Pentagon Expects Years of Study Before Making Changes to U.S. Nuclear War Plans

(Apr. 8) -A modified U.S. Minuteman ICBM lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a 2002 exercise. The Pentagon needs at least one year to determine how to update its nuclear targeting plans to meet new U.S. policy requirements and limits imposed by a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty signed today, a senior U.S. military official said this week (Lee Celano/Getty Images).
(Apr. 8) -A modified U.S. Minuteman ICBM lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a 2002 exercise. The Pentagon needs at least one year to determine how to update its nuclear targeting plans to meet new U.S. policy requirements and limits imposed by a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty signed today, a senior U.S. military official said this week (Lee Celano/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department will take a year or more to study how to implement new White House policy on nuclear weapons before integrating the changes into the nation's strategic combat plan, a top official said Tuesday (see GSN, April 6).

Pentagon leaders must assess the details of the review, combined with fresh weapons limits imposed by a new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty, before knowing in detail how secret nuclear targeting plans might be affected, said Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Under the Bush administration, U.S. nuclear targeting documents laid out a requirement "to strike a large number of targets in half a dozen countries; to maintain several different war plans with numerous strike options, including large strikes against Russia and China and smaller ones against regional states; and to ensure that [enemy nuclear] targets be destroyed with high confidence," according to an independent report issued last year.

Changes introduced by this week's Obama administration review and the nuclear arms pact might affect the types of weapons and delivery platforms retained by the United States into the future, and how they are allocated toward targets in highly classified war plans, according to officials and experts.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev today in Prague signed the so-called "New START" accord and its protocol document (see related GSN story, today).

"This day demonstrates the determination of the United States and Russia -- the two nations that hold over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- to pursue responsible global leadership," Obama said at the signing ceremony.

Though the treaty "just a couple of months looked like mission impossible," Medvedev said, "we obtained a document that in full measure maintains the balance of interest of Russia and the United States of America."

Under the new compact, each side will reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,550 deployed warheads. That is down nearly 30 percent from a 2,200-weapon limit the states were to meet by the end of 2012 under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, though some observers have expressed skepticism about the actual reductions (see GSN, March 31).

The two sides have seven years from the treaty's entry into force to complete the reductions, and the pact would remain in force for 10 years. It also could be extended another five years or superseded by another new treaty.

Washington and Moscow also agreed to cap their fielded and reserve strategic delivery vehicles at 800, a reduction from a possible ceiling of 1,100 bombers, missiles and submarines the two presidents discussed last summer. Each nation can keep on deployment no more than 700 of the systems, the White House said.

The Nuclear Posture Review goes a step further in stating that the United States would field just one warhead on each U.S. Minuteman 3 land-based ballistic missiles, of which the nation maintains 450 today, the review states. Efforts to convert some strategic delivery systems from nuclear-tipped to conventional would continue in the years to come, according to the review (see GSN, March 15).

The posture review report, released Tuesday, culminates a year of work led by the Pentagon. The New START limits on deployment of strategic nuclear weapons will allow Washington to maintain a longstanding triad of bomber aircraft, submarine-launched missiles and ICBMs, the review found.

Other major moves heralded in the report include a pledge not to target nonnuclear nations with U.S. atomic weapons if they are in compliance with global nonproliferation regimes, even if they attack the United States or its allies with biological or chemical weapons.

Washington's formidable conventional military capabilities will suffice to deter or respond to such strikes, the review states (see GSN, March 19). That said, the Obama administration reserved the right to withdraw this "negative security assurance" if the gravity of biological threats rises over time.

For now, the nation will stop short of declaring that the "sole purpose" of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies, the review concludes. However, U.S. leaders "will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted," the Nuclear Posture Review report states.

It was not immediately clear how the new policy guidance or arms control reductions might affect nuclear targeting plans, which are maintained at the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command, or the detailed composition of forces required to carry them out.

The military awaits the full distribution of the Nuclear Posture Review and the New START agreement's technical minutiae before studying the matter in depth, Cartwright said at a Tuesday press conference.

Once defense officials develop "an understanding of what the guidance is in some level of detail, then we'll go into a review from a policy perspective on [target-plan] guidance that would be appropriate under these new regimes," he told reporters.

Cartwright, who headed Strategic Command from 2004 to 2007, said the study would focus on the combination of U.S. atomic arms required to maintain deterrence against threats to the nation and its allies, with an eye toward gauging the "proportionality" of using a given nuclear weapon against specific types of potential targets.

