The Nuclear Posture Review: What Does It Do and Why Should We Care?

On February 2nd of 2018, the United States Office of the Secretary of Defense published the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. The NPR articulates the nuclear policies of the US and establishes the weapons systems necessary to support these policies. The previous NPR was published in 2010 by the Obama administration, and in many ways the Trump administration is simply extending Obama-era nuclear policies. However, there are two key changes in the Trump administration’s NPR, which has led many arm control advocates to issue statements of alarm and question the wisdom of such modifications.

First, the 2018 NPR opens up the possibility for a more prominent role of nuclear weapons in US military strategy. The Trump administration’s NPR expands the range of circumstances that could warrant a nuclear retaliation. “[E]xtreme circumstances” which would justify the use of nuclear weapons are redefined to include “non-nuclear strategic attacks.” This has caused many to worry that the 2018 NPR gives President Trump more “excuses”  to use nuclear weapons, such as in response to a cyberattack.

Second, the 2018 NPR tells us of the Trump administration’s plan to adapt and “modernize” the nuclear capabilities of the US. In order to have “credible deterrence,” smaller and lower-yield nukes are deemed necessary by the 2018 NPR. In the short term, the US will modify a number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to provide a low-yield option. In the future, however, the US will reintroduce a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), with low-yield capabilities, which had previously been retired under the 2010 NPR. All of these changes are meant to increase the “flexibility” of the nuclear arsenal of the US. Again, this is a dramatic change from the previous nuclear policy under former-President Obama, which aimed at decreasing the number of US nuclear weapons.

Both of these changes to US nuclear policy and capabilities are claimed to be largely in response to Russia’s and China’s recent modernization of their own nuclear arsenals. The uncertainty around North Korea’s and Iran’s possible future nuclear capabilities are also cited as reasons for the changes. But do these changes actually deter the possibility of a foreign attack on the US? Andrew C. Weber, an Obama-era assistant secretary of defense, does not seem to think so. According to Weber, “We’re simply mirroring the reckless Russian doctrine. We can already deter any strike. The new plan is a fiction created to justify the making of new nuclear arms. They’ll just increase the potential for their use and for miscalculation.”

In addition to the two major changes, worries arise over the costs of this new nuclear policy. While stated to be “affordable,” it is doubtful the changes to the US nuclear arsenal will remain in budget. The 2018 NPR claims 6.4 percent of the current Department of Defense budget will be needed to modernize and maintain the US nuclear arsenal. A hard number estimate on the price of these changes is not given. However, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the Obama-era nuclear program would be around $400 billion over the next 10 years, and was unsure of how that monetary need would be met. This was before President Trump’s changes and additions. More to the point, the more money that is spent on an arguably unnecessary update to US nuclear weapons, the less money that can be spent on other, more necessary programs.

Ultimately, the 2018 NPR is worrisome, as it makes the use of US nuclear weapons possible in response to a non-nuclear attack, increases and modernizes the US nuclear arsenal but potentially fails to increase deterrence against attack, and will cost the US public an undetermined amount of money. While a treaty was signed 8 years ago committing Russia and the US to keep their long-range nuclear arsenals at minimal levels, encouraging arms activists that an important first step in reducing the number of nuclear weapons globally was being taken, Trump administration’s nuclear policy takes us further away from a post-nuclear age. Hope of eliminating nuclear weapons in the future seems naïve in the face of the 2018 NPR, which only increases and expands the nuclear weapons of the US and the conditions under which the US may use them.