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.
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.
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|
|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
In addition to these principles, all NPRs and corresponding administrations shared the same overarching goal: Preventing Nuclear War.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous.”
“I will work to bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons, so that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never repeated.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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:
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.
Report written by Doreen Horschig, PhD., 2021 Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund.
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