Obama Curbs U.S. Nuclear Weapons Development, Usage Policy

(Apr. 6) -U.S. President Barack Obama, shown last week, today issued a new Nuclear Posture Review that substantially reduces possible situations in which the United States would use nuclear weapons (Sara Davis/Getty Images).
(Apr. 6) -U.S. President Barack Obama, shown last week, today issued a new Nuclear Posture Review that substantially reduces possible situations in which the United States would use nuclear weapons (Sara Davis/Getty Images).

The Obama administration today issued its Nuclear Posture Review, swearing off creation of new nuclear weapons and significantly limiting the circumstances under which such armaments could be used, according to news reports (see GSN, March 24).

The document pledges the United States not to conduct nuclear strikes on non-nuclear states, a change in policy from the Bush administration stance that allowed for an atomic response to a biological or chemical strike, Reuters reported (Stewart/Spetalnick, Reuters, April 6).

President Barack Obama told the New York Times that the new policy does not apply to "outliers like Iran and North Korea" that are in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or have withdrawn from the pact.

The plan would also allow for rethinking of the policy if it appeared that biological weapons had been made dangerous enough to cause major harm to the United States, White House sources told the newspaper.

The "fundamental role" of the U.S. nuclear stockpile is now to forestall a nuclear assault on the United States and its allied nations. While that is a more limited role than seen in the past, it does not go as far as the "sole role" that antinuclear activists had urged (Sanger/Baker, New York Times, April 5).

"The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons," according to the document. "Therefore, it is essential that we better align our nuclear policies and posture to our most urgent priorities -- preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation" (Sheridan/Pincus, Washington Post, April 6).

The United States also "will not develop new nuclear warheads," according to the document. Programs intended to maintain existing systems "will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities" (U.S. Defense Department release, April 6).

Instead, the administration intends to augment the country's conventional weapons capabilities, Reuters reported.

"We have other means of deterrence that we can increase our reliance on, such as missile defenses, such as non-nuclear strike capabilities," according to a high-level defense source (Stewart/Spetalnick, Reuters).

The new posture disposes of much of the intentional uncertainty that has surrounded U.S. nuclear strategy since the start of the Cold War. Never before has Washington pledged to not use its strategic forces on non-nuclear nations that have not violated the nonproliferation treaty regardless of whether they launch a cyber, chemical or biological attack, the Times reported.

Such events, Obama contended, could be discouraged with a "series of graded options."

"I'm going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure," said Obama, who this week is scheduled to sign a new nuclear arms control deal with Russia and who next week expects to host a major nuclear security summit in Washington (see related GSN story, today).

The posture is expected to prove divisive on both sides of the political divide. Liberals had wanted a prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons, while conservatives have said that the U.S. strategic deterrent should not be restricted.

"We are going to want to make sure that we can continue to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons" and to "make sure that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances," the president said.

The release of the posture is months overdue in part because of debates within the administration over the degree to which U.S. nuclear policy should be revamped. A high-ranking official said the policy is the result of 150 meetings and that the president had personally directed some revisions (Sanger/Baker, New York Times).

The document also says that Washington "will pursue high-level, bilateral dialogues on strategic stability with both Russia and China which are aimed at fostering more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships," Reuters reported.

Though Beijing's strategic stockpile is nowhere near as large as that of the United States and Russia, "the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs -- their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them -- raises questions about China's future strategic intentions," the review reads (Stewart/Spetalnick, Reuters).

An Obama official said the posture does not touch on calls the United States to remove its Cold War-era tactical nuclear warheads from Europe, McClatchy Newspapers reported (Landay/Talev, McClatchy Newspapers, April 5).

April 6, 2010
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The Obama administration today issued its Nuclear Posture Review, swearing off creation of new nuclear weapons and significantly limiting the circumstances under which such armaments could be used, according to news reports (see GSN, March 24).