WASHINGTON — The U.S. is preparing to change its nuclear arsenal, a direct response to actions taken by Russia’s military over the last decade.
Officially unveiled Friday afternoon, the Nuclear Posture Review — a comprehensive look at America’s nuclear weapons and the doctrine behind it — largely continues ideas pushed forward from the 2010 review done by the Obama administration. It fully supports the nuclear modernization projects now underway and reaffirms commitments to non-proliferation treaties.
But thematically, it is hard not to notice a major shift from the 2010 NPR, which emphasized the goal of reducing nuclear stockpiles worldwide through American leadership, and the 2018 version, which emphasized the need to enhance capabilities to match with Russia.
Indeed, while the NPR features sections for North Korea, China and Iran, the primary focus is clearly Russia, and what Pentagon officials believe is the needed to ensure a balance of power with Moscow.
That was emphasized by Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, and Greg Weaver, deputy director for strategic stability on the J5, Joint Staff, two of the key authors of the report who spoke to reports ahead of its release.
Russia in recent years have invested heavily in lower-yield, so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, which are designed to pair with a strategy of “escalate to deescalate.” Under that concept, if fighting broke out between NATO forces and Russia, Moscow would move quickly to use a tactical nuclear weapon. The assumption would be that the U.S., armed only with large, world-ending strategic weapons, would be unable to retaliate appropriately and essentially stand down in the face of Russian aggression.
It’s a philosophy whose efficacy — and indeed, existence — is debated, with members of the nonproliferation community arguing that any use of a tactical nuke would inevitably lead to larger nuclear exchanges, not the end of conflict. But Weaver argues that the U.S. has no choice but to take Russia at its word on that strategy — and to act accordingly.
“We do not believe Russia would be expanding their limited resources to modernize and expand their nonstrategic nuclear forces if they had little or no confidence in this strategy,” Weaver said. “Why would they throw good money after bad? So we concluded that the current disparity and the range of low-yield nuclear options available to the two sides increases the risk of deterrence failure.”
As a result, the NPR proposes introducing two capabilities into the U.S. arsenal — a low-yield warhead for the submarine launched ballistic missile, as well as the development of a new submarine launched cruise missile. Those weapons would be used to deter Russia from thinking the U.S. would not respond to its use of tactical nuclear weapons by, essentially, threatening to use similar weapons in response.
While the U.S. already has lower-yield warheads in inventory, those are all air-launched systems, the men argued, which could be intercepted by Russian air defenses. Adding such a warhead to a submarine would provide more options to a U.S. president in the future.
But both officials stress that the document is not designed to make the use of nuclear weapons more likely, something critics have raised concerns about since a leaked draft of the document appeared on the Huffington Post weeks ago.
“We’re not planning to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. By the same token, we’re not planning to increase the role for nuclear weapons,” Soofer said.
Escalation to Negotiation?
Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear analyst with the Hudson Institute, thinks the Pentagon is on the right path, noting that “if the Russians have a weapon delivery option, they’re putting a nuke on it” at the moment.
“Clearly the Russians believe that they could possibly pop off a low yield nuke and we would not have an appropriate response, and our only option would essentially be to end the war rather than go all-in with strategic nuclear weapons,” she said. “The Pentagon is trying to get the Russians to rethink the strategy and raise the threshold. We’re not going to have a ton of tactical nuclear weapons. That’s not what this NPR is about in terms of overall cost and investment.”
But Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, doesn’t buy the idea there are “enormous gaps” between the U.S. deterrent and what Russia is offering.
“If Putin somehow determines that we would be unwilling to respond to limited Russian first use, it won’t be because he thinks we don’t have enough nuclear weapons,” Reif said. “It will be based on a political calculation that he has a greater stake in the conflict and we and our allies won’t be willing to run the risk of escalation. More hardware won’t solve this political problem.
“Given the overall superiority of U.S. and NATO conventional forces, which Russia is most worried about, it’s in our interest to raise the threshold for nuclear use, not lower it. That means continuing to invest in sustaining and as needed augmenting our conventional forces, not building new, more usable nuclear weapons.”
Weaver, for his part, disagrees with the idea Russia will continue be deterred by conventional overmatch, given the investments they are marking.
“Deterrence is in the mind of the adversary, right? What I think should deter the Russians is irrelevant. It’s what the Russians are deterred by that matters. And as I said, we believe there is evidence that the Russians think their coercive nuclear use strategy has some prospect of success,” he said.
Asked how he thought Russia would respond to this NPR, Soofer paused, then said “I don’t know. I’m sure they won’t respond well.” But he argued that moving in the direction of the low-yield warheads could potentially drive Russia to the negotiation table, and perhaps convince them to move back under compliance of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.