Five Things Everyone Should Know About the Nuclear Posture Review

October 4, 2021 | 3:42 pm
The White House/flickr
Eryn MacDonald
Global Security Analyst

The Biden administration is currently in the midst of a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which is expected to be finished in early 2022.

Q: What is the nuclear posture review (NPR)?

A: The Nuclear Posture Review is a document that lays out an administration’s approach to US nuclear weapons policy. It includes thinking on the overarching question of what role nuclear weapons should play in US security, as well as setting out corresponding strategy, doctrine, and force structure. In other words how the US decides what kinds of nuclear weapons the US will have, how it will use them, and how they fit in with the rest of its military and foreign policy plans. One role of the NPR is to define how the new administration views the international environment, and the potential threats faced by the United States in the near term. Importantly, the NPR does not itself change US nuclear policy or posture, but merely sets out the administration’s intentions, which then are implemented over time by formal policy documents, revised plans, and weapons procurement decisions made by Congress.

While the Clinton and Bush administration NPRs were largely classified (although pieces of the Bush report were leaked, to the fury of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) the Obama administration deliberately chose to make its NPR unclassified, saying that “we did not want to leave big open questions about what might be left unsaid because it’s in the classified domain.” The Trump administration’s NPR was also unclassified, and the Biden administration is expected to follow suit.

Q: Who is part of the nuclear posture review?

A: The Secretary of Defense is the official head of the Nuclear Posture Review, frequently in consultation with the Secretaries of Energy and State. In reality, the core group that works on the report varies with each administration but consists of officials from throughout the nuclear weapons establishment. The final report is approved and officially issued by the Secretary of Defense.

President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, ordered the first review in 1993. The goal was to provide a comprehensive assessment of US nuclear requirements as the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union significantly changed the international security situation. This review was conducted by a small group led by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Security and Counterproliferation Ashton Carter and Major General John Admire, the Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy at Joint Staff. There was considerable tension and conflict within the group, with Carter pushing for a much more ambitious rethinking of US nuclear policy that could have eliminated the land- and air-based legs (intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, respectively) of the nuclear triad, leaving just the sea-based (submarine) third leg. Overwhelming pushback from the military, however, prevented that otherwise sensible outcome, and the final NPR made only modest changes.

Q: How often does the United States do a nuclear posture review?

A: Since the first version under Clinton, each new president has done one Nuclear Posture Review, starting the process in their first year in office.  Congress mandated two of those reviews, under Bush and Obama. There is no set schedule for the reviews, but they frequently take longer than expected.  

There have been three other NPRs since the Clinton administration’s: by the George W. Bush administration in 2002, the Barack Obama administration in 2010, and the Donald Trump administration in 2018.

The Biden administration began its NPR in July 2021 and hopes to complete it by early 2022. This is a short timeline compared to previous NPRs, which mostly took roughly a year to complete. From UCS’s perspective, a quick NPR is problematic, because it implies the Pentagon is not considering major changes in the size of US nuclear forces or the policies in place to guide when the United States would use them. This approach contrasts with statements President Biden has long made about wanting to reduce US dependence on nuclear weapons and supporting a no first use nuclear policy. If the Pentagon does create another document largely endorsing the status quo, it will be an unfortunate missed opportunity, as the NPR is the primary chance for a president to put their own stamp on nuclear policy, and the US would be better served by making significant policy changes.

Q: Why is the nuclear posture review important?

A: The NPR is a chance for a new president to lay out their vision of how US nuclear weapons policy should work and to specify their priorities for changes in the makeup of the US nuclear arsenal, arms control, and other related topics. This document provides top-level guidance for all decisions made about nuclear weapons while it remains in place, so it informs the choices of those throughout the military and civilian nuclear weapons establishment as they prepare budgets and pursue programs that can reach decades into the future.

The NPR also forms part of US “declaratory nuclear policy”: policy that states the intention of the United States to act in a particular way. One example is “negative security assurances,” which have been present in all NPRs to date (and pre-date the NPRs). The 2018 NPR, for instance, states that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

Guidance from the NPR, such as the Trump administration NPR’s call for a new, more “useable” submarine-launched nuclear weapon, often leads to concrete changes in US nuclear forces. Within a year of the Trump NPR’s publication, the Navy had completed the first production unit of a new lower-yield submarine-launched nuclear missile, the W76-2, with deployment following less than a year later, by January 2020.

Nuclear posture reviews also have potentially far-reaching effects on US adversaries, who base their own nuclear policy and posture decisions partly on what they see the United States doing and use the NPR as one way to understand what to expect. This can contribute to either a lessening or increase of tension, ultimately leading to a greater or lesser potential for arms racing or even outright conflict.

Unfortunately, none of the NPRs to date have achieved the fundamental changes in nuclear policy that are required to dramatically reduce the nuclear threat. As noted earlier, the first NPR under Clinton considered such changes, but nothing came of that. Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009 declaring “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” raised hopes that his NPR would focus on the changes needed to achieve such a world, but while the Obama NPR process did consider options for major changes, the final document still ended up modest. After four NPRs in the past three decades, the US nuclear arsenal is considerably smaller than it was at the end of the Cold War, but still far larger than required for our security, and worse, the dangerous “old think” that underlies the nuclear policies and posture the United States maintains is still alive and well.

For example, US nuclear weapons are still maintained on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes; the president still has the sole, unchecked authority to start a nuclear war with a single phone call; and the United States still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in any conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary. Moreover, the Biden administration has shown every intention of rebuilding the entire US nuclear stockpile – every missile, every bomber, every submarine, every warhead—at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. All of this indicates that the Biden administration—like most administrations before it—is far from asking truly hard questions about the fundamental value of nuclear weapons for US security or the reliance on deterrence that has always accompanied them.

Q: What is missing from the nuclear posture review?

A: The nuclear posture review is squarely focused on the traditional nuts and bolts of US nuclear security. It does not address the broader humanitarian or equity impacts of nuclear weapons, either in their production and maintenance or in the event that they are ever used. Historically, the United States has not done a good job of acknowledging or dealing with the risks and harms that nuclear weapons production, testing, and clean-up have caused to both military and civilians, including those who simply had the misfortune to live near sites where these activities took place. These impacts have disproportionately fallen on communities that are more likely to face other challenges as well, such as Indigenous communities, communities of color, low-income, and rural communities. In addition, the community of those who make decisions about nuclear weapons and policy continues to be highly exclusive and includes few members of such communities. As the Biden administration calls for greater focus on issues of justice and equity, its NPR could take a step in this direction by elevating these issues and calling for a serious effort to include them in planning for future nuclear programs.