The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Continuity and Change

“The Secretary shall initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.” President Donald Trump, January 2017

One of President Donald Trump’s first national security orders directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct a comprehensive review of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its role in U.S. national security. On February 2, 2018, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was approved by both Defense Secretary James Mattis and President Trump. Compared to the 2010 NPR conducted by President Barack Obama’s administration, there is significant continuity—but also significant changes—envisioned for the role of nuclear weapons.

The 2018 NPR begins with a review of the deteriorating security environment, focusing on the return of great power competition, especially with Russia and China, which have both shown a willingness to use force and threats of force to challenge the post-Cold War international order and long-recognized norms of behavior. Additionally, although the U.S. continued to reduce the numbers and salience of nuclear weapons, other states did not follow and, indeed, moved in the opposite direction. New nuclear threats have emerged since the 2010 NPR, most notably North Korea. Although currently contained by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran retains the ability to develop a nuclear weapon in as little as a year should they so choose.

The 2010 NPR postulated that the greatest threat from nuclear weapons was the possibility of a terrorist organization acquiring and using such a weapon. The 2018 NPR, on the other hand, considers the most likely use of a nuclear weapon would be during a regional conventional conflict in which a nuclear-armed state employed a nuclear weapon in order to achieve an otherwise unobtainable victory. Russia, for instance, has maintained a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” for over a decade, believing that a limited use of nuclear weapons might achieve results that its conventional forces alone could not. To this end, Russia has modernized and expanded its arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), which are unconstrained by any treaty and to which the U.S. largely lacks comparable capabilities.

As in 2010, the 2018 NPR’s primary purpose is deterring the use of nuclear weapons by a potential adversary. Also consistent between administrations is the requirement to hedge against future uncertainty, whether technological or geopolitical; the need to assure allies that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons; and the explicit statement that nuclear weapons would only be used in extreme circumstances. President Trump diverges at this point from his predecessor in more broadly defining “extreme circumstances” to include “non-nuclear strategic attack,” which includes (but is not limited to) attacks that cause strategic effects against U.S and/or allied civilian populations or infrastructure; U.S. nuclear forces; the ability to command and control nuclear forces; or the ability to detect and assess attacks against the U.S. and allies. The 2018 NPR is careful to not narrowly define specifics of what constitutes a non-nuclear strategic attack, but obvious possibilities include severe cyber or biological attacks. The 2018 NPR does retain President Obama’s Negative Security Assurance that states that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The apparent contradiction between these statements is not resolved in the document and may be its most significant flaw.

President Obama made it clear that his ultimate goal was the total elimination of nuclear weapons. While the 2018 NPR also addresses this goal, it views nuclear weapons as likely an enduring element of the security environment. The NPR recognizes that there is no “one-size-fits-all” means to deter potential nuclear adversaries. Therefore, it calls for a tailored and flexible approach to deter nuclear use, laying out specifics for the four countries of greatest concern (Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran).

The U.S. nuclear enterprise has been neglected since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Most every element of the nuclear enterprise was deployed in the 1980s or even earlier. The NPR calls for an across-the-board revitalization of the nuclear enterprise, with new weapons and delivery systems for each leg of the nuclear triad (air, sea, and land-based systems). Additionally, it recognizes the need to enhance and strengthen the ability to command and control those forces in any potential conflict, including new and emerging threats in such areas as cyber and space. Two specific directives have generated the most concern: a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) for attack submarines. Both are seen as required to at least partially fill the gap between robust Russian and lackluster U.S. NSNW capabilities.

Perhaps surprisingly, the DoD currently spends only about 3 percent of its budget on the nuclear enterprise; the extensive modernization and revitalization the NPR envisions will increase this to about 6 percent of the budget for several decades. This is, of course, a significant amount of money, but Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated that “we can afford survival.”

The 2018 NPR lays a reasonable and ultimately affordable way ahead for the nuclear enterprise, given degrading conditions in the security environment and decades of neglect. It implements the initial work to modernize the enterprise begun by the Obama administration. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons have prevented great power conflict since 1945 and ensured the ultimate security of the United States. It does not shut the door to future arms control initiatives. It soberly assesses the expansion of nuclear arsenals in potential adversary countries and seeks to make it clear that the costs of using nuclear weapons will always exceed any potential benefit. Implementing the recommendations and direction of the 2018 NPR will ensure U.S. security for decades to come.

For a more in depth look at the Nuclear Posture Review, watch our previously recorded webinar with Keith Sloan.

For more information on the Bachelor of Science in National Security Program, click here.