July 12, 2013 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
President Barack Obama’s declared goal of eliminating the U.S. nuclear arsenal appears to be driving U.S. nuclear policy. The Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, which recommends reducing the number of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third, appears to have resulted from choosing the amount of reduction first and then justifying the number after the fact, rather than assessing U.S. deterrence needs first and then choosing the number of weapons that would meet that need. The Administration’s backward approach to policymaking threatens to undermine the security of the United States and its allies.
On June 19, 2013, the Obama White House released a fact sheet on its updated nuclear weapons policy. The Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study (NPRIS) has been a long time in coming. Not surprisingly, the NPRIS contends that the United States can safely reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below the current levels. Further, the NPRIS states that the U.S. may do this unilaterally, but prefers to reduce through a negotiated agreement with Russia. Current levels, which were set by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), are already controversially low.
The report provides evidence that President Barack Obama first chose the reduced numbers in the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal and then used the NPRIS to justify these numbers, instead of assessing U.S. requirements for deterrence first and then choosing the numbers of nuclear weapons that would meet the requirements. President Obama indicated his thinking more than a year ago in a speech at Hankuk University in Seoul, South Korea:”But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.”
Since meeting deterrence and military requirements was clearly not foremost in President Obama’s mind when he chose these numbers, what was? The overwhelming evidence suggests that he was focused on reaching his declared goal of zero U.S. nuclear weapons, which the fact sheet reaffirms in its first paragraph. Indeed, the true number he desires is zero, but even he recognizes that the American people will reject an attempt to go directly to zero nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the numbers recommended in the NPRIS were essentially chosen for aesthetic reasons. These numbers look about right as an intermediate step between what is permitted by New START after its execution and zero.
This likelihood that President Obama is foremost concerned about reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the pursuit of his aspiration for zero nuclear weapons is bolstered by a statement by the then-Commander of U.S. Strategic Command during President Obama’s first term. In July 2010, General Kevin Chilton testified about the proper relationship between the numbers and deterrence capabilities:
I do not agree that [the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal] is more than is needed. I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent. And I say this in light of—when we talk about the non-deployed portion of the arsenal—it is sized to be able to allow us to hedge against both technical failures in the current deployed arsenal and any geopolitical concerns that might…cause us to need more weapons deployed.
His testimony sharply contrasts with the assertion in the NPRIS that U.S. nuclear weapons may now be reduced further.
According to the fact sheet, the NPRIS:
The evidence in the NPRIS fact sheet supporting the argument that the numbers were chosen for reasons of arms control and disarmament, not for deterrence and defense, follows from the wide variety of flaws in the report’s recommendations, which go beyond the numbers themselves. These recommendations, if followed, would result in a dangerously weak U.S. deterrence posture for both the U.S. and its allies. This is the inevitable result when arms control and disarmament goals, not strengthening the overall U.S. deterrent, drive a review of the U.S. nuclear force.
The most significant flaws are:
Flaw #1: An obscure targeting policy. The NPRIS states that U.S. policy is to narrow the requirements for its nuclear employment and targeting policy. However, the reduced number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons will drive the U.S. in the direction of”countervalue targeting,” targeting populations and economic centers. This is problematic because a countervalue targeting policy is not compatible with the values of the U.S. as a free country and therefore is not compatible with a credible deterrent. No U.S. President would choose to use nuclear weapons to cause widespread death and destruction in an enemy country in which the population is repressed and poses no significant threat to the U.S. and its allies. Further, history suggests that foreign tyrannies do not value their people. Instead, they value the means of repressing their populations and of threatening free nations, including the U.S., that pose an ideological threat to their repressive regimes. Finally, because the U.S. was founded on the principle of liberty, it values the security and prosperity of its people.
Thus, the most effective nuclear deterrent for the U.S. against a repressive regime would be a “counterforce policy” that targets the regime’s internal security forces and strategic military forces, while protecting and defending the populations and economic capacity of the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, the accompanying DOD report finds the argument in favor of countervalue targeting so weak that it categorically denies the guidance from the White House requiring that the DOD to pursue it.
