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NPR 2022 Recognizes Importance of Risk Reduction, Falls Short on Reducing Role of Nukes

December 26, 2022
Leonor Tomero

After the anticipation of a new direction for nuclear policy and strategy from U.S. President Joe Biden when he took office in 2021, the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) makes relatively few changes from the 2018 NPR, continuing decades-long policies and strategies.  In many respects, the 2022 NPR is much more aligned with Donald Trump’s 2018 NPR than with Barack Obama’s 2010 NPR. It maintains focus on both nuclear modernization and arms control/risk reduction as essential elements of deterrence but falls short on actions to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, which was a priority goal for Biden.1 Moreover, in a way, the NPR even seems to have broadened that role.

The most notable difference from the 2018 NPR is the recognition of new geopolitical realities and threats, notably the nuclear military expansion from China and Russia (including in the context of the war in Ukraine), that raise new questions about how to maintain effective deterrence into the future.2 In answering this question, the NPR reaffirms the nuclear modernization program of record, including the new ICBM Sentinel, a new submarine, the new B21 bomber and nuclear-capable F35, a Long-Range Stand Off missile and associated warheads developed and produced by the Department of Energy. The NPR also continues the deployment of the new W76-2 lower yield warhead carried on SSBNs that was developed and deployed in the Trump administration.  Additionally, it continues the development of the new W93 warhead to be carried on SSBN missiles, which was added as a 3rd sea-based warhead (or 4th if one counts the new W76-2) after decades of relying on two sea-based warheads (the W76 and W88 have undergone extensions).

It also continues the decades-long warfighting strategy that drives high numbers of nuclear weapons. It also echoes the 2018 statement that in case of nuclear weapons use, “the United States would seek to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.”3 Moreover, it still remains unclear what this would mean in a nuclear conflict, and at what point this benchmark is no longer a meaningful objective, either politically or militarily.

Further, echoing STRATCOM’s concerns conveyed in 2021 and 2022 congressional testimonies, the NPR opens the door to the potential need to increase the number of nuclear weapons given Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization and expansion. Specifically, the NPR states that the expansion of China’s arsenal will complicate arms control with Russia and that “it may be necessary to consider nuclear strategy and force adjustments to assure our ability to achieve deterrence and other objectives for the PRC—even as we continue to do so for Russia.”

The NPR falls short in addressing the president’s early priority of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our defense strategy. This task was answered very narrowly and the NPR includes several inconsistencies in this regard. First, the declaratory policy is not much different from previous NPRs, noting that it “reflects a sensible and stabilizing approach to deterring a range of attacks in a dynamic security environment” and “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring attacks that have strategic effects against the United States, its Allies and partners.”4 It echoes previous NPRs noting that the use of nuclear weapons would only be considered in “extreme circumstances,” and reprises wording from the 2010 NPR on the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons.

Second, while the explicit role of “hedge against an uncertain future” was dropped in the list of formal roles of nuclear weapons (initiated in the 2018 NPR), the nuclear enterprise across the Department of Energy and Department of Defense invariably contribute to this capability, and the 2022 NPR reaffirms that “[m]aking the overall defense enterprise more resilient requires investing in the nuclear enterprise to ensure it is capable of responding in a timely way to changes in the security environment or challenges that arise in our nuclear force.”5 Further, NPR statements on reducing the role of nuclear weapons remain tentative: “There is some opportunity to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategies for the PRC and Russia in circumstances where the threat of nuclear response may not be credible and where suitable non-nuclear options may exist or may be developed” (emphasis added).  

Meanwhile, parts of the NPR even point to adopting a broader role for nuclear weapons, stating for example that “[i]n a dynamic security environment, a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent is foundational to broader U.S. defense strategy” and “[o]ur nuclear deterrent … undergirds all our national defense priorities.”6 Further, the NPR links the role of nuclear weapons with conventional deterrence, noting explicitly that “this NPR underscores the linkage between the conventional and nuclear elements of collective deterrence and defense.” Thereby, it is unclear how the NPR reduced the role of nuclear weapons, and, as stated above, in some notable way this document even seems to have broadened it.

With regard to recognizing the importance of strategic stability, the NPR includes helpful language, stating that “deterrence alone will not reduce nuclear dangers” and “the United States will pursue a comprehensive and balanced approach that balances a renewed emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally,” but the NPR lacks in substantive measures.

While the 2018 NPR also recognized the importance of arms control, the renewed focus on arms control and risk reduction in the 2022 NPR is clear, stating “[t]he United States is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026.” It also recognizes the current geopolitical realities and challenges, and includes the caveat that “negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith” as a reflection of the stalled dialogue with Russia on strategic stability and arms control due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. While the Biden administration has aptly reduced the risk of a miscalculation or misperception that could lead to unintended nuclear escalation, through concerted action and messaging, America’s overall nuclear posture and strategy to address Russian nuclear threats remains unchanged.

