U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Delayed Until March

(Jan. 6) -A U.S. Trident ballistic-missile submarine. The Obama administration has delayed the release of a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy (U.S. Navy photo).
(Jan. 6) -A U.S. Trident ballistic-missile submarine. The Obama administration has delayed the release of a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy (U.S. Navy photo).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will not unveil the results of a major review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy until March 1, a senior Defense Department official told Congress late last month (see GSN, Jan. 4).

Initially anticipated for release last month, the Defense Department-led Nuclear Posture Review is a major assessment of nuclear forces, strategy and readiness, sometimes dubbed the "NPR." A congressional deadline for submitting the report was subsequently set for the end of January, just prior to the due date for the fiscal 2011 budget request.

However, the Pentagon is now asking Capitol Hill for a further reprieve.

"Because of the complexity of the issues being addressed, we will be delivering the final NPR report to Congress on March 1, 2010, rather than Feb. 1," James Miller, the Defense Department's principal deputy undersecretary for policy, said in a Dec. 29 letter to key committee chairmen in the House and Senate.

Miller offered in the letter -- obtained by Global Security Newswire -- to provide briefings on the review's classified conclusions to the congressional defense authorization and appropriations committees in early February. The official said he appreciated congressional "understanding" of the need for delay.

The revelation follows a number of media reports on dissension within the Obama administration over how the Nuclear Posture Review should handle potential changes in strategy and modernization, issues that have dogged the president's national security cabinet since June (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2009).

The internal schisms relate to dual goals that Obama laid out in a major speech last April in Prague.

On the one hand, the president said his administration "will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons," to include negotiating new nuclear arms reductions with Russia and cutting back the "role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." On the other hand, the United States would for the foreseeable future "maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal," Obama said.

One matter under discussion during the posture review is the possibility of limiting the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to simply deterring nuclear attacks on the nation or its allies, potentially replacing a more ambiguous policy that could allow for nuclear strikes under a wide array of circumstances (see GSN, July 28, 2009).

At the same time, the White House is exploring how it might modernize the existing nuclear stockpile. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has advocated a more ambitious approach to updating the arsenal than some other top leaders, including Vice President Joseph Biden, have supported (see GSN, Sept. 24, 2009).

In Gates' perspective, further nuclear arms reductions can safely be made only if the remaining arsenal continues to credibly deter attacks on the United States and its allies, and the defense secretary has said that requires a replacement program for older warheads. By contrast, Biden reportedly has argued that manufacturing new nuclear warheads could undermine Washington's ability to build an international coalition to curb the spread of atomic arms to nations like Iran.

Hot debate over these matters continues in Washington and it remains unclear how it will be resolved, according to expert sources. Last month, all 40 Republicans in the Senate, joined by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), told Obama in a letter that they wanted to see plans for a "significant" effort to renovate the nuclear stockpile before they would consider ratifying a new arms control agreement with Russia (see GSN, Dec. 17, 2009).

News of Miller's letter to Capitol Hill regarding the posture review first broke yesterday on "The Cable," a Foreign Policy magazine blog.

However, informal word of the latest delay began circulating in mid-December, when a senior administration official told a Washington conference on national security that the review could not be completed until March. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Shortly thereafter, the top U.S. combat commander for nuclear weapons reportedly alluded to the delay during a strategic-warfare symposium in Omaha, Neb.

"Over dinner last night, STRATCOM commander Gen. Kevin Chilton said ... that the review might not be released until March," Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, stated in a message posted to his Facebook page. At the time, Chilton's command would not confirm the remarks and referred a reporter to the Pentagon.

Last month, the Defense Department officially was sticking to the earlier time table.

"The goal for the report remains Feb. 1, aligned with the budget," Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, said Dec. 18, several days before Miller's letter was sent.

Nonetheless, "delay was to be expected," Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told GSN this week. He said the Obama team is grappling with challenging issues and, given the gravity of nuclear arms strategy, should not feel rushed.

"There's no time-urgent crisis they have to address," Young said. "It's more important to get it right and to ensure the president's vision is achieved rather than to get it done quickly."

"It is challenging to put out an NPR that simultaneously supports the president's vision while at the same time articulates the need to maintain a reliable and effective nuclear deterrent," agreed David Trachtenberg, who served as a Pentagon policy official in former President George W. Bush's administration. "As a result, there is a risk that the NPR will be highly nuanced, leave partisans on both sides unsatisfied, and be difficult to explain to the public."

Compared to such reviews in the past, the complexity of hammering out a nuclear posture "is more acute this time because previous NPRs did not start from the premise that the very weapons on which nuclear deterrence has relied should be eliminated," he told GSN yesterday.

A delay in the review's release until March might offer the time needed to resolve some of these issues, he said.

"However," Trachtenberg added, "the Congress will be looking for the rationale behind the administration's budget request, including the administration's nuclear weapons modernization plan, when the budget gets submitted in February."

January 6, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will not unveil the results of a major review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy until March 1, a senior Defense Department official told Congress late last month (see GSN, Jan. 4).