Accordingly, the problem with the NPRIS is that a counterforce employment and targeting policy requires a larger and more capable force than the one the NPRIS recommends. This contradiction exists between the White House guidance to the Department of Defense and the DOD nuclear employment report and within the DOD employment report. The repressive regimes that the U.S. needs to deter maintain multiple levers of internal repression and strategic military capabilities to threaten the nations of the free world. Consequently, they present larger numbers of targets, many of them hardened against attack with reinforced bunkers, than would be presented by population centers under a countervalue targeting policy. The problem becomes even more pronounced if the U.S. faces a coalition of strategic enemies made possible by proliferation.
By way of reference, the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear warheads found necessary by the George W. Bush Administration to meet the requirement to defeat strategic attacks and deter them was between 1,700 and 2,200. The plan included targets that are hardened and deeply buried facilities, which are fairly described as classic counterforce targets. The NPRIS fact sheet says nothing about why it relies on the target sets that are shrinking enough to permit reducing the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads by one-third from the 1,550 accountable warheads under New START, not to mention the 1,700 to 2,200 deemed necessary by the Bush Administration.
Accordingly, dedicated advocates of lower numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal than proposed by the Obama Administration have openly argued for a “minimal deterrence” nuclear posture based on countervalue targeting. These advocates understand that a countervalue targeting policy would permit a significantly smaller nuclear force, admittedly under the questionable assumption that such a targeting policy would present a strong deterrent posture toward current and future U.S. enemies, whereas the counterforce targeting policy identified in NPRIS must lead to relatively high numbers of nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration apparently has chosen to gloss over this apparent contradiction in the NPRIS. Indeed, the fact sheet fails to identify clearly the nature of the connection that the NPRIS makes between its suggested targets and its recommended number of weapons.
Flaw #2: Insufficient survivability for the U.S. nuclear force. The reductions recommended by NPRIS would likely make the U.S. strategic nuclear force less survivable. The fact sheet asserts that a disarming strike against U.S. strategic nuclear forces is “exceedingly remote.” However, whether such a strike will remain exceedingly remote would depend on the future structure of the U.S. strategic nuclear posture. The NPRIS provides only vague overall numbers. For example, in a letter to Senator John McCain (R–AZ) on November 14, 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained how automatic spending cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 could affect the defense program. An attachment to his letter states that these cuts could eliminate the ICBM leg of the triad.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch explained the link between preservation of the ICBM leg and survivability in a speech in Washington, D.C., on May 25, 2012. He pointed out that one of the central characteristics of an effective strategic nuclear deterrent is to make an enemy never feel confident that it can pull off a successful first strike. He went on to say that he saw no technological breakthrough or operational innovation that could put a robust force of U.S. ICBMs at risk and that this makes the ICBM leg the most stabilizing leg of the triad. Nevertheless, Secretary Panetta identified elimination of ICBMs as a plausible result of President Obama’s defense budget policies. The DOD employment report fails to acknowledge Secretary Panetta’s warning.
Second, the report fails to acknowledge that the reduced numbers inherently reduce the confidence of surviving a first strike. In short, it fails to acknowledge that keeping prospects for a disarming strike against the U.S. exceedingly remote is a good thing. It sees the current margin of safety against attack as something that may be narrowed. In a March 22, 2011, letter to President Obama, 41 Senators expressed concern over the relationship between reduced strategic nuclear forces and increased risks to force survivability. They also expressed overall concern about reducing U.S. strategic nuclear forces below the levels required by New START. The letter specifically noted that “the U.S. nuclear force posture should have the survivability and characteristics necessary to defeat potential nuclear adversaries and limit damage to the United States in the case of war.”
Under the NPRIS, the military’s strategic nuclear bombers will likely remain at no more than two bases and not on strip alert. The submarine force will almost certainly remain ported at just two bases, and there is no discussion of the risk that future breakthroughs in anti-submarine warfare could make submarines more vulnerable at sea.
