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The Biden Administration's

Nuclear Posture Review

New Policies to Prevent Nuclear War

The Biden Administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) should be based on one overarching goal: preventing nuclear warfare. This can be achieved through reducing the risk of accidental war by ending sole authority, declaring sole purpose, and terminating launch-on-warning.

September, 2021

The Nuclear Posture Review

A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is the US government’s primary public statement of nuclear weapons policy. NPRs have been produced since 1994 by the last four US presidential administrations in their first years in office and the Biden Administration is currently undertaking its own review. They lay out the nuclear strategy, doctrine, and planned forces of a new administration, and define the role of nuclear weapons in US security strategy for the next five to ten years, taking into account the international environment. These reviews inform US government personnel, allies, the public, and adversaries of US intentions and capabilities. They also inform US arms control and nonproliferation policy. The Clinton Administration was the first to undertake a comprehensive review of US nuclear posture. Congress mandated the Bush and Obama Administration reviews while the Clinton, Trump, and Biden Administrations initiated their own reviews. The review process has typically taken about a year to complete. Despite some inherent limitations, the NPR’s goal is to provide a clear nuclear policy that can provide a stable footing in times of change in the international environment.

The Biden administration began its NPR this summer. The main questions are whether and how a Biden NPR will update US nuclear policies from previous administrations despite growing concern about a deteriorating nuclear threat environment, and if those changes will move the United States towards a more progressive national security agenda. Looking at US nuclear policy from past NPRs can help us set expectations for what the Biden Administration might do. Having taken command of the US nuclear arsenal, President Biden can now implement his own nuclear policy in this review process. 

In order to achieve President Biden’s goal to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” (President Biden, March 2021), the administration’s nuclear policy should aim to reduce the risk of accidental war. The United States should seek to increase presidential decision time by ending the current policies of sole presidential authority and the option of using nuclear weapons first. If President Biden wants to reduce the risk of nuclear war, he needs to spend the political capital necessary on official policies.


The United States has released four NPRs, and the policy shifts generally reflect the views of the new administration as it takes office. Democrats have tended to seek a narrowing of the declared role of nuclear weapons. Republicans have tended to expand the role by including deterrence of non-nuclear strategic attacks and rejecting arms control agreements, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Despite some differences, all NPRs share the same overarching goal -preventing nuclear war- and the guiding principle to protect the United States, its allies, and partners. All NPRs highlight the role of nuclear weapons as an important component of US defense policy.

No administration has adopted a sole purpose or no first use policy, or restrictions to the president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. A sole purpose policy would state that the only role of US nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear use against the United States or its allies. A no first use policy would prohibit the United States from using a nuclear weapon first in any situation. The president’s sole authority could be limited by sharing that authority with Congress. No review has significantly altered US nuclear declaratory policy, which has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War.

Highlights from Past NPRs:

Clinton, 1994

Bush, 2002

Obama, 2010

Trump, 2018

Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty)
NPR worked to preserve the ABM Treaty NPR renounced ABM Treaty NPR did not attempt to revive ABM Treaty NPR did not attempt to revive ABM Treaty
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
NPR advocated ratification and entry into force of CTBT NPR did not seek passage of CTBT NPR returned to advocating CTBT NPR did not seek passage of CTBT
The Nuclear TRIAD
NPR emphasized a nuclear Triad based on ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers NPR introduced a new Triad that includes (1) non-nuclear and nuclear offensive strike capabilities, (2) defensive systems, and (3) responsive defense infrastructure NPRs nuclear Triad based on ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers NPRs nuclear Triad based on ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers
Negative Security Assurances
1994 NPR left open the option to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that were “in association or alliance with” a nuclear-weapon state NPR first included exceptions to a negative security assurances and maintained the possibility that US nuclear forces could be used against non-nuclear nations NPR clarified the definition of negative security assurances and updated the policy to emphasize the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations NPR stipulates that the United States reserves the right to amend its negative assurances if warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies including cyber capabilities
ICBM warhead configuration
NPR recommended reducing the numbers of warheads on ICBMs NPR allowed for a few ICBMs to carry multiple warheads NPR converted ICBMs to carry a single warhead NPR proposed new ICBM capable of carrying multiple warheads
Nuclear Modernization
NPR did not suggest new strategic systems NPR proposed new nuclear weapons, so-called bunker-busters NPR renounced bunker-busters but proposed other areas of modernization NPR pledged to continue 2010 modernization effort
No First Use and Sole Purpose
NPR did not mention no first use or sole purpose NPR did not mention no first use or sole purpose NPR set goal of establishing conditions for sole purpose NPR rejected sole purpose

While the previous NPRs had many differences, they also all agreed on some guiding principles in US nuclear policy, including

  • the protection of the United States, its allies, and partners.
  • the maintenance of nuclear forces so that they can be safely operated. 
  • the fundamental role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent tool in US defense policy and essential part of military power (as long as nuclear weapons exist).
  • the commitment to the highest international standards of stewardship for nuclear safety and security, command and control, use control, and civilian control.
  • the implementation of US negative security assurances.


