Where Biden Stands on Nuclear Weapons

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (releasing in November 2021)

OPINION — Back in 1964, Chairman J. W. Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave a long speech he entitled “Old Myths and New Realities.”

Fulbright began by saying, “There is an inevitable diversion, attributable to the imperfections of the human mind, between the world as it is and the world as men perceive it. As long as our perceptions are reasonably close to objective reality, it is possible for us to act upon our problems in a rational and appropriate manner. But when our perceptions fail to keep pace with events, when we refuse to believe something because it displeases or frightens us, or because it is simply startlingly unfamiliar, then the gap between fact and perception becomes a chasm, and action becomes irrelevant and irrational.”

Fulbright’s speech came to my mind last week after I listened to two hearings that dealt with nuclear weapons. One was from June 10, when a House Armed Services subcommittee heard from four current administration officials on the fiscal 2022 budget request for “Nuclear Forces and Atomic Energy Defense Activities.” The other was a session last Wednesday of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces where four former government officials discussed “United States Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Strategy.”

During the first hearing, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities Melissa Dalton disclosed that the Biden administration Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is just starting and will not be finished until January 2022. Its impact will appear in the fiscal 2023 Biden budget. Dalton said the NPR will cover such practical things as current modernization efforts; Defense Department delivery systems and platforms; the nuclear weapons required for those systems; and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) infrastructure necessary to produce and maintain those weapons.

The NPR will also deal with U.S. declaratory policy, which essentially is a statement or set of statements describing the circumstances under which the President would consider using nuclear weapons. Dalton said that of course would be a Biden decision but that the options for the President would be discussed and explored during NPR inter-agency discussions.

The 2010 Obama NPR said the US “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Against states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations, the Obama NPR kept open retaliatory use of nuclear weapons against nuclear, CBW [chemical or biological weapons) or in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

The Cipher Brief hosts private briefings with the world’s most experienced national and global security experts.  Become a member today.

The Trump NPR 0f 2018 expanded the “extreme circumstances,” to include not only nuclear attacks but “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” The Trump NPR also contained the threat: “Our adversaries must understand that a terrorist nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners would qualify as an ‘extreme circumstance’ under which the United States could consider the ultimate form of retaliation.”

Biden’s past statements indicate that the Trump declaratory policy will change. In a January 2017 speech while he was Vice President, Biden said, “The President and I strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.” He reiterated that idea in a March 2020 “Foreign Affairs” article in which he wrote: “I believe that the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the US military and US allies.”

The Biden strategic guidance given to the NPR team, also includes that “this administration will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national nuclear strategy.”

While that guidance implied the Biden administration may eventually change the current nuclear program, the Biden budget now before Congress carries forward aggressive plans that were proposed during the Trump administration. These include initial funds for a new, low-yield, warhead for a submarine-launched cruise missile and a new warhead for ICBMs, the W-93. It also has increased funds for producing future plutonium pits, the triggers of thermonuclear weapons, for a controversial multi-billion-dollar facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. Also disclosed at the House hearing was that the original goal for producing 80 plutonium pits by 2030 at Savannah River and Los Alamos National Laboratory has been pushed back to 2032-to-2035 because of delays in getting necessary equipment.

Dalton did note one fact that fit into the Biden guidance, that current US investment in a new hypersonic missile “at present” is only for a “conventional capability,” despite Russian statements that Moscow’s hypersonic missiles will be nuclear capable.

While the earlier House hearing focused on current and future nuclear weaponry, last Wednesday’s Senate session, chaired by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), went over the policy and strategy issues that are to be part of the NPR.

In doing so, the witnesses and Senators raised old issues and arguments long part of the nuclear weapons debate.

For example, Dr. Matthew Kroenig, a senior policy advisor to the Pentagon during the Trump administration and currently Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, described the differences between U.S. and Chinese nuclear targeting in a manner that needed further explanation.

He said the U.S. practices so-called “counterforce nuclear targeting,” which means its nuclear weapons would be used “only against legitimate military targets, such as: enemy nuclear forces and bases, command and control nodes, and leadership sites.” He said such US targeting “potentially allows the United States to destroy enemy nuclear weapons before they can be used against the United States or its allies, limiting damage and potentially saving millions of lives.”

When it came to the Chinese, Kroenig said they practice “countervalue targeting,” which meant they would use their “nuclear weapons against US population centers with the goal of slaughtering as many innocent civilians as possible.”

Here’s a historic note: The original atomic bomb target of Hiroshima was chosen because it could be claimed as a military objective because Hiroshima served as the headquarters for Japan’s 2nd Army, which defended the southern part of the country. However, the real reason for the choice was that a large civilian population lived around the area and the targeting committee wanted to destroy a city with one bomb for psychological effect to end World War II. In short, the US’ first use of a nuclear weapon demonstrated, by Kroenig’s terms, countervalue targeting.

Kroenig said targeting “has important implications for nuclear force sizing.” He explained, “If the United States pursued a countervalue policy designed to kill large numbers of innocent civilians in Beijing and Moscow, then a small nuclear arsenal might suffice. A counterforce policy, however, requires the United States to possess sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to cover the nuclear-related targets (missile silos, naval bases, air bases, command and control nodes, leadership sites etc.) in Russia, China, and North Korea.”

In short, Kroenig used the targeting strategy to explain why the US today has over 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, and over 2,000 more not deployed, while the Chinese for years have had fewer than 300. Even the current threat that in the coming decade Beijing may double or even triple that number, China still would not get close to the US-sized nuclear stockpile.

The claim that US counterforce targeting potentially saves lives, while countervalue targeting kills large numbers of innocent civilians would just not be true. Counterforce nuclear weapons would be used against ground-based or silo-based weapons creating radioactive fallout, and in the numbers planned – two warheads for each enemy weapon – even with China – we are talking currently about using 600 or more 100 kiloton-or-higher US warheads. In the case of Russia, it would be in the thousands. The numbers of prospective people killed and wounded plus square miles of unlivable cities, towns and areas created because of residual radioactivity cannot be estimated.

No one talks about that any more, although it makes use of nuclear weapons more unlikely to be employed, particularly because cyber has provided US Presidents with a new and much more usable class of strategic weaponry that does not have the same devastating and potential world-ending consequences.

An interesting fact about Presidential nuclear hesitancy came up during the Senate hearing testimony of Prof. Sharon K. Weiner of American University, who has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Joint Staff’s Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate, and the National Security Division of the White House Office of Management and Budget. She told the panel, “Only one President of the United States ever actually participated in these [nuclear weapon] drills when they were asked to. Everybody else sent a delegate – somebody else. And so you may have the President of the United States in this crisis, the clock is ticking, trying to figure out what to do. Keep in mind there is a huge amount of uncertainty, right. You don’t have perfect intel at that point and so the President is trying to make a decision, and they may never have practiced what it’s been like to be in a nuclear crisis.”

Subcommittee Chairman King responded, ““I find it shocking that only one President in the nuclear age has physically participated in one of these exercises. I participated in one in the NAOC [National Airborne Operations Centers, planes that allow leaders to issue commands from the sky] four or five years ago and it was a stunning experience. I would think you would want to have some experience in what that situation would be like.”

That one President that did participate was Jimmy Carter, according to Weiner, who as a Navy officer had dealt with nuclear submarines.  Given what’s at stake, it may be time to make room on the calendar.

Read more expert-driven national security analysis, perspective and opinion in The Cipher Brief

Related Articles