The Biden administration is currently re-evaluating the United States’ nuclear strategy. This re-evaluation offers an opportunity to reduce both the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal and the probability the United States will use such weapons. However, trying to make such changes will provoke considerable resistance from the political and military establishment. Whether the current re-evaluation will lead to any meaningful change is far from certain.
The re-evaluation is known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a planning document that describes what kinds of nuclear weapons the United States should have and the role nuclear weapons should play in U.S. foreign policy. Each presidential administration since Bill Clinton’s has created an NPR. The Secretary of Defense oversees the NPR’s creation, with input from the State and Energy Departments. The Biden administration began working on the NPR this summer and is expected to produce a document in January 2022.
Present U.S. nuclear strategy, as laid out in the Trump administration’s 2018 NPR, includes notably disturbing elements:
The United States has refused to pledge never to be the first nation to use nuclear weapons in a conflict — a pledge called “No First Use.” The 2018 NPR says the United States may use nuclear weapons in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” which might include “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure” or “attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” In theory, the U.S. rejection of a No First Use pledge along with the broad definition of a significant attack means that the United States could respond to, for example, a cyberattack on the electricity grid with a nuclear strike.
The 2018 NPR also rejects the step of taking nuclear weapons off alert. Keeping nuclear weapons on alert, so they can be used quickly, increases the risk that the weapons will be used in response to a false alarm or some other apparent crisis, before decision-makers can properly understand the situation.
Current U.S. nuclear strategy also includes plans, begun under the Obama administration and continued under Trump, to maintain and replace the weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Such “modernization” will, by one recent estimate, cost $634 billion by 2030. Nuclear modernization plans will continue the existence of hundreds of nuclear weapons and the submarines, land-based missiles, and planes used to deliver them.
Beyond using up massive amounts of money (which could be better used for less lethal purposes), the planned modernization will perpetuate perhaps the most dangerous part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: land-based nuclear missiles. Unlike submarine- or plane-launched missiles, these weapons cannot be moved and thus could be wiped out by an adversary who struck first with nuclear weapons. This situation creates a major incentive for American decision-makers to launch land-based missiles at the first warnings of a possible enemy nuclear attack (warnings which might actually be false alarms or misunderstandings) or even to strike first with the land-based missiles. Maintaining land-based missiles encourages this grotesque “use them or lose them” logic that could all too easily lead to nuclear catastrophe.
President Biden now has an opportunity to correct the worst features of the NPR. Some past statements suggest he wishes to do so. He said in 2017 that “it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary.” In 2019, he identified as a policy goal “to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” Biden also stated, “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.” His administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance included the goal “to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”
However, whether the Biden administration will make good use of this opportunity to change U.S. nuclear strategy remains highly uncertain. The relatively short timeline for producing the NPR suggests radical changes to the status quo are not being considered. Further, the NPR process took a significant turn with the removal in September of Leonor Tomero, the official coordinating the process. Tomero, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, had previously worked for Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), an advocate for No First Use. She had repeatedly echoed Biden’s call to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy. Less than nine months into her tenure, however, the Defense Department eliminated her position. Tomero’s removal may have reflected institutional resistance to changing U.S. nuclear policy.
To reform U.S. nuclear policy in a meaningful way, the next NPR should include the following measures:
A No First Use policy
Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off alert, or at least dramatically reducing the number of weapons on alert
Phasing out land-based nuclear missiles
Significantly reducing the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal
These measures will hardly eliminate the immense moral problems or physical dangers created by nuclear weapons. However, they will impose some limits on such weapons and lower some of the risks of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. A No First Use policy might also help ease U.S. tensions with China, as China already has such a policy. Taking these actions now might open the way later to a more comprehensive solution to the nuclear danger.