In addition to these principles, all NPRs and corresponding administrations shared the same overarching goal: Preventing Nuclear War

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev


As President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared in 1985, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Both leaders emphasized that the use of one nuclear weapon by either Russia or the United States could lead to an all-out war. President Biden expressed his agreement with Reagan and Gorbachev’s statement and issued a joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that “reaffirm[ed] the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.  

Where does President Biden Stand?

President Joe Biden proposed a sole purpose nuclear declaratory policy as vice president under Barack Obama and as a presidential candidate in 2020. He reaffirmed that United States nuclear weapons serve a single purpose: deterring nuclear use against the United States or its allies and retaliating in response to nuclear use. Thus, nuclear weapons should not be used for warfighting or to retaliate against any type of attack other than a nuclear attack. 

Biden has also been a firm supporter of nuclear arms control. His administration has renewed New START by five years to halt the quantitative arms race (the qualitative arms race is in full swing) and agreed to a follow-on strategic stability dialogue with Russia. Further, Biden’s team has been negotiating in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal to keep Iran from obtaining an atomic bomb. 

Any declaration that does not reflect a reduced role of nuclear weapons would not be consistent with what the president has stated previously.


February 17, 2010

Speech at the National Defense University 

“The spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing the country and, I would argue, facing humanity. And that is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually eliminate them.”


January 11, 2017

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace speech 

“Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means. (...) Deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.”   


June 2019

Council for a Livable World, Presidential candidate questionnaire 

“The United States does not need new nuclear weapons. Our current arsenal of weapons, sustained by the Stockpile Stewardship program, is sufficient to meet our deterrence and alliance requirements.”   


May 28, 2020


“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous.”   


August 6, 2020

On the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima 

“I will work to bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons, so that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never repeated.”   



Presidential Campaign Statement 

President Biden would take other steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. As he said in 2017, Biden believes the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.  


March 3, 2021

Interim National Security Strategic Guidance 

“We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.” 


June 16, 2021

United States — Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability 

“The United States and Russia have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war. (...) Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

A New Policy for The Biden Administration

Since the Cold War, the United States has designed its arsenal to deter and respond to the most extreme case of a surprise, intentional, large-scale Russian nuclear attack that has never arrived. By continuing to orient US policy around this unlikely threat, we increase the risk of accidental war. It is time to shift the focus of US nuclear policy to one of the greatest dangers: blundering into nuclear war by mistake. 

It is highly unlikely that nuclear-armed states will use a nuclear weapon against each other on purpose. In the face of assured retaliation, such use would be near-suicide. The nuclear weapons states understand that an attack would be catastrophic for the attacker. It is more likely that a nuclear weapon would be used as the result of a false alarm, a misunderstanding, or an accident. The escalation of regional conventional conflict can also lead to a nuclear exchange, blurring the line between unintended and deliberate action.  

Both US and Russian nuclear policies currently follow a capability-based approach. That means both countries have the capability to use a nuclear weapon in a first strike, and thus both sides assume the other might actually carry out such an attack. Moscow, for example, was convinced that the United States was preparing for a nuclear war when President Reagan initiated his Strategic Defense Initiative, deployed warheads in NATO countries, and created war plans that included first-strike options.

Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security developed a simulation that shows a plausible escalating war between the United States and Russia. The simulation uses realistic nuclear force postures, targets, and fatality estimates and it suggests that there would be more than 90 million people dead and injured within the first few hours of a large-scale nuclear conflict.


Since the end of the Cold War, neither the United States nor Russia believed it likely that the other would actually use nuclear weapons in a massive surprise strike. Yet, they still put their own forces on alert because of the capability of the opponent’s potential first strike. This conservative approach creates an increased risk of a nuclear war by accident. 

Close Calls, Bad Information, and other Nuclear Mishaps

As this timeline shows, there have been numerous examples of human error, false alarm, or miscommunication that could have caused nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis is well known but there were several additional events in the atomic age that led to a heightened risk of  nuclear war. How to prevent inadvertent nuclear use is one of the most challenging tasks for nuclear command-and-control systems. The risk of an accidental nuclear war through political or technical miscalculations is just too high.


