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U.S. Nuclear Posture Reviews

U.S. Nuclear Posture Reviews

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Sarah Diehl

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

2010 Nuclear Posture Review

Periodically, senior U.S. government officials and military officials prepare a comprehensive review of the status and purpose of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In 2008, the National Defense Authorization Act called for the U.S. Department of Defense to head the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) for the next five to ten years. According to this legislation, the Obama administration is required to submit a report to Congress that