The Obama administration’s nuclear strategy review made public on Tuesday keeps in place all strategic weapons needed to fight a nuclear war and presents only minor policy changes, a move that upset arms-control advocates who had sought major cuts in U.S. forces.
The report of the yearlong Nuclear Posture Review changes how nuclear arms will be used against non-nuclear weapons states. Nuclear-missile forces will remain on alert to be fired within minutes to counter a nuclear strike, but the intercontinental ballistic missile warheads now are targeted on open oceans — not Russian or Chinese cities — in case of an accidental launch, senior administration officials said in releasing the report.
“This review describes how the United States will reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons with a long-term goal of a nuclear-free world,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at the Pentagon, echoing President Obama’s pledge last year.
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U.S. officials said the review’s main findings are a setback for anti-nuclear proponents within the administration, namely Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and aides who advocated a more fundamental strategy shift that would declare nuclear weapons solely for deterring attacks by established nuclear powers such as Russia and China.
Such a declaration would allow for deeper cuts beyond the 1,500 warheads now being proposed as the limit under a new U.S.-Russian arms accord.
“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, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted,” the report said.
Mr. Gates had argued for keeping most of the past nuclear policies.
“The defense secretary was a strong voice against those other elements that were advocating a complete shift in declaratory policy away from anything other than a direct nuclear threat,” a senior administration official said.
The final review report, which was delayed for three months over policy disputes within the administration, stated that a “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons is to deter strategic nuclear attacks. That leaves open the option for use of nuclear arms to retaliate for a biological- or chemical-weapons attack, or a cyber-attack that cripples computer networks.
The report said “a narrow range of contingencies” exist that would involve nuclear weapons to deter “a conventional or [chemical- or biological-weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”
Mr. Gates said the “catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of biotechnology development” could lead to altering the non-nuclear targeting pledge.
The main elements of U.S. nuclear strategy outlined in the report are:
• Countering the spread of nuclear weapons and preventing terrorists from obtaining and using nuclear arms, described as an “immediate and extreme danger.”
• Keeping a “credible” nuclear deterrent force while reducing weapons and missile and bomber delivery systems.
• Strengthening regional deterrence efforts to protect U.S. allies like South Korea, Japan and Europe.
• Sustaining an aging nuclear arsenal and related infrastructure with upgrades, but blocking development of new nuclear warheads and bombs.
Cuts in current strategic forces are being carried out because the threat from Russian nuclear attack has diminished and China’s nuclear forces, while being modernized and expanded in secret, remain smaller in number than current U.S. forces, the report said.
U.S. missile defenses and advances in precision-guided conventional missiles and weapons are another reason nuclear forces can be reduced, the report noted.
Nuclear-weapons infrastructure, such as storage and maintenance facilities and the technicians who work at them, also are being modernized, the report said.
A blue-ribbon panel found last year that the nuclear complex is in serious disrepair after being neglected for the past decade.
Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, Arizona Republicans, said in a statement that they are concerned the review could make it more difficult to modernize the nuclear-weapons complex.
“The NPR appears to make it more difficult to use the ‘spectrum of options’ (i.e., refurbishment, reuse, and replacement) recommended by the Perry-Schlesinger Commission to enhance the reliability of the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile,” they said.
The administration’s current nuclear budget calls for spending $7 billion for modernization, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year.
“By modernizing our aging nuclear facilities and investing in human capital, we can substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons we retain as a hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise, accelerate dismantlement of retired warheads, and improve our understanding of foreign nuclear weapons activities,” the report said.
According to the report, U.S. nuclear forces will continue to include silo-based missiles, hard-to-track submarine-launched missiles and nuclear bombers as the main elements of a strategic triad in place since the arms were perfected and deployed in large number beginning in the 1950s.
One minor revision to the deterrence policy outlined in the report is the announcement that U.S. nuclear retaliation will not be used against non-nuclear states that sign and adhere to the provisions of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The last U.S. nuclear posture review conducted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks stated that U.S. nuclear weapons could be used in retaliation against chemical- or biological-weapons attacks carried out by non-nuclear states.
In keeping with the president’s pledge to eventually seek the elimination of all nuclear weapons, a goal he has said may not be reached in his lifetime, the U.S. government will forgo building new nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kyl and Mr. McCain questioned the policy of limiting options for responding to chemical or biological attack. “In fact, one reason that we got rid of chemical and biological weapons is that we were told that we would always have the nuclear deterrent available,” the senators said.
“Unfortunately, the NPR released today confuses this long-standing policy. The Obama administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies.”
Richard Perle, a defense strategist in the Reagan administration, said he is concerned about the decision not to build new nuclear arms but noted that a future administration could reverse the policy if nuclear threats emerge.
“It took the administration a year to essentially reaffirm existing policy with some minor tweaks,” Mr. Perle said. “It’s not a cliffhanger.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the review was mixed and opened the way for further arms cuts.
“This review moves in that direction. It is quite explicit on Page 26 explaining why they did not adopt that sole purpose declaratory policy. … Some of us would like for it to have been clearer, but c’est la vie,” he said.
Sharon Squassoni, a former Congressional Research Service staffer on weapons of mass destruction now with the Center for Strategic International Studies, said the review is a significant shift from the past but did not go far enough.
“People were hoping the review would rule out using nuclear weapons against anything except for another nuclear attack. But the review does not contain this categorical limit,” she said.
David Smith, a U.S. chief negotiator for defense in space from 1989 to 1992, said he is concerned about the stated goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
“The reality is we live in a world where the threat of using nuclear weapons is what has prevented major wars and keeps ourselves and our allies safe,” he said. “If we keep chipping away at our nuclear deterrence, by announcing ahead of time when we won’t use them, then we are making the world a more dangerous place.”