Finally, the fact sheet offers no specific recommendations for improving the survivability of strategic command and control systems and the political and military leadership to maintain the continuity of government following a strategic attack on the U.S.
Flaw #3: A reduction in the number of strategic aim points for enemy forces. Closely related to the survivability issue is the danger that the recommendations to consolidate the U.S. strategic nuclear force would reduce the number of aim points for enemy strategic forces. If the ICBM leg is eliminated and U.S. ballistic missile submarines and bombers are limited to just two bases each, the overall weapons-derived aim points for a disarming strike against the U.S. could fall by 99 percent. Since the broader U.S. nuclear force is to be consolidated under the NPRIS’s recommendations, the aim points presented by non-weapon facilities, such as command and control facilities and nuclear weapons infrastructure, will likewise be reduced. Disturbingly, the fact sheet provides no analysis of the aim point issue.
Flaw #4: The NPRIS fact sheet implies that the U.S. may de-alert its strategic nuclear force. De-alerting would render nuclear forces in the field unusable without extensive and time-consuming steps to re-alert them. Lessening the risk of accidental nuclear strikes is the primary justification for de-alerting proposals. Specifically, the fact sheet states that the U.S. would “reduce the role of launch under attack in contingency planning.” This phrase could be a euphemism for de-alerting. The Department of Defense report does not explicitly refer to de-alerting in any way.
De-alerting is unwise. First, de-alerting would exacerbate the survivability problems resulting from other NPRIS recommendations. Second, it would make the strategic nuclear force unable to meet targeting requirements to hold enemy strategic forces at risk. Third, de-alerting would burden the President with trying to calculate the risk of instability by initiating steps to re-alert the strategic nuclear force in a crisis. With the exception of the NPRIS fact sheet’s failure to provide an effective targeting policy, the possibility of an implied de-alerting proposal in the NPRIS presents the clearest evidence that the study’s recommendations were driven by the desire to eventually eliminate all U.S. nuclear weapons unilaterally. De-alerting is an effective step for artificially reducing the value of the U.S. nuclear force to the point that maintaining any such force can no longer be justified.
Flaw #5: The fact sheet offers no commitment to modernize nuclear delivery systems. The U.S. needs to modernize the delivery systems for its nuclear forces for reasons that go beyond the need to replace the aging delivery systems. The U.S. needs new systems that can ensure the timely, highly precise delivery of weapons against time-sensitive targets, such as ICBMs mounted on mobile launchers. Speed and precision of the new delivery vehicles should be key considerations in the modernization effort. The NPRIS fact sheet does not mention these requirements.
Flaw #6: The fact sheet mentions no recommendations for appropriate yields of the weapons in the arsenal. The yield of a specific nuclear weapon is critical to maximizing its deterrent effect under different circumstances. A key variable in addressing the yield question is the accuracy of the overall weapon system. Generally speaking, higher accuracy permits lower yields in a counterforce targeting plan.
Maximizing the effectiveness of the deterrent is even more important than the question of the relationship between accuracy and yields. Higher yields do not always strengthen deterrence. For example, if a President finds the yield to be too high to permit its use under a given circumstance, it will detract from deterrence if a potential enemy calculates in advance that the President will recognize this problem. Disturbingly, the NPRIS fact sheet does not discuss the preferable yields for a full array of different weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In fact, it does not address the yield question whatsoever, and neither does the Department of Defense employment report. This suggests that they assume that the yields of the current array of weapons are appropriate in every instance and will remain so for the indefinite future. This is a dangerous assumption.
Flaw #7: Command and control problems are not seriously addressed. The overall capabilities of the nuclear command and control system are essential to determining the overall survivability of the force. However, improved command and control systems for nuclear weapons are about more than survivability. By outward appearances, both the NPRIS fact sheet and the DOD employment report fail to recognize the broader issues related to nuclear command and control.
