Biden’s nuke review abandons campaign rhetoric on disarmament
Yesterday, the Biden administration released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as part of a suite of documents, along with the National Defense Strategy and the Missile Defense Review, outlining the administration’s approach to national security and nuclear strategy.
The NPR, produced once per administration as a programmatic statement, was originally anticipated to be released early this year. However, eight months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has included repeated threats of nuclear use, the strategic landscape has altered considerably.
The introductory letter to the documents frames ours as a “decisive decade.” Yet, likely as a result of the instability caused by the Ukraine invasion and its uncertain outcome, their horizons are relatively short.
The NPR itself, at 28 pages, is about a third as long as that produced by the Obama administration in 2010 and, beyond a clear framing of China and Russia as the foils for U.S. nuclear policy, contains relatively little in the way of detailed analysis of the global political environment to contextualize its positions. Even if the assertion that China “likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade” proves true, it would still fall far short of U.S. and Russian arsenals.
Gone is the open aggression of the Trump NPR and the sense that the person behind the keyboard had one hand on the big red button as they type. Rather, the Biden NPR throws several carefully worded bones to those who would have the United States honor its obligation to pursue disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, affirming the overarching goal of “a world without nuclear weapons.”
From a disarmament perspective, however, this measured approach almost makes it harder to realize how much has been lost, and how much ground has been ceded. Some of the worst excesses of the previous administration have been scaled back — most significantly, it calls to eliminate the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile and retire the B-83 gravity bomb — and the Review explicitly calls for a reduced role for nuclear weapons in the overall U.S. national security strategy.
Yet it bears the effects of a broad shift in perception around nuclear use, driven in part by a concerted campaign by the defense industry and its allies in government and the think tank world to popularize the notion of so-called “low-yield,” more “usable” nuclear weapons, as well as relatively frequent threats of nuclear use from world leaders in recent years.
In the face of advocates’ calls for a “no first use” policy, or a lesser “sole purpose” declaration, the NPR leaves the door open for nuclear use, attempting to portray such a catastrophic eventuality as fundamentally manageable: such a decision might be taken in order to ensure “the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.” Battlefield nuclear use is portrayed as a possible unfortunate reality of contemporary warfare, and the challenge seems to be, not to do everything in our power to make sure that a nuclear weapon is never again used, but instead to develop “resilience” in the face of their eventual “limited” use.
Additionally, sweeping aside the fact that the president still is the only person empowered to launch U.S. nuclear weapons, it paints broader decision-making processes around nuclear policy as collective, taken with concern for the demands of international law and the safety of civilians. These statements should be viewed with extreme skepticism by anyone familiar with how nuclear weapons actually work. Indeed, reading the NPR, it seems that its authors consider nuclear weapons use — if not a resulting all-out nuclear war — very possible, if not likely.
The sections on force modernization bear out this impression. Though the Review nods to the possibility of uncontrolled escalation involving the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, it counters and minimizes arguments that these weapons are destabilizing and unnecessary, albeit in rather vague terms. Replacement of Minuteman III ICBMs with the $300 billion Sentinel (previously known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent or GBSD) program, is presented unequivocally as necessary and cost-effective in the programmatic findings of the NPR.
Taking in the document as a whole, the picture is still grimmer. Trump-era resistance to the militarization of space has receded, and the focus on space is now a central focus of strategic thinking and technological development. Negative effects of climate change are acknowledged and accepted as inevitable, and the government’s effort to manage it will heavily rely on armed authorities at the military and civilian level.
Missile defense, which has been shown over and over again to be unable to reliably perform its mission of stopping incoming missile attacks, continues to command many billions of dollars of federal investment every year. Against calls for reducing defense spending, which have grown louder at the grassroots level and in Congress, the NPR seems to suggest that the United States will remain more or less committed to the status quo for “the foreseeable future” — also its stated timeline for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons.
So, what will happen in Biden’s “decisive decade” and what would have to change to allow for real progress on disarmament? Besides an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the report lays out a few general conditions: “enduring improvements in the security environment, a commitment to verifiable arms control among the major nuclear powers, further progress in developing non-nuclear capabilities, and an assessment of how nuclear-armed competitors and adversaries may react.”
However, there are still credible alternatives to maintaining the “nuclear triad” of land-, sea- and air-based missiles — including eliminating land-based missiles — that could substantially reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and rein in defense spending without compromising security. In a country where defense spending continues to trump all other priorities, with increasingly obvious negative consequences for human and societal health, the Nuclear Posture Review’s vocal commitment to “resilience” above all should deeply concern the public given the continued lack of investment in human security.
Biden has pulled back from his campaign promises of transformative steps toward arms control and disarmament — now is the time for advocates to demand the administration make good on its reaffirmed commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.