying that “context matters” because a non-nuclear attack on infrastructure could be catastrophic and the US reserves the right to respond. The idea was presented in the 2010 review, but “we just didn’t say what we meant,” Selva said.

The 2018 review specifically calls out four countries: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, claiming that the US military needs a “tailored strategy” for each country. North Korea poses the “most immediate and dire proliferation threat to international security and stability,” the review states. Iran is threatening, however, it is abiding by the 2013 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran Deal, that restricts its program until 2031.

Shortly before the release of the NPR, US officials briefed Russian and Chinese officials on its content and emphasized that the US wants to have a productive relationship going forward, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Anita Friedt told reporters on Friday. The US included NATO allies in the process of developing the review and briefed them before the release as well, she said.

The NPR continues support for all three legs of the nuclear triad, by continuing the modernization plans for the Air Force’s B-21 bomber, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, nuclear command and control, and the US Navy’s Ohio-class submarine replacement, along with recapitalizing weapons laboratories and plants to “ensure the capability to design, produce, assess, and maintain these weapons for as long as they are required,” the documents states. Because of purported “underfunding” by previous White House administrations, a large increase in spending is required. Currently, the nuclear deterrent accounts for 3 percent of the defense budget, and another 3 to 4 percent on top of that is required, Mattis writes.

Specific modernization efforts outlined include: completing the B61-12 bomb life extension program by 2024, completing W88 warhead alterations by 2024, synchronizing the National Nuclear Security Administration’s W80-4 warhead life extension with the Pentagon’s long-range standoff cruise missile, advancing the W78 warhead replacement by one year, sustaining the B83-1 bomb beyond its retirement date, and exploring new ballistic missile warhead requirements including a possible common re-entry system for USAF and Navy systems.

The funding question is a major issue, one that some lawmakers have already said is prohibitive to modernization plans. In October, the Congressional Budget Office put a price tag on modernization at $1.2 trillion over 30 years. However, that figure actually breaks down to about $843 billion to operate and sustain the nuclear forces and $399 billion to modernize them, according to the CBO report. It also includes 100 percent of the cost of the Air Force’s B-21 bomber program, rather than just the nuclear-specific costs.