Administration to Signal Shift Away From a Nuclear Future

April 02, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

obama nuke 480x338 President Obama discusses nuclear safety and sanctions against Iran on Tuesday. (Pete Marovich/

Set for release early next week, the Obama administration’s long-awaited statement on the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile won’t provide a roadmap for their elimination, according to administration officials. But it will chip away at the strategic justification for the stockpile and shift the country’s defense away from nuclear weapons, beginning a gradual process pointing to their elimination over decades and setting the tone for months’ worth of diplomatic work to strengthen cooperation on nuclear security — a top priority for President Obama.

[Security1] The administration will publish the Nuclear Posture Review, a document outlining the role of nuclear weapons in overall U.S. defense planning, barely a week after the United States and Russia agreed to wide-ranging cuts in their nuclear arsenal. Months of arduous closed-door interagency negotiations over the document have led arms control enthusiasts on the left to worry that the document won’t go far enough to wean the U.S. off nuclear weapons and led nuclear hawks on the right to fear it will compromise national security.

Expect the left to be more disappointed than the right. “Don’t look for any time frame to go to zero” nuclear weapons, said a senior administration official who, like the others interviewed for this story, would not speak for the record before the so-called NPR is released. The document will reaffirm the need for the “nuclear triad” of delivery systems for nuclear weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles, heavy bombers and submarine-launched missiles. Nor will the NPR call for the prompt withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe or for taking deployed weapons off of hair-trigger alert, high priorities for a coalition of arms-control experts who wrote to Obama on Feb. 1. Perhaps most importantly, it will offer vague language — the product of interagency compromises — on whether the U.S. will renounce the doctrinal right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.

But according to officials involved in crafting the NPR, the document will break from its predecessors in reorienting nuclear strategy away from deterring or winning a nuclear conflict with an adversary and embrace the concept that the principal nuclear threat to the U.S. is nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation itself — a change that proponents view as undercutting the rationale for keeping the U.S. nuclear stockpile over time.

“That by itself is transformational,” said Joe Cirincione, a longtime Washington nuclear expert and president of the anti-proliferation Ploughshares Fund. “No previous Nuclear Posture Review has looked at the problem that way. This could be night and day compared to the Bush posture.”

Accordingly, the NPR will emphasize a reduced U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons and a greater one on conventional forces, a position officials believe to be a more credible deterrent of conflict, particularly toward rogue states like North Korea and Iran and stateless adversaries like al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Several officials said the “reduced-reliance” portions of the NPR are crafted to reassure allies that the U.S. deterrent umbrella extends beyond a nuclear attack on friendly forces. Similarly, the NPR will entrench the administration’s commitment to the Iran-focused missile defense the U.S. is constructing this decade in Eastern Europe.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an influential player in the NPR process, hinted at that approach last week during the unveiling of the “New START” arms reduction treaty with Russia. The treaty “protects our ability to develop a conventional global strike capability,” Mullen said, “should that be required.”

The administration is also coalescing around a push in the Senate for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an international accord rejected by the Senate in the late 1990s to prevent nuclear testing. While the NPR will commit the administration to maintaining the nuclear stockpile — and to foreswear the construction of new nuclear weapons — it is expected to “talk about the effectiveness of the arsenal without testing it,” Cirincione said. “The treaty you want to get to is CTBT. That’s a legacy item.”

In a February speech, Vice President Joe Biden appeared to offer a preview of how the NPR might reconcile stockpile maintenance with a rejection of testing: a renewed investment in the country’s national nuclear laboratories. “Our labs know more about our arsenal today than when we used to explode our weapons on a regular basis,” Biden said at the National Defense University.

Administration officials for the past week have described the release of the NPR as effectively the opening bell in a flurry of diplomatic activity on nuclear weapons. On Thursday, Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will sign the New START treaty in Prague, the site of last year’s big speech by Obama about an eventual nuke-free world. The following week, Obama will host the leaders of 44 nations for a summit on nuclear security, with a focus on preventing nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists. Obama “wants to make sure that at his level, the head of state level, that there’s agreement on the threats, and on the concerns, on everyone’s commitments,” Ellen Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control, told reporters Monday.

That summit will cue up two other important arms control events: the adoption of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council placing economic sanctions on Iran for illicit uranium enrichment activity, and a May conference in New York on strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Officials want to see greater penalties for violating the treaty’s provisions or pulling out of it altogether, a step taken with minimal reprisal by North Korea in 2003.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association and a signatory of the Feb. 1 letter, said the NPR’s shift in emphasizing that the main nuclear danger to the U.S. comes from proliferation and not from nuclear war was an “extremely important premise” that “changes the logic considerably” of the role, mission and size of U.S. nuclear forces. He urged the Obama administration to adopt the full implication of that premise in the NPR.

“What will be a transformative shift is to say that the purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear use against us and our allies,” Kimball said. “That would implicitly eliminate from the roles and missions [any] potential use of nuclear weapons to fight a conflict that begins as conventional or to counter chemical or biological forces.”