Nuclear Posture Review Provides Opportunity to Reset US Policy

The last of 50 Minuteman III ICBMs is removed from a launch facility at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., in compliance with the New START agreement with Russia. The Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence said the US must move away from its primary goal of nonproliferation toward a top goal of cultivating nuclear power for strategic deterrence. Air Force photo by A1C Breanna Carter.

The Trump administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) offers an opportunity to fundamentally reshape US nuclear policy, experts in deterrence and arms control said at a Task Force 21-Minot event in Washington, D.C., Thursday. In response to a newly complex strategic threat environment, the US needs to shift away from a primary goal of nonproliferation toward a top priority of cultivating nuclear power for strategic deterrence, said Frank Miller, principal at the Scowcroft Group, and Robert Joseph, senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy.

The most recent NPR, completed by the Obama administration in 2010, was “explicit about its objective,” Joseph said, and its “first priority is nonproliferation.” In that NPR, Russia is “described more as a partner than a threat,” China is “not mentioned” at all, and the threat of a North Korean ICBM attack against the US homeland is considered unrealistic, Joseph said.

The 2010 NPR also considers it “acceptable for Russia to have a larger nuclear force” than the US, and it establishes a US policy of “no new nuclear capabilities,” Joseph said.

But “much has changed in the past seven years,” Joseph said, and the strategic threat around the world is “much more complex and dangerous.” For one, Russia has “vastly superior theater nuclear forces,” he said. This means that Russia has developed new, low-yield nuclear weapons and has conducted exercises to explore their tactical deployment, according to Miller.

As a result, the US has “deterrent gaps” in its strategic policy, Joseph said, that need to be addressed in the NPR. The administration’s process marks “an opportunity … to turn the current situation around dramatically,” Miller said. The goal should be to “restore nuclear deterrence as the first priority of our nuclear policy,” Joseph said.

“We need to explore some new capabilities” as well, Miller insisted, including a focus on low-yield nuclear weapons and enhancing nuclear command and control infrastructure. To do so, he said, “is easily affordable.” Estimates show that total spending on nuclear forces at the height of the current modernization effort would represent “seven percent of all defense spending,” Miller said.