Joshua PollackWhere the NPR Meets in the Middle

U.S. Department of Defense photo by Cherie Cullen

The Obama Nuclear Posture Review — and that’s what it is — is a major accomplishment. (I’ve written about it in a column to appear soon at the Bulletin. Stay tuned. Here it is.) Compared to previous efforts, it takes on more issues and makes more positive changes. It also bears the imprimatur* of an array of senior officials, starting with the President.

(*That’s Latin for “buy-in.”)

The Obama NPR also contains some grounds for dissatisfaction. From any point of view. Before you start grumbling too much about what it doesn’t achieve, though, I’d recommend comparing it to the last one.

The report works to reconcile certain tensions, and manages reasonably well. It reads like a tunnel dug from both ends: from this end, the nonproliferation agenda that stole the show last year in Prague, now picking up steam for the May 2010 NPT RevCon — and from that end, the traditional set of nuclear posture issues: force types, numbers, and alert status. The latter side of the tunnel emerges into a territory within the status quo comfort zone of past years.

Where these issue sets meet in the middle, the nonproliferation agenda largely, but not exclusively, prevails. There will be no “new” warheads or nuclear military capabilities. And there is a significantly clarified negative security assurance that breaks explicitly with the doctrine of calculated ambiguity, i.e., hinting that a chemical or biological attack might get a nuclear reply, or at least refusing to say one way or the other. That’s gone now.

What we don’t see is a blanket statement of the sort discussed at some length at this blog, either “no first use” or “sole purpose.” Instead, we are told that

The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.

Which is not bad, especially in combination with the new NSA statement that

the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Why Not Go All The Way?

The report gives us a reason:

In the case of countries not covered by this assurance – states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations – there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.

American conventional might, combined with the threat to hold leaders personally accountable for their actions, is deemed sufficient to deter non-nuclear weapon states in good standing within the NPT from using conventional, chemical, biological weapons, so why not also Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea? There may be logical reasons, but they aren’t spelled out.

There may also be another reason, one not raised directly, but hinted at elsewhere. This admirably frank discussion explains what will determine the size of the U.S. strategic arsenal for the foreseeable future:

Russia’s nuclear force will remain a significant factor in determining how much and how fast we are prepared to reduce U.S. forces. Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War. But large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced. Therefore, we will place importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels.

In other words, the U.S. arsenal is scaled to the Russian arsenal. This is a tradition going back to the end of massive U.S. numerical superiority, and many people set great store by it. Not maintaining parity would “raise concerns,” although the exact nature of the concerns is left unexplained.

For the moment, it matters not. The point is this: if we pledge never to go first against the Russians, it gets difficult to explain why our deployed strategic arsenal is the size that it is. (There’s not much satisfaction in retaliating against empty Russian launchers, is there?) So until it’s decided that numerical parity is no longer so important, we probably won’t see a “sole purpose” or “no first use” declaration, regardless of what might be said about chemical or biological weapons.


  1. yousaf

    I think the “no new warheads” line in the NPR is not so simple to parse.

    See page xiv of the NPR.

    It depends on the definition of “new”.

    The NPR keeps alive the “replace” option:

    “The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.

    In any decision to proceed to engineering development for warhead LEPs, the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. Replacement of nuclear components would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”

    If authorized by the President, and approved by congress a new physics package could be developed, as long as it “based on previously tested designs”.

    i.e. The NPR considers all designs that have been ever tested as “not new”, even if such designs were never previously developed into actual stockpile weapons.

    Also, we are not told how close to a tested design the replacement option must be.

    It is possible that the WR1 RRW would not be considered a new weapon, because it is reportedly based upon the SKUA-9 design, a high-yield two-stage boosted weapon design tested several times in the 1970s that would be fitted into the Mk5 reentry vehicle currently used for the W88.

    So while the “no new warheads” phrase sounds good, I am not sure RRW is yet dead — it might well be resurrected by congress, specifically, as a quid-pro-quo to getting CTBT passed.

    Lastly, let’s remember the bigger picture when it comes to RRW: The NPR is by definition “a legislatively-mandated review that establishes U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture for the next five to ten years.”

    It would be a simple matter for RRW hawks to argue that they can ignore the NPR altogether as their time-horizon is much larger than a decade from now.

    Of course, my view has always been that RRW will be detrimental to US security.

    I am not thrilled about the NPR calling missile defense a “deterrent” either, but will save that for another post.

    Josh Rogin over at FP has a good take on the cave-in to missile defense hawks.

    Unfortunately, as I argued earlier in FP, missile defense is strategically useless, expensive and far from being a ‘deterrent’, it is destabilizing.

  2. MarkoB (History)

    I agree this is better than Bush’s NPR and is better than Clinton’s too, for that matter. It’s also more meatier, I mean Team Bush’s NPR became public because of leaked extracts.

