Nuclear Posture Review


After a little less than one year in office, the Bush administration completed a congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will guide U.S. nuclear force planning over the next decade. The Department of Defense (DOD) incorporated this review into a broader examination of the U.S. military. The NPR reiterates that U.S. nuclear weapons play a fundamental role in enhancing U.S. force projection capabilities. While the administration was forthcoming with key findings of the NPR, it declined to publish openly the body of the report, due to classification considerations. Leaked portions of the full report sparked widespread concern that the United States could develop new nuclear weapons and lower the threshold of nuclear use. The administration countered the public reaction, claiming the review largely represents a continuation of past nuclear policy.

In key respects, the new NPR reflects policy developments from the Clinton and first Bush administrations. First, although it acknowledges the much improved U.S.-Russian relationship, this review recognizes that U.S. nuclear planning must account for the fact that Russia is the only nuclear weapon state that could conceivably destroy the United States. Second, the NPR lists six other states as potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons. Third, the NPR emphasizes the objective of maintaining and enhancing U.S. military flexibility. Fourth, it outlines a new triad consisting of offensive strike systems (which partly include the old strategic nuclear triad), defensive systems, and a responsive defense infrastructure. Fifth, the NPR emphasizes U.S. concerns about hardened and deeply buried bunkers that could contain weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Sixth, it supports maintaining a large reserve stockpile of nuclear weapons. The new NPR mainly differs from the previous administration's nuclear policy by rejecting arms control agreements, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It also calls for significantly shortening the time required to prepare for renewed nuclear testing.

On December 31, 2001, the Bush administration submitted to Congress the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Congressionally mandated, this review represented months of Department of Defense (DOD) analysis to determine U.S. nuclear force planning over the next five to 10 years. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the civilian government agency charged with development and oversight of U.S. nuclear weapons, worked closely with DOD in preparing the NPR.

At the earliest stages of preparing the review, the DOD decided to conduct a comprehensive examination by tightly coupling the NPR with the Quadrennial Defense Review, which occurs every four years and examines all aspects of the United States military. The NPR, therefore, formulated a 21st-century strategic posture that integrated nuclear weapons into broader aspects of defense planning. As a result, nuclear weapons explicitly occupy only one end of a continuum of military force options.

On January 9, 2002, the DOD held a press conference to give an overview of the NPR. At that time, the DOD released the unclassified executive summary of the review, a set of slides highlighting the major points of the NPR, and a transcript of the press conference. However, the DOD did not publish the body of the NPR, which contains some classified material. On March 9, 2002, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times revealed that they had obtained the full report. Soon thereafter, substantial excerpts appeared on the Internet.

Press attention and leaked portions of the NPR generally stimulated two contradictory reactions:

Fear that the Bush administration would develop new nuclear weapons and move closer to conducting pre-emptive nuclear strikes against a significant number of targets.
A view that the new NPR does not represent a significant departure from the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review and other nuclear policy studies performed by the Clinton administration.
In fact, comparing the new NPR to the prior administration's nuclear policy shows that, by and large, the George W. Bush administration's NPR continues and somewhat modifies many of the policies in the previous NPR and in the Clinton and George H. W. Bush administrations' pronouncements. Nevertheless, significant differences stand out.

Continuations of Previous Policy

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear strategy has evolved to adapt to the new security environment. This change began to take shape in the first Bush administration around 1991 and continued along similar lines under the Clinton administration.

During the Cold War, Russia was the principal nuclear threat to the United States. The demise of the Soviet Union shifted U.S. nuclear weapons planning away from mainly targeting Russia. Nonetheless, Russia remains the only nation that can conceivably destroy the United States because of the size of its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, uncertainty over the future course of Russian foreign policy motivates the United States to keep a massive nuclear weapons reserve force. For these reasons, Russia still occupies a place on the list of potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons. In addition, the new NPR explicitly lists six other countries as targets: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and China. This nuclear targeting list reflects previous administrations' planning.

Taking these threats into account, the NPR discusses U.S. plans to reduce operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to a level of 3,800 warheads by 2007 and 1,700-2,200 by 2012. These reductions primarily follow Clinton administration plans under the 1997 Helsinki Protocol, intended for a possible START III arms reduction agreement, with the important difference that warhead dismantlement was not included in the Bush-Putin treaty signed at the May 2002 Presidential Summit.

