Released today, the Biden administration’s unclassified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is, at heart, a terrifying document. It not only keeps the world on a path of increasing nuclear risk, in many ways it increases that risk. Citing rising threats from Russia and China, it argues that the only viable U.S. response is to rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, maintain an array of dangerous Cold War-era nuclear policies, and threaten the first use of nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios.
This NPR does not reflect the sensible steps President Biden proposed as a candidate to reduce the nuclear threat. Instead, the document says the United States has no choice but to build all-new nuclear weapons, despite science-based findings that the current warheads in the arsenal will be reliable for decades to come with only modest maintenance efforts. It abandons the pledge Biden made on the campaign trail to support a “no first use” policy and declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies. It endorses the new, lower-yield W76-2 warhead produced by the Trump administration that the 2020 Democratic Platform called “unnecessary, wasteful, and indefensible.”
The NPR argues that sensors will detect incoming nuclear-armed missiles quickly enough to “ensure a deliberative process allowing the President sufficient time to gather information and consider courses of action.” And, to give the Biden administration some credit, the NPR does declare that U.S. nuclear forces “are postured to withstand an initial attack,” meaning the president could wait until after any incoming nuclear attack hits, rather than being required to launch before impact. That is good.
However, the entire nuclear force posture is set up so the president could have ten minutes to make decisions that would decide the fate of humanity, from when the first warning comes until incoming missiles explode. There would be no coming back from a launch based on faulty information or made by a president unhinged from reality.
In that context, the NPR also explicitly rejects the reality that U.S. land-based missiles are on “hair trigger” alert, arguing disingenuously that those long-range systems are on “day-to-day alert.” The reality is, one phone call from the president and the issuing of a code shorter than a tweet could lead to the launch of hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles in less than five minutes, which would hit their targets in less than one-half an hour with warheads twenty times more destructive than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
The NPR does repeatedly claim that the United States would like to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in US security policy – one of the major goals of the Obama administration’s NPR as well – but it almost entirely fails to do so. It does seek to cancel the new, unneeded nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N) proposed in the Trump administration’s NPR, though the testimony of high-level military officials in favor of the cruise missile is leading Congress to fund the program anyway.
And the NPR does retire the B83 gravity bomb, a massive weapon roughly 80 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The indiscriminate destruction and immense radioactive fallout that would result from its detonation should make it unusable. Both of those are modest but positive steps, and the Biden administration should work hard to ensure Congress implements those decisions.
But the NPR misses the fundamental problem. Yes, the world is becoming a more dangerous place, but the only military threat to the survival of the United States is a nuclear war with Russia or China. Rather than recognizing that threat and seeking to find ways to end it, the Biden NPR doubles down on nuclear deterrence and the status quo approach to security that says we all must be prepared to die in less than an hour.
That is not a world any of us should want to live in. We need to find a new approach to security, one that can address tragedies like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but one that does not require humanity to live in constant peril. Such a world is possible, and the Biden administration should immediately begin strenuous efforts to create that outcome.