    Just about everybody is missing the bit about the deterrence of nuclear terrorism. That’s one Bush expansion in the scope of deterrence retained by Obama. Strictly speaking the negative security assurance and this are in conflict. A state could support or enable, the QDR speaks of direct and indirect support, a nuclear terror plot yet still be in good standing with the NPT which refers to states only. The declaration on the deterrence of nuclear terrorism qualifies the NSA. It’s 100% clear that this refers to not just nuclear terrorism specifically but also to supporting and enabling, directly and directly, chemical and biological terrorism. This is one way chemical and biological attacks are not covered by the NSA.

    The NSA makes it pretty clear that any state that does use chemical and biological weapons will face regime change. So if rational this means; you need a nuclear deterrent if you want to climb the escalation ladder using chemicals and biologicals against the US. So we come full circle.

    On the last part of this post. I don’t think numerical parity is really the issue. At issue is the counterforce mission with respect to Russia. Stratcom will be saying; with the current target list we need x warheads with respect to Russia. Change the mission then you change targeting, which then feeds back into doctrine and force structure. Strategic nuclear targeting issues were pretty much ignored in the NPR, which then leads me to ask; how different will the next version of OPLAN-8010 really look? I am sure the last Bush version had Iran, North Korea and Syria based attack options. Because all three are deemed not to be in good standing with the NPT then they shall remain targets across the contingency spectrum, it seems to me. Because the NPR doesn’t talk much about targeting, the physical nature of these regional attack options won’t change much it would seem.

    Pavel Podvig’s quote on New Start comes to mind; it could be a way of making a change without actually making a change.

    We won’t really know until Hans Kristensen gets all the Stratcom slides under FOIA and the JCS releases some updated joint targeting doctrine; just like under Bush.

    Also one might question the overall construct. What’s worse? Nuclear proliferation and terrorism or accidental strikes and strategic instability? If you think the latter, then de-alerting, not non-proliferation, should be at the top of the nuclear security agenda. Nothing promotes the nuclear security of the US more than minimum deterrence.

  3. b (History)

    The NPR disregards the political wishes of several European government concerning U.S. nuclear weapons in their countries.

    How is that for “partnership”.

  4. Derek

    “A state could support or enable, the QDR speaks of direct and indirect support, a nuclear terror plot yet still be in good standing with the NPT.” – MarkoB

    They would not, however, be in compliance with their “nuclear non-proliferation obligations”, which assuredly include the provisions of UNSCR 1540. The non-proliferation language of the NPR seems deliberately inclusive/encompassing precisely for this reason.

  5. Josh (History)


    Despite what you may believe to be the real concern, the quoted passage says that the loss of numerical parity — not the loss of viability of counterforce targeting by whatever standard — is the source of potential concern. I take it at face value.


    When it comes to tactical weapons in Europe, the NPR waits on the NATO Strategic Concept discussions. And it’s not so clear what the five European governments in question want; they do not start and end with their Foreign Ministries. Personally, I think consolidation of weapons for security reasons would be a good idea, but deferring to a multilateral, consultative process is very much what partnership is about.

  6. Mike (History)

    “The point is this: if we pledge never to go first against the Russians, it gets difficult to explain why our deployed strategic arsenal is the size that it is. (There’s not much satisfaction in retaliating against empty Russian launchers, is there?)”

    I completely disagree with the premise of this statement. Are you saying that our whole strategic nuclear arsenal exists simply to take out Russian silos? I think that is pretty shortsighted.

  7. Josh (History)

    What I’m saying is, read the quoted passage carefully, as it sheds a great deal of light on what drives warhead numbers.

    I also think that, regardless of what the target set contains, it is difficult to justify the numbers unless Russian weapons are included. I hope that’s clear enough.

  8. J House (History)

    The notion that US leaders can ‘reassure’ nations or sub-national groups we will not use nuclear weapons against them if they do not have them (but launch a devastating CB attack on the U.S.,potentially killing millions) is not reassuring to this American.
    What part of ‘deterrence’ does this admin understand?
    This is a flashing green light for those nations and terrorist groups to focus on CB weapons, not nuclear weapons.The bar is much lower (and cheaper) anyway.
    More proof of the President’s naiive world-view, that he has held since he was a college student.
    The President said in his AIPAC speech in 2008- “we will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons”- Iran will make him a liar before his term is finished.

  9. Andrew

    What about the threat from countries which have nuclear weapons and have not signed the NPT? (Or how can we argue that these states are “in line” with their nonproliferation obligations?)

  10. LBlord80 (History)

    “Before you start grumbling too much about what it doesn’t achieve,…”

    It hasn’t achieved anything, yet & there’s a good chance it will not be around in another 3 years or so.