Speed and reliability of communications are key considerations for modernizing nuclear command and control systems, particularly with ballistic missile submarines at sea. Further, the broader command and control structure should be integrated with the global reconnaissance strike system, which identifies strategic targets and rapidly and precisely directs weapons against the target. Accordingly, nuclear delivery systems that can rapidly and precisely attack targets will be of little value if not supported by a command and control system that is integrated with the global reconnaissance strike system. According to the fact sheet, the NPRIS addresses neither issue.
Flaw #8: The NPRIS defers consideration of the deterrence value of short-range weapons, particularly for extended deterrence. U.S. nuclear weapons deter strategic attacks not only against the U.S. itself, but also against U.S. allies around the world, which is called extended deterrence. The existing U.S. nuclear posture is considered weak by some allies and friends, who are less confident in U.S. assurances about and the commitment to their security. While U.S. strategic nuclear forces are essential to strengthening extended deterrence, they are not sufficient for this purpose by themselves. Forward basing short-range nuclear weapons to address strategic threats to U.S. allies is also essential because these forward-deployed nuclear forces are tangible means of bringing U.S. allies into the overall deterrence posture. Further, these forward-deployed weapons can fill in rungs in the escalation ladder, which if left out would result in a relatively weak deterrent. Finally, forward-deployed nuclear forces increase the flexibility of the overall nuclear force and add to the military effectiveness of the broader nuclear force.
Accordingly, in its 2009 report, the Strategic Posture Commission noted an emerging perception among some U.S. allies and friends that U.S. weakness in non-strategic nuclear weapons was undermining their confidence in U.S. security assurances. Specifically the report states, “Some allies located near Russia believe that U.S. non-strategic forces in Europe are essential to prevent nuclear coercion by Moscow and that modernized U.S./NATO forces are essential for restoring a sense of balance in the face of Russia’s nuclear renewal.” The report further stated, “Overall equivalence is important to many U.S. allies in Europe. The United States should not cede to Russia a posture of superiority in the name of deemphasizing nuclear weapons in the U.S. military strategy.”
At the moment, Russia has a multifold advantage over the U.S. in short-range nuclear forces. The President certified to the Senate during consideration of New START that he would address this matter and seek to reduce, if not eliminate, this disparity in short order. He has not done so, and the fact sheet acknowledges that the NPRIS did not address this matter in any substantive way.
Flaw #9: The NPRIS fails to explain how U.S. nuclear forces will be integrated with defensive forces and conventional strike forces. In a proliferating world, the most powerful overall deterrent the U.S. can present would balance defensive forces and conventional strike forces with nuclear forces. This means all three types of forces must be integrated in order to reinforce each other. Specifically, all three must work within the global reconnaissance strike system because it can provide vital supporting functions to each. For example, its early warning capabilities will provide not only added flexibility to the nuclear and conventional strike forces, but also initial cueing and tracking to ballistic missile defense forces.
There is no evidence that NPRIS considered the synergistic effects of fully integrating defensive, conventional, and nuclear forces for strengthening deterrence. Indeed, the fact sheet indicates that the NPRIS sees U.S. defensive and conventional strike forces as replacements for, not complements to, the U.S. nuclear force in meeting deterrence needs.
Flaw #10: The Obama Administration continues to walk away from its commitments to the Senate to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure. On this point, the fact sheet simply seeks to mislead the public. The President is failing to keep some of his commitments to the Senate to modernize U.S. weapons infrastructure, such as accelerating construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
These commitments served as the political and legal foundation for the Senate’s consent to the ratification of New START and its permission to let the U.S. strategic nuclear force fall to the levels required by the treaty. Now, the Administration is asserting that the U.S. not only may safely reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to New START levels, but to one-third below New START levels. Simply put, the facts indicate otherwise.
Flaw #11: The NPRIS provides no assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the recommended nuclear force. The NPRIS, focused as it is on reducing the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons, can easily be interpreted to mean that the overall cost of U.S. nuclear forces will also come down. However, the Administration cannot honestly assert that the overall cost-effectiveness of the nuclear force will increase under the NPRIS. The NPRIS recommendations reduce the cost of the U.S. nuclear force and its supporting elements by reducing the size of the force, which will reduce the capability of the force. Needless to say, the Administration is finding it inconvenient to acknowledge that it is producing a less effective nuclear force and a less effective deterrence posture. The Administration is all too happy to switch the subject and assure the America people that they will live in a world free of nuclear weapons.