"I would expect that that will take us somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two years," he said.

Though the Nuclear Posture Review moves to redefine the greatest nuclear threat to the United States as proliferation and terrorism, Russia's arsenal continues to be the primary driver for the size of the U.S. stockpile, according to the New America Foundation's Jeffrey Lewis. Other state-held nuclear forces and military and industrial targets typically represent lesser-included cases covered by U.S. nuclear targeting plans.

In and of themselves, the New START numerical limits are not likely to require significant changes in these plans, Lewis said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Going into the talks last spring, the Obama administration's negotiating position took into account the minimum number of warheads required to implement war-planning guidance issued by former President George W. Bush, said Lewis, who heads his organization's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative.

Others said the existing Bush targeting guidance still might have allowed for additional reductions of more than 200 deployed warheads below the level of 1,550 that Washington and Moscow ultimately embraced. However, Strategic Command's early reviews of the matter determined that yet deeper nuclear-weapon cuts -- such as down to 1,000 warheads -- could not be taken without new presidential guidance (see GSN, April 1, 2009).

As it stands, other attributes of the U.S. arsenal and projected targets might drive changes to Strategic Command's secret targeting plans, possibly in combination with the new policies ushered in by the Nuclear Posture Review, Lewis said. He anticipates that the Defense Department will utilize a combination of nuclear forces that offer a variety of capabilities such as prompt launch, targeting flexibility and capability against hardened facilities.

The specific combination might be altered in the coming years, depending on threat assessments and priorities, experts say.

It remains unclear whether increased reliance on conventional arms in U.S. national security strategy would translate into substantial changes to the nuclear targeting plan over the next couple of years, in Lewis' view.

"Nuclear weapons may still be preferred for some of these targets," he said. "They're an awfully efficient way of delivering a large amount of explosive yield over great distances."

The quantity and availability of U.S. conventional military assets might also play a role in how swiftly the Obama administration would be willing to shift a portion of the nuclear targeting burden onto non-nuclear arms, Lewis said. Even if that were not an issue, "they're not going to go faster than the Russians" in removing nuclear arms from the deployed arsenal, he said.

Another Pentagon follow-on study being launched in the wake of the Nuclear Posture Review will relate to Washington's warning time for any enemy launches and U.S. command and control over its own arsenal, Cartwright said.

The administration opted not to take additional nuclear forces off of launch-ready alert -- as many in the arms control community have called for -- but the general did say an extra measure of safety against misunderstandings or accidental firings could be gained in other ways.

"What we're studying is what can we do ... to ensure that, first, we have the maximum amount of decision time for national leaders before they would enter any decision to use a nuclear weapon," Cartwright said. "That can happen in better sensors, better command-and-control nets, and also in the architecture of the weapons themselves, how we would keep them safe."

One example of this type of safeguard has already been implemented, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the Tuesday press briefing.

"Our ICBMs are all targeted right now on the oceans so that if, God forbid and for the first time in 60 years there were an accidental launch or a problem ... it would put a missile right into the middle of the ocean rather than targeted on any country," Gates said.

In addition, deploying more modern sensors -- several of them developed for missile defense -- could, during a crisis, help the Pentagon "know sooner that weapons are being postured for launch, that weapons actually have been launched, [and] where they're going precisely," Cartwright said.

The idea would be to avoid triggering the kind of crisis seen during the Cold War, for example, when U.S. early warning systems initially mistook a flock of migrating geese for Soviet bombers launching World War III, experts say.

In a parallel effort, the Obama administration seeks to open new high-level dialogue with both Russia and China, aimed at helping avert strategic misunderstandings in a crisis.

"This is an effort to get more transparency, more confidence, understand the intent of each other, [and] understand where modernization programs are going, to reduce the potential for instability or misinterpretation," Cartwright told reporters.

Greater insight between Washington, Moscow and Beijing could offer valuable context to reduce dangerous confusion during an international emergency, the Marine Corps general suggested.

What is often "most difficult" to obtain during a crisis "is a better understanding of intent," Cartwright said. "Was this one weapon? Was it a flush of a large number of weapons? Were other forces postured at the same time?"

Overall, the new command-and-control study is aimed at ensuring that the president "has the maximum amount of knowledge necessary to make a decision and that that decision is not artificially rushed because of a lack of information that could have been attained," he said.

April 8, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department will take a year or more to study how to implement new White House policy on nuclear weapons before integrating the changes into the nation's strategic combat plan, a top official said Tuesday (see GSN, April 6).