  11. Curious

    The report specifically mentions compliance with the NPT, but lays out no method by which compliance or non-compliance can be determined. Absent language along those lines, does it make sense to conclude that all member states are assumed to be in compliance until a vote from the IAEA makes clear otherwise?

  12. Josh (History)


    As I read the language, Britain, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan are technically all eligible to be targeted, along with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. But it is made clear that there are really just two pairs of target countries: 1) dialogue partners, consisting of China and Russia, and 2) norm violators, consisting of Iran and North Korea.

    The idea presented in the NPR is to extricate ourselves from mutual deterrence relationships with Russia and China over time — a cooperative undertaking — while putting the onus on the North Koreans and Iranians to return to the good graces of the international community.

    I’m not advocating this precise position. That’s just what I understand the document to mean.


    An excellent question. It’s probably a mistake to interpret “NPT compliance” in the NPR in terms of IAEA safeguards compliance as determined by the Board of Governors, but some clarification might be helpful on this point. That’s a subject I plan to return to.

  13. Curious

    I would find it hard to imagine the US would let an international agency determine something so important – it wouldnt fly for domestic political reasons and the IAEA vote is a bulky mechanism. Still, if we have our own unilateral method of determining NPT compliance and we comes to different conclusions than the IAEA we are ignoring the treaty mechanisms and the accepted international procedure for dealing with this. Seems like the way it is phrased is going to be problematic either way.

  14. John Schilling (History)

    If the US pledges to never go first against the Russians, then no, there’s not much satisfaction in retaliating against empty launchers – but there’s not much effect in retaliating with destroyed launchers. In that hypothetical case, whatever US launchers survived a Russian first strike would be matched against whatever Russian launchers were held in reserve. If we assume that one missile launched in counterforce mode will destroy approximately one enemy launcher, that calls for approximate parity whether you expect to shoot first or second.

    Well, unless you plan on never shooting first but always doing launch-on-warning. I would really rather not see anyone doing launch-on-warning. Putting a stake through the heart of launch-on-warning, if it hasn’t already been done, would pretty much top my wish list in the arms control area, and if that means letting the hawks (Pentagon, Congressional, or Kremlinoid subspecies) have enough missiles to feel comfortable riding out an enemy first strike, so be it.

  15. Josh (History)


    As it happens, it’s more complicated than a question of ignoring or overriding the IAEA. The IAEA is involved in the safeguards provision of the NPT, but that’s only one part of the Treaty. More on this to follow before too long.


    That thought had occurred to me, too, but as soon as one starts to work through an example, it becomes clear that the situation is… complicated. That is, the desired level is sensitive to assumptions. Numerical party — of warheads or delivery vehicles — is not a “robust solution” to counterforce requirements.

    It is, however, a “robust solution” to the felt need to create a perception of balance. Let’s pass the microphone to Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller:

    Q A two-parter on the NPR and terrorism, if I could. With the elevation of terrorism for the first time to a core theme of the NPR, what new programs are needed and required? And I guess I also have to ask, if it’s not Russia and China as the major risk, but terrorism and the proliferation, how do you still defend 1,550 warheads? That seems like a very high number.
    MR. MILLER: Okay. Let me start with the 1,550 warheads. That number was a product of negotiations with another sovereign power, with the Russian Federation. And the NPR did extensive analysis of the requirements with respect to — with respect to the United States with respect to both warheads and delivery vehicles.
    So that number is one that is associated with product of a negotiation and as the NPR says, while parity is not — well, approximate parity with respect to overall numbers is certainly not as important as it appeared in the Cold War, we still believe that approximate parity is appropriate with respect to, in particular, deployed strategic systems as we think about the balance on both sides to make sure there aren’t misperceptions, misunderstandings on either side, any sense of advantage or disadvantage.
    So that’s the sense as that we go down in new START and as we take next steps, the next step beyond that following ratification entry into force, that we ought to do it by working together.

    Note that Miller addresses “misperceptions,” not accurate perceptions. He refers to “either side,” but I sense that whose perceptions are being managed is really an open question.

  16. Hippo1

    It is unclear to me why the Administration chose to eliminate a useful policy of calculated ambiguity and replace it with one of making explicit nuclear threats against Iran and the DPRK. While this could conceivably reinforce deterrence, it is unlikely to aid in our stated goal of nonproliferation. The most likely outcome of this position is that it will reinforce the position of those Iranian policymakers that might favor weaponization as we have now told them that in a conventional conflict we reserve the right to use nuclear weapons if we feel it advances our national interests. This position was reinforced by Gate’s press conference and appears to be the way the Iranians have interpreted the NPR. If our intention was to reduce the perception that nuclear weapons retain military utility, we appear to have done the opposite.

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