Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention
Months overdue, the congressionally-mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), was released today. Like other significant foreign policy decisions by President Barack Obama, the lengthy deliberative process was necessary to forge a consensus between national security officials with competing objectives. In this case, that pitted longtime advocates of bolder and faster initiatives toward nuclear disarmament against the military, which is directed to organize, train, and equip itself for the potential use of nuclear weapons, defined as "a core mission for the Department of Defense" according to the just-released Quadrennial Defense Review.
For disarmament advocates there are reportedly several welcome initiatives in the NPR. First, it reduces the circumstances under which the president would authorize the use of nuclear weapons, but prudently retains the caveat to reverse its position in extreme circumstances regarding biological weapons threats. Second, it eliminates an entire class of weapons, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles-Nuclear (TLAM-N) cruise missiles, which have been in storage in the United States since 1992, under President George H.W. Bush's orders. Third, the NPR states explicitly that "the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads," reversing the George W. Bush administration's repeated and unsuccessful goal of obtaining congressional funding for a Reliable Replacement Warhead.
For civilian and military officials in the Pentagon tasked with maintaining a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent, the NPR notably retains the redundant and costly "nuclear triad" of strategic nuclear delivery systems: intercontinental ballistic missiles, B-52H and B-2 Spirit bombers, and Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The numbers and missions for these will be shaped by the new START treaty that President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will sign on April 8 in Prague. Increasingly, however, these systems will be used for conventional -- i.e. non-nuclear-missions. Obama noted in an interview with the New York Times that the range of plausible threats to the United States and its allies from non-state actors and via asymmetric warfare "require more than just a nuclear option or no option but a series of graded options that can be a realistic, serious deterrent."
Most critically for all concerned, the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review recognizes for the first time that the threat from terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon (or the fissile material to make one) is greater than that of a nuclear strike by an adversarial state. This has been the position of policy analysts and U.S. intelligence agencies for years. A December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate warned: "The Intelligence Community judges that U.S. territory is more likely to be attacked with WMD [weapons of mass destruction] using nonmissile means - most likely from terrorists - than by missiles." A number of important steps to safeguarding nuclear materials worldwide remain despite the high-level focus and sustained funding from the Bush and Obama administrations toward programs to prevent nuclear terrorism. Consequently, the commitments made at next week's Nuclear Security Summit, and their implementation, are more important to the security of the United States and its allies than either the NPR or new START treaty.