While the 2022 NPR helpfully focuses on the usefulness of arms control as a national security tool, it conflates the stabilizing value of arms control with reducing the role of nuclear weapons.  It states: “Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.”7 Verifiable arms control contributes to deterrence stability but does not fundamentally reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security. Stable deterrence still depends on the centrality of the role of nuclear weapons.

Recognizing the value of arms control and risk reduction to effective deterrence is an important reminder that deterrence premised on nuclear modernization alone can lead to a dangerous arms race and risks of miscalculation and misperception, and lack of predictability. Stable deterrence is strengthened by verifiable limits on the number of nuclear weapons and dialogue and agreements aimed at reducing unintended nuclear risks. However, the impending expiration of the New START Treaty in 2026 and the changed political conditions over the past decade (which even in 2010 were becoming harder, when advice and consent to New START was approved in the Senate by a vote of 71-26 in the last days of the 2009 lame duck congressional session) and the likely continuing challenges in the Senate to reach the 67 votes (2/3 majority) needed to approve a new arms control treaty portend the end of traditional arms control; thus creative, new ideas for achieving arms control objectives of predictability and strategic stability will become more important.

Similarly, with the increasing potential for attacks in the space and cyber domains that could lead to rapid escalation and miscalculation resulting in the use of nuclear weapons, creating a more stable environment that reduces the risk of miscalculation must be a high priority. The NPR correctly identifies, for the first time, these as important elements of an effective nuclear posture.  However, new actions and ideas to support these priorities are lacking in the NPR, as it refers to existing practices like open-ocean targeting first done in the 1990s, not MIRVing ICBMs, which was done to meet force structure requirements under New START (while noting the capability to upload a portion of the ICBM force, and dismissing proposals to reduce alert levels) and not relying on launch-under-attack ensure a credible response which comes from survivable second-strike capacity mainly through deployed SSBNs. Since the NPR did not include any new ideas, implementation of the NPR should address new actions and policy ideas to address the risk of miscalculation in a crisis or conflict, which would benefit from both civilian and military input.

In this context, the NPR missed an important opportunity to rethink nuclear deterrence and adapt to new threats. These include Russia’s increased reliance on nuclear weapons, the growing threat low-yield nuclear weapons use in the context of a regional conventional conflict—brought to the forefront in the context of Russia’s invasion and on-going war in Ukraine—the development of novel nuclear systems by both Russia and China and increasing threats in the space and cyber domains. In the absence of willing partners for arms control and risk reduction8 and in the face of a looming dangerous nuclear arms race, the United States should prioritize innovation for deterrence resilience and to reduce the increasing risks of miscalculation that could lead to nuclear war. Technological and private section innovation in space architectures, space imagery, big data analytics, additive manufacturing and machine learning represent crucial new capabilities to advance U.S. competitive edge against Russia and China.

Though resilience and innovation were key tenets of the National Defense Strategy, they were not reflected in the NPR. Applying these new core principals to nuclear deterrence will modernize and strengthen strategic deterrence to effectively address new threats to the United States and its allies and partners.

Footnotes

  1. See for example, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, March 2021, stating that “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.” See also National Security Strategy, November 2022, stating “We remain equally committed to reducing the risks of nuclear war. This includes taking further steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy.”
  2. The 2018 NPR noted: “The United States does not wish to regard either Russia or China as an adversary and seeks stable relations with both.”
  3. The 2018 NPR included on page VIII: “If deterrence fails, the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies and partners.” This statement is was also included in the unclassified 2020 Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States.
  4. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl explained that “A sole-purpose declaratory policy has long been supported by President Biden, but the NPR concluded that now is not the time for making this change.”
  5. See 2022 NPR, p9. The NPR also separately notes that a new Production-based Resilience Program will ensure that the nuclear security enterprise is capable of full-scope production and “the PRP will establish the capabilities and infrastructure that can efficiently produce nuclear weapons required in the near-term and beyond, and that are sufficiently resilient to adapt to additional or new requirements should geopolitical or technology developments warrant.”
  6. 2022 NPR, page 9. This statement in the NPR echoes previous statements by former Strategic Command Commander Charles Richard, see for example Testimony of Charles A. Richard before the Senate Armed Services Committee, April, 20 2021, that “Strategic deterrence is the foundation of our national defense policy and enables every U.S. military operation around the world” (emphasis added).
  7. 2022 NPR, page 1.
  8. For example: Putin has been engaging in dangerous and irresponsible saber-rattling, brandishing the threat of nuclear weapons and renewing the specter of a potential nuclear conflict in Europe in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine as he warned of rising unclear tensions; the Strategic Stability Dialogue was paused when Russia invaded Ukraine; Russia recently canceled a U.S.-Russia meeting to resume the New START Bilateral Consultative Commission, which has not met since the outbreak of COVID-19; and China has consistently resisted bilateral or bilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control or risk reduction.
Author

Leonor Tomero

Leonor Tomero is a leading expert on nuclear deterrence, national security space and missile defense, including applying innovative technologies and concepts for strategic deterrence. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy and as Counsel and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Democratic Staff Lead on the House Armed Services Committee.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo from the U.S. National Archives shared in the public domain.