A Flock of Geese


Canadian geese activated the Distant Early Warning Line radar system and were mistakenly interpreted as a Soviet bomber attack. 



The Cuban Missile Crisis

October 16-28, 1962 

A major confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union that brought them to the brink of nuclear war. 



An Intoxicated President 


President Richard Nixon reportedly ordered a tactical nuclear strike against North Korea that national security advisor Henry Kissinger put on hold until the president sobered up. 



The Training Tape Incident

November 9, 1979 

A realistic training tape was accidentally inserted into the US warning system that made it appear a major Soviet nuclear attack was underway. 



The Computer Chip Incidents (2) 

June, 1980 

A single computer chip failure caused random numbers of attacking missiles to be displayed on the early-warning systems. 



The Autumn Equinox Incident

September 26, 1983 

A rare alignment of the sun, a satellite, and US missile fields misled the newly inaugurated Soviet early-warning satellite system into thinking that several nuclear missiles were launched from the continental United States.  



Soviet Coup

August 18, 1991 

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union at that time, lost control of the nuclear football and nuclear forces as part of a plotted coup against him.  



Norwegian Rocket Incident

January 25, 1995 

Norwegian and American scientists launched a large sounding rocket from Andoya Island off the coast of Norway that appeared to be similar to a US trident missile and reportedly caused President Boris Yeltsin to activate his nuclear football.  



Lost Missile Contact

October 23, 2010 

Missile operators temporarily lost control of fifty Minuteman III ICBMs at a base in Wyoming due to a computer failure.  



The Hawaiian Missile Alert

January 13, 2018 

An Emergency Alert System issued a ballistic missile alert to the state of Hawaii, stating that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat, and that people should seek shelter immediately. 



Buying the President More Time

These examples show that blundering into nuclear war is a significant risk looming at all times. During the Cold War, the closest calls were caused by miscommunication, false alarms, and unreliable leadership, not intentionally planned operations and attacks. It is time to implement policies that reduce such risks. The Biden administration can modify US nuclear policy to remove quick-launch options, give the president more decision time, and maintain the ability to deter and respond to an intentional attack.


Preparing for a disarming first strike has led us to take on the dangerous policy of giving the president sole authority to launch. The president has unilateral authority over nuclear launch decisions. Even in a state of emotional turmoil, the president could order the use of nuclear weapons. Interestingly, this sole authority was never legislated by Congress nor enshrined in the Constitution but adopted unilaterally by the first presidents of the atomic age. Today it is assumed to be a key part of presidential power and privilege.  

Concerns over sole authority did not only arise with a seemingly impulsive President Donald Trump - especially in the waning days of his presidency- but have been there for decades. In the words of former President Richard Nixon in 1974: “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” In the case of an unstable president, the United States currently relies on the hope that the military would refuse an order to use nuclear weapons. The current safeguard to prevent an irrational decision-maker from starting nuclear war is based on hope rather than policy.  

The main benefit of the current sole authority policy—a quick launch—is outweighed by the risk of accidental launch. Sole authority no longer serves US interests. Further, sole authority is not necessary for deterrence because the United States has nuclear-armed submarines at sea that assure a second-strike capability. There is no need to have a single person make a quick launch decision. Deterrence can be maintained without sole authority. 

Concerns over the president’s ability to launch US nuclear weapons on his own authority have been expressed by members of both parties: 

“The president has the sole authority to give that order, whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not. Once that order is given and verified there is no way to revoke it.” Then-Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)

“Based on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocols, there are no checks – no checks – on the President’s authority. The system as it is set up today provides the President with the sole and ultimate authority to use nuclear weapons.” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) 

A bipartisan push to restrict the president’s sole launch authority would send a strong signal, but President Biden can change the policy by himself. A new policy could introduce shared authority with Congress (either all of Congress or a subset), and/or a declaration that emphasizes that the United States will never initiate the use of nuclear weapons. 

Such policies would provide clear directives for the military to follow: A launch could be legally ordered only if Congress had approved the decision, providing a necessary constitutional check to executive power. Both would be infinitely less risky — to the United States and to the world — than the current doctrine. Risk of intentional and accidental nuclear war would be reduced if future presidents could only legally order the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to a confirmed nuclear attack or with the approval of Congress.