Congress has a responsibility to push back against President Obama’s anti-nuclear policies as codified in the NPRIS. His policies will result in an overall nuclear posture that is inferior to Russia’s nuclear posture and a broader U.S. strategic posture that would be dangerously weak toward a variety of potential foes. Accordingly, Congress should:
Making U.S. nuclear policy on the basis of seeking numerical reductions in the nuclear arsenal and stockpile to meet particular arms control and disarmament goals is unwise even within the realm of the arms control process. This approach inevitably results in negotiating from a position of weakness. It is downright dangerous in the U.S. deterrence posture because it artificially divorces the answer to the question of how many nuclear weapons are enough from the answer to the question of what kind of nuclear force provides the most effective deterrent.
The NPRIS—particularly in the context of the flawed arms control process that led to the negotiation, ratification, and entry into force of New START—is taking U.S. security policy in the wrong direction. It is well past time for Congress to halt this process because it threatens to leave the U.S. with an ineffective nuclear deterrence posture. Such an outcome will necessarily undermine U.S. security and the security of its allies. Congress can correct course by reestablishing the policy that deterrence and security come first and that arms control must operate in service to these higher priorities.
—Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
 The White House, “Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/fact-sheet-nuclear-weapons-employment-strategy-united-states (accessed June 19, 2013).
 Baker Spring, “Twelve Flaws of New START That Will Be Difficult to Fix,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2466, September 16, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/twelve-flaws-of-new-start-that-will-be-difficult-to-fix.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama at Hankuk University,” The White House, March 26, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/26/remarks-president-obama-hankuk-university (accessed May 29, 2012).
 General Kevin P. Chilton, testimony in The New START Treaty (Treaty Doc. 111–5): Views from the Pentagon, video file, Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd Sess., June 16, 2010, http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/the-new-start-treaty-treaty-doc-111-5-views-from-the-pentagon (accessed May 8, 2013).
 See 22 U.S. Code § 2573.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States Specified in Section 491 of 10 U.S.C.,” June 12, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/reporttoCongressonUSNuclearEmploymentStrategy_Section491.pdf (accessed June 19, 2013).
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 1.
 Rebeccah Heinrichs and Baker Spring, “Deterrence and Nuclear Targeting in the 21st Century,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2747, November 30, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/11/deterrence-and-nuclear-targeting-in-the-21st-century.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy,” p. 4.
 For example, see Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, “From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council Occasional Paper No. 7, April 2009, http://www.fas.org/pubs/_docs/OccasionalPaper7.pdf (accessed June 18, 2012).
 Leon Panetta, letter to Senator John McCain, in press release, “Statement by Senators McCain and Graham on Secretary Panetta’s Letter Detailing ‘Devastating’ Impact of Sequester,” November 14, 2011, http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressOffice.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=a4074315-fd3e-2e65-2330-62b95da3b0e9 (accessed July 11, 2012).
 General Larry Welch, “ICBM and Nuclear Deterrence,” transcript of remarks at Nuclear Deterrence Seminar Series on Nuclear Weapons, Defense Policy, Arms Control and US National Security, Capitol Hill Club, Washington, DC, May 25, 2012, http://www.afa.org/hbs/transcripts/2012/5-25-2012%20Gen%20Larry%20Welch%20v2.pdf (accessed June 25, 2013).
 James M. Inhofe et al., letter to President Barack Obama, March 22, 2011, http://www.inhofe.senate.gov/download/?id=97ff9372-1dcc-451b-9401-1beb9df0b8d4 (accessed June 25, 2013).
 Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, America’s Strategic Posture (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2009), p. 20, http://media.usip.org/reports/strat_posture_report.pdf (accessed June 25, 2013).
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Heinrichs and Spring, “Deterrence and Nuclear Targeting in the 21st Century.”
 Congressional Record, December 22, 2010, p. S10984.