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Former White House Aides: New Nuclear Guidance to Have Lasting Effect

By Lee Michael Katz

Special to Global Security Newswire

President Obama, right, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in Tuesday's presidential debate. Decisions the U.S. president is expected to reach on the government's "nuclear guidance" would have a years-long impact on the nation's plans for the organization of and strategy for its atomic arsenal, according to experts (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster). President Obama, right, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in Tuesday's presidential debate. Decisions the U.S. president is expected to reach on the government's "nuclear guidance" would have a years-long impact on the nation's plans for the organization of and strategy for its atomic arsenal, according to experts (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

WASHINGTON -- Whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the U.S. president in coming months and years will face a series of stark decisions on strategic issues, including one that will decide the size of America’s nuclear arsenal.

Setting the government’s “nuclear guidance” will be a critical upcoming decision no matter who is president, according to Jon Wolfsthal, a former White House official now at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“It is the key to all the nuclear decision-making for the next 20 years,” he said.

“The guidance is the basis for all of the plans and the plans are the basis for all of the weapons and the platforms,” agreed retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Smolen, who directed strategic policy and arms control at the National Security Council between 2004 and 2006.

“It is the first commandment in setting all other nuclear decisions,” said Wolfsthal. Until earlier this year he was special adviser for nuclear security to Vice President Joseph Biden.

“It explains [against] what targets our nuclear weapons will be directed, under what circumstances should the military be prepared to use them … and [what constitute] acceptable targets for nuclear strikes,” he said.

The number of nuclear warheads required typically has flowed from this type of guidance, and the Obama administration reportedly is in the process of finalizing just such a directive. Under the Defense Department-led 2010 Nuclear Posture Review “Implementation Study,” the president’s national security team has drafted new atomic-weapons policy.

However, reports are that Obama has not yet approved it and its details have not been publicly released.

Whatever guidance is issued by the next president, it could determine whether and how deep further nuclear weapon reductions are taken beyond those negotiated by the United States and Russia in the New START accord, said Smolen, who after military retirement served as a Bush administration deputy for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The agency is a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the atomic weapons complex.

During the next administration, “there’s going to have to be some sort of decisions on how much we do and how fast we do it,” he said.

Under New START, which entered into force last year, each side agreed to cap its deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550. The pact allows Washington and Moscow to each field 700 nuclear delivery platforms -- such as bomber aircraft, ICBMs and submarine-based ballistic missiles -- with another 100 permitted in reserve.

Leading up to the negotiations that resulted in New START, the Pentagon determined that the existing nuclear guidance and military plan inherited from the Bush administration could form the basis for modest, additional nuclear weapons cuts. A prior accord, the Moscow Treaty, limited each side to 2,200 deployed warheads.

Inside the Obama administration, “we considered both low numbers and high numbers, but this is one decision which is, by definition, presidential,” said Wolfsthal, who now advises the re-election campaign. “Whoever is president on Jan. 20, 2012, is going to have to make this set of decisions.”

A Government Accountability Office report released this summer described an executive branch “process for developing nuclear targeting and employment guidance” that it said had “remained virtually unchanged since 1991.”

Under the typical process, “the president develops guidance that defines the fundamental role of nuclear weapons, deterrence strategy, and basic employment strategy,” according to the GAO assessment. The White House document normally “includes a list of potential adversaries and target categories to hold at risk,” the report states.

The guidance in place today, issued in 2002 as National Security Presidential Directive-14, “identifies potential adversaries, target categories, and scenarios requiring preplanned nuclear options; emphasizes the need for survivable and flexible nuclear forces; describes the type of nuclear options available to the president; outlines a plan structure designed to avoid an 'all-or-nothing' response to a nuclear attack; and directs nuclear forces to hold at risk those critical assets and capabilities which a potential enemy leadership values most,” according to the congressional watchdog agency.

Going forward, a complicating factor is the costly scope of maintaining a reliable U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal well into the future, Smolen said. 

“The difficulty is on the strategic side we've got to recapitalize all our platforms and virtually all of our weapons,” he said. 

The challenge, Smolen said, is “building new weapons that have all the characteristics that we want them to have that will enable us to have smaller numbers, [without explosive] testing, and that will last a lot longer.”

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