The United States should never initiate nuclear war, but only use these weapons to deter or respond to a nuclear attack against us or our allies. With overall US conventional superiority, no rational president would use nuclear weapons first, in any scenario. Against a nuclear-armed state like Russia or China, first use would invite a devastating retaliation. Against North Korea, first use could not prevent a retaliatory attack that would decimate South Korea. Against a nonnuclear state, first use would go against fifty years of US nonproliferation policy. How can we possibly convince other states that they do not need nuclear weapons if the United States itself says it needs them for nonnuclear threats? 

The Biden campaign stated that “the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack. As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.” Other Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Adam Smith (D-WA), have proposed a bill that would establish in law that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first. 

If President Biden wants to uphold his commitments on nuclear policy, he should declare a policy that: 1) clearly prohibits the United States from starting a nuclear war; 2) specifically rules out preemptive nuclear attacks, as such attacks have a high risk of starting nuclear war by mistake and should not be considered under any circumstances; and 3) prohibits launching nuclear weapons on warning of attack, as such launches increase the risk of starting nuclear war in response to a false alarm. 

A sole purpose policy requires consultations with allies but should not prevent the implementation of such a policy. US allies can be reassured that a policy of sole purpose does not undermine Washington’s commitment to their security. That is because the basis of extended deterrence is assured retaliation, not a nuclear first strike. It is highly unlikely that the United States would use a nuclear weapon first in response to a conventional, chemical, biological, or cyber attack on an ally. One needs to ask; in what scenario would the United States use a nuclear first strike to defend an allied country – and start a nuclear war? If an ally is attacked by a nuclear weapon, the United States has signaled that it will respond in equal terms with a retaliatory nuclear strike, assuring extended deterrence. Critics say that a reduction of the role of nuclear weapons reduces the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella. On the contrary, extended deterrence is not based on first use. The Biden administration can find a way to reassure allies without giving them veto power over US policy. 

The 2010 Obama NPR stated the administration’s “objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons” But the Obama administration did not achieve that objective. The Biden NPR needs to take the next step and declare sole purpose.


To be more credible, a new declaratory policy should end the launch of ICBMs on warning of an incoming attack. ICBMs currently can be launched promptly once the president is informed of a possible attack. This scenario is highly unlikely and there is no need to have ICBMs on high alert given the survivability of US submarines at sea. If real, an incoming attack would land and a decision to respond should not be rushed.

False alarms have happened multiple times as seen above, and in an era of cyberattacks on US command-and-control systems, the danger has only grown. Starting a nuclear war by mistake is one of the greatest existential risks to the United States today. With the new NPR, President Biden can take ICBMs off alert and end the policy of launch-on-waring.

Ending sole authority, declaring sole purpose and terminating launch on warning can buy the president more time and reduce the risk of nuclear war. If President Biden wants to significantly transform American nuclear posture and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national strategy, he must be bolder than previous presidents with their NPRs. That also means that he must directly guide the review process.


Language for Biden’s NPR

An ideal Biden Nuclear Posture Review would buy the president more time to avoid accidental war. The administration must move swiftly to transform US nuclear policy and take the necessary steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security and US military strategy. Here is what this can look like:

With the advent of US conventional military preeminence and continued improvements in US capabilities to counter and mitigate the effects of conventional, biological, chemical, or cyber attacks, the role of US nuclear weapons in deterring such non-nuclear attacks has ended. The United States will not use nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.  
The sole purpose of US nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack — or retaliate against a nuclear attack — on the United States, our allies, and partners. There are no longer any contingencies in which US nuclear weapons play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, biological, or cyber weapons attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is prepared to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. The United States now has established conditions under which such a policy can be safely adopted.


The United States would consider the employment of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear threat or attack to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. This does not include non-nuclear strategic attacks. There are no longer any contingencies in which US nuclear weapons play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.
The previous administration highlighted the dangers of allowing one person — the president — to have sole authority over the use of nuclear weapons. For the safety of the United States and the world, from now on the president will share this authority with the legislative branch. The president will consult with Congress on how this authority shall be shared. The goal is to make it clear that the use of nuclear weapons will now be a shared responsibility between the White House and the Congress.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles will be taken off their launch-on-warning of an incoming attack posture. US nuclear forces will delay a response and revise their contingency plans in advance. Bombers and ballistic missile submarines can be positioned to carry out orders at the appropriate time.
The long-term goal of US policy is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. To achieve this goal, pursuing these NPR recommendations, foremost sole purpose, will strengthen the security of the United States and its allies and partners and bring us closer to a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.


Report written by Doreen Horschig, PhD., 2021 Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund.



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