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Trump nuclear posture outlines reasoned steps to ensure deterrence after years of neglect

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Following the State of the Union speech, in which President Trump announced his intention to “modernize and rebuild” the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the administration released its much-anticipated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), providing the underlying rationale and nuclear-force posture recommendations to ensure a credible nuclear deterrent against a broad range of strategic threats that face our nation.  

The NPR presents a realistic analysis of today’s security environment and a convincing set of policy principles and recommended actions necessary to respond to gaps in our deterrent posture created by the aggressive expansion of the nuclear capabilities of potential adversaries and by years of neglect at the technical, operational, and policy levels in the United States.  

{mosads}The United States, after 9/11, focused on countering the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda and, later from ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia, China and rogue states such as North Korea have expanded their nuclear and missile arsenals to threaten U.S. interests, U.S. allies, and the American homeland itself.


Consistent with six decades of U.S. nuclear policy across 10 Republican and Democrat administrations, the NPR’s principal recommendations focus on the modernization of the strategic TRIAD of heavy bombers, land-based ICBMs and sea-based SLBMs, to include replacement of the now decades-old delivery platforms, the rebuilding of the aging nuclear command-and-control system, and the recapitalization of the failing nuclear weapons infrastructure.  

Equally important, the NPR advocates two modest but essential improvements to strengthen deterrence across the full range of nuclear threats, to us as well as to our allies. These include incorporating a low-yield option for a small number of submarine-launched missiles and the pursuit of a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.  

The first is essential to deter adversaries who today contemplate escalation to limited nuclear use to prevail in a conventional conflict. The second is essential for regional deterrence and the reassurance of our allies.

Based on the unauthorized leak of an earlier, pre-decisional draft, critics of the NPR responded with a long list of false assertions and faulty arguments designed to undermine support for implementing the steps identified in the NPR to address major deficiencies in our nation’s deterrent posture. For example, some have asserted, wrongly, that the NPR advocates the resumption of nuclear testing and responding to cyber-attacks with nuclear weapons. It simply does not. 

But equally pernicious are the dozen or more arguments that mischaracterize the facts and twist the logic contained in the NPR analysis. Of these, four stand out.

The first and perhaps most frequently heard criticism is that the recommendation to “develop for deployment a low-yield SLBM warhead” will lower the threshold for nuclear use by making nuclear weapons “more usable.” According to critics, this step, along with other recommended enhancements to U.S. capabilities, portend the intention to fight and win a nuclear war. In fact, as the NPR makes clear, the opposite is the case. The objective is not to lower the threshold for nuclear use but to deter the use of any and all nuclear weapons. 

Russia currently possesses superiority in theater nuclear forces by an estimated 10 to one advantage; Russia’s military doctrine relies heavily on nuclear weapons for both coercion and war. Its forces regularly exercise the first-use of these weapons, including the employment of a few low-yield warheads to compel Western conciliation and win a conventional conflict with NATO. To deter this use, and to raise the threshold for Russian use, the U.S. requires a range of effective and survivable response options, including a low-yield SLBM option. 

Russian writings, doctrine and exercises indicate that a U.S. deterrent based only on high-yield strategic responses is not seen as credible by Vladimir Putin and the Russian military who, because of their aggressive buildup of theater and strategic nuclear forces, may well believe that they possess escalation dominance across the spectrum of nuclear capabilities.

A second frequent argument of NPR critics is that the recommendations, if implemented, would start an arms race with Russia and China and would undermine the nonproliferation regime. Looking at the facts presented in the NPR concerning the expansion of Russian and Chinese nuclear forces, it does appear that an arms race began more than a decade ago. But, importantly, the United States has not been party to that race. 

In the Obama administration, the United States pursued nuclear disarmament in a failed effort to lead by example, including the unilateral elimination of the nuclear SLCM force. Our adversaries did not follow our lead. While U.S. numbers and competence steadily declined, those of Russia and other adversaries increased, in some cases dramatically. If the United States fails to maintain an effective deterrent force, and concedes superiority to our adversaries, the credibility of our extended deterrent — our nuclear guarantee to friends and allies — will be called into question. This is the single greatest risk to nuclear nonproliferation.

The third argument made by critics is that the NPR represents a radical break from previous administrations. As noted above, the 2018 NPR reflects a remarkable consistency with past U.S. nuclear policy. It emphasizes the enduring principles of deterrence while adapting those principles to meet the contemporary threats that must be deterred; it makes clear that modern deterrence is not based solely on nuclear weapons but includes advanced conventional forces, cyber and other capabilities that must be factored into an effective deterrent posture tailored to specific threats.  

The key to avoiding nuclear war is maintaining an effective and responsive deterrent force that convinces our adversaries that they cannot win wars through the use of nuclear weapons at any level of conflict and that the risks of escalation outweigh the potential gains.

The fourth main argument of NPR critics is that implementation of the recommended actions is unaffordable. Often through creative accounting schemes, critics put forth cost estimates that would rule out the required modernization and compel draconian cuts in U.S. conventional forces. These hyper-inflated estimates aside, there will be substantial costs for modernizing the nuclear deterrent, especially the cost of TRIAD modernization and rebuilding the weapons infrastructure. Yet, as the NPR notes, this is about priorities — and the highest priority of the Defense Department, as expressed most recently by both James Mattis and Ash Carter, is maintaining the capabilities to deter nuclear attack on the United States and our allies.  

As a percentage of the current Defense Department budget, the cost of the proposed actions will be much less than in the Cold War, peaking for several years at about 6.4 percent and representing less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. 

The cost of the failure of deterrence, on the other hand, is incalculable.

While critics, drawn mostly from the old anti-nuclear left, charge that the NPR reflects a “Cold War mindset” that the United States can fight and win a nuclear war, the NPR itself makes the exact opposite case: that a nuclear war will have no winners and must not be fought. This is the correct position, and ensuring an effective deterrent is vital to success. 

Whether the NPR recommendations go far enough to meet the deterrent challenges posed by our adversaries in the future is an open question. But, for now, the NPR provides a reasoned and reasonable way forward.

Robert Joseph served as Special Assistant to the President for Counterproliferation, 2001-2004, and as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, 2005-2007. He helped to create both the U.S. Proliferation Security Initiative and Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. As chief U.S. policy negotiator, he was instrumental in persuading the Libyan government to dismantle its WMD programs in 2003.

Tags Arms control Donald Trump International relations James Mattis Nuclear disarmament Nuclear Posture Review Nuclear proliferation Nuclear strategies Nuclear triad Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Tactical nuclear weapon

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