Aside from deliberately developing targeting plans against countries of concern, the NPR calls for greater emphasis on adaptive planning. Such planning will allow the United States to produce war plans quickly in response to contingencies that could arise throughout the world. This development complements the U.S. military's decision to move from a so-called "threat-based" to a "capabilities-based" defense system, which would purportedly give the United States more flexibility. The roots of this defense philosophy go back as far as the early 1990s and beyond.

U.S. strategic nuclear weapons have traditionally been organized in a triad of land (intercontinental ballistic missiles), sea (submarine launched ballistic missiles), and air (bombers) forces. The new NPR emphasizes that nuclear weapons will continue to play a fundamental role in war fighting. It outlines a new triad in which the old triad occupies part of the offensive strike systems leg. Improved conventional strike weapons round out this leg. The second leg includes active and passive defenses in which missile defenses are a fundamental component. Finally, the third leg focuses on developing a defense infrastructure that can respond rapidly to changes in the security environment. In essence, the new triad boils down to a repackaging of concepts from previous administrations.

The new NPR discusses at length the potential need for new weapons systems, especially to counter threats posed by hardened and deeply buried bunkers that could house weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The DOD and NNSA are studying both nuclear and conventional weapons systems for these missions. Critics are concerned that this research could lead to new nuclear testing. To a large extent, this study mirrors previous administrations' concerns and research, which led to the development of the B-61-11 bunker busting-bomb, done without nuclear testing, during the 1990s.

Departures from Previous Nuclear Policy

The new NPR primarily departs from past nuclear policy by downplaying and, in key instances, repudiating arms control agreements. The stated objective of this policy is to give the United States maximum flexibility.

While the Clinton administration worked to preserve the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Bush administration renounced this treaty expressly to remove limits on missile defense development. However, missile defense tests will not reach those limits for several years. Although the Clinton administration supported limited missile defense systems, the new NPR calls for expanding and increasing the layers of these defenses.

The previous administration advocated ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Though the present administration adheres to the nuclear testing moratorium, it will not seek passage of the CTBT. The new NPR also proposes to reduce the time required to prepare for renewed testing from a two-to-three-year period to much less than one year.


  • U.S. Nuclear Posture Review

  • Nuclear Posture Review (Excerpts), December 31, 2001,

Official U.S. Government Reports

  • Department of Defense, "Findings of the Nuclear Posture Review," Set of Slides, January 9, 2002.
  • Department of Defense, "Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review," Press Briefing Transcript, January 9, 2002.
  • Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review Report, Executive Summary, January 2002,

Congressional Testimonies

  • Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on the Nuclear Posture Review, February 14, 2002
  • Statement of Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy,
  • Statement of Admiral James Ellis, U.S. Navy, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Strategic Command; Basic Terminology of the Nuclear Posture Review,
  • Statement of General John Gordon, National Nuclear Security Administration,

Articles and Reports

  • Joint Working Group Study, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC), "Reshaping U.S.-Russian Threat Reduction: New Approaches for the Second Debate," November 2002.
  • Philipp C. Bleek, "Report Says U.S. Studying New Nuclear Capabilities," Arms Control Today, January/February 2002,
  • Philipp C. Bleek, "Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons," Arms Control Today, April 2002,
  • Hans M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Futures: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and U.S. Nuclear Strategy," British American Security Information Council, BASIC Research Report 98.2, March 1998.
  • Hans M. Kristensen, "The Matrix of Deterrence: U.S. Strategic Command Force Structure Studies," The Nautilus Institute, May 2001; declassified documents from 1991 to 1996 that formed the basis of this report are available at the Nautilus Institute's Nuclear Strategy Project.
  • Robert W. Nelson, "Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons," FAS Public Interest Report, January/February 2001,
  • Keith B. Payne, Study director, "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control," National Institute for Public Policy report, January 2001.
  • C. Paul Robinson, "A White Paper: Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century," Sandia National Laboratories, March 22, 2001,
  • Bruce Blair et al., "Toward True Security: A U.S. Nuclear Posture for the Next Decade," Federation of American Scientists, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Natural Resources Defense Council Report, June 2001.
  • Steven M. Younger, "Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century," Los Alamos National Laboratory, LAUR-00-2850, June 27, 2000,
  • Department of Defense, "Report to Congress on the Defeat of Hardened and Deeply Buried Targets," July 2001; submitted to Congress in October 2001 by the Secretary of Defense in Conjunction with the Secretary of Energy, in response to Section 1044 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, P.L. 106-398.
  • Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Impact of the US Nuclear Posture Review: Analytic Summary," Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 10, 2002.
  • Paul Richter, "U.S. Works Up Plan for Using Nuclear Arms," The Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2002.
  • David E. Sanger, "Bush Finds that Ambiguity is Part of Nuclear Deterrence," The New York Times, March 18, 2002.
  • United States: What's New?: The Nuclear Posture Review," The Economist, March 16, 2002, p. 35.
  • Walter Pincus, "U.S. Nuclear Arms Stance Modified by Policy Study: Preemptive Strike Becomes and Option," The Washington Post, March 23, 2002, p. A14.
  • Philipp C. Bleek, "New Details on Administration's Nuclear Posture Review Emerge," Arms Control Today, March 2002.
  • Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, "United States Nuclear Policy: 'Negative Security Assurances'," March 2002,
  • Arms Control Association Panel Discussion, "Parsing the Nuclear Posture Review," March 2002,
  • Stephen Young and Lisbeth Gronlund, "A Review of the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review," Union of Concerned Scientists Working Paper, May 14, 2002.

Op-Eds and Opinion Pieces

  • William M. Arkin, "Secret Plan Outlines the Unthinkable," The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002.
  • Michelle Ciarrocca, "The Nuclear Posture Review: Reading between the Lines," Common Dreams News Center, January 17, 2002,
  • Alistair Millar, "Shifty Nuke Accounting: Bush Arsenal Cuts Reprise Cold War," Defense News, January 28-February 3, 2002.
  • Editorial, "America as Nuclear Rogue," The New York Times, March 12, 2002.
  • Robert S. McNamara and Thomas Graham, Jr., "A Pretty Poor Posture for a Superpower," The Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2002.
  • Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., "The Bush Nuclear Posture Review: Adults at Work on Restoring the Credibility of America's Deterrent,", March 13, 2002.
  • Rose Gottemoeller, "On Nukes, We Need to Talk," The Washington Post, April 2, 2002.
  • Jim Hoagland, "Nuclear Preemption," The Washington Post, March 17, 2002.
  • Henry C. Kelly and Michael A. Levi, "Nix the Mini-Nukes," The Christian Science Monitor, March 28, 2002,
  • Mary McGrory, "Nuts about Nukes," The Washington Post, March 14, 2002.
  • James S. Robbins, "Why the Leak?: More Nuclear Posturing," National Review Online, March 15, 2002,
  • Richard D. Sokolsky and Eugene B. Rumer, "Nuclear Alarmists," The Washington Post, March 15, 2002, p. A23.
  • Council for a Livable World, "3 Nobel Laureates Criticize Bush Nuclear Posture Review," March 18, 2002.
  • J. Peter Scoblic, "Think Anew About US Nukes," The Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 2002,
  • Stephen I. Schwartz, "Nukes You Can Use," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2002.
  • Jane Wales, "U.S. Nuclear Plan Signals a Policy Revolution," San Jose Mercury News, March 17, 2002.


  • Harold A. Feiveson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).
  • Janne E. Nolan, Guardians of the Arsenal: The Politics of Nuclear Strategy (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1989).
  • Janne E. Nolan, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).
  • Keith B. Payne, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction (Lexington, Kentucky: The University of Kentucky Press, 2001).
  • James M. Smith, ed., Nuclear Deterrence and Defense: Strategic Considerations (Colorado: U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies Book Series, February 2001).

Additional CNS Resources

  • Evan S. Medeiros and Jing-dong Yuan, "The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and China's Responses," Research Story of the Week, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, April 1, 2002.
  • Charles D. Ferguson, "Mini-Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Posture Review," Research Story of the Week, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, April 8, 2002.
August 1, 2002

Charles Ferguson analyzes the recently completed 2002 United States Nuclear Posture Review, which will guide U.S. nuclear force planning over the next decade.

Charles D. Ferguson

Scientific Consultant, Fellow for Science and Technology, Center for Nonproliferation Studies


This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.