Last Friday afternoon, Trump administration sub-cabinet officials quietly rolled out the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and today, the United States and Russian Federation successfully met the New Start Treaty deadline for reducing strategic nuclear weapons.
Neither will make much news. They both should.
The Trump NPR is being soft-sold as mostly a continuation of President Barack Obama’s 2010 version, although it represents a radical departure from the policy of every president since Ronald Reagan. For decades, American policy has been to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons. Now the U.S. will increase the salience of nuclear weapons, and build three new ones. The emphasis is on smaller, more usable, low-yield nuclear weapons to address an alleged “gap.” The NPR asserts that small new nuclear weapons, dubbed “selected supplements,” are needed to “counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.”
The U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, which I had the privilege of overseeing while serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs from 2009-2014, is without doubt the most formidable on the planet. It includes hundreds of nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs with low-yield options. In all of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council meetings during my tenure, I cannot recall anyone ever expressing even the slightest concern about such a “gap.”
We do not need any of the three of the new nuclear weapons endorsed in the NPR to sustain our safe, secure and effective triad of nuclear weapons.
Two of the three new nuclear weapons are cruise missiles. Cruise missiles, which come in both conventional and nuclear-tipped versions, can be launched without warning and are dangerously destabilizing because they can be used in a decapitating first strike. The proposed new Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which is slated for retirement in 2030.
Research and development was begun under the Obama administration, but this year, with the NPR endorsement, the Pentagon will move forward with buying them. The ALCM was fielded in the 1980s as a stopgap measure to keep the slow, visible and vulnerable B-52 strategic bomber in the nuclear mission by allowing it to launch far from coastal air defenses. The B-21 Raider stealth bomber, with the newly upgraded B-61-12 gravity bomb, will provide a formidable air leg of our deterrent for decades, making the Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile unnecessary.
The second new low-yield nuclear weapon will be a tactical Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), presumably based on attack submarines. Because they are destabilizing, President George H.W. Bush took the nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile off our boats in 1991, and President Obama finally retired them in 2011. Since the new one called for in the NPR is not be captured under the New Start or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties, the Navy could procure well over a thousand of them. The NPR claims a new SLCM is needed for “non-strategic regional presence.”
The third new nuclear weapon called for in the NPR would be a low-yield version of the Trident Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) warhead. This small warhead is supposedly needed because “Moscow apparently believes the U.S. is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons.” It is unclear how Moscow would know it is being targeted with a small SLBM warhead, since the high yield version would also fly on the same D-5 Trident missile. Use of the small nuclear variant could easily lead to an all-out nuclear exchange since Moscow would perceive an incoming strategic missile attack and respond accordingly.
A more generous interpretation of the major nuclear weapons buildup outlined in the NPR is that the purpose is to set the poker table with American bargaining chips for a new round of arms control negotiations. Perhaps President Donald Trump is emulating Reagan, whose buildup facilitated the 1987 negotiation of the historic INF Treaty, which is the only one to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the buildup of nuclear cruise missiles could prod Russia back into INF Treaty compliance and accelerate the ongoing international effort to cap and eliminate all nuclear armed sea-, air- and ground-launched cruise missiles. Doing so on a global basis would remove the most dangerous and destabilizing class of nuclear weapons and significantly reduce the risk of nuclear war. Involving other nuclear possessor states like China, which has not deployed nuclear armed cruise missiles, would be enormously important. The NPR commits the U.S. to “seek arms control agreements that enhance security.”
The New Start Treaty, whose numerical reduction deadline successfully entered into force today, is the seldom noted good news in an otherwise fraught U.S. relationship with Russia. Since its signing in April 2010, the New Start Treaty, with its reciprocal inspections and data exchanges, has provided both countries with strategic nuclear weapons predictability, stability and transparency.
One thing the NPR does not do is address the crushing nuclear weapons modernization spending tsunami in the 2020s. Even before this expansive NPR, the cost estimate over thirty years was $1.7 trillion. National defense thought leaders like Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., have raised alarm about the potential damage this nuclear spending spree will inflict on other defense priorities.
Unless the Pentagon starts growing money on trees, the biggest losers of this NPR will likely be the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the conventional Air Force, and special operations forces.
Andy Weber’s 30 years of government service include serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs under the Obama administration, serving as an advisor in the Pentagon on Threat Reduction Policy and serving a foreign service officer in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong. He’s played key roles in efforts to destroy Libyan and Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, and removing weapons-grade uranium from Kazakhstan and Georgia and nuclear-capable MiG-29 aircraft from Moldova. He also led the State Department’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Weber now serves on the Board of the Arms Control Association and the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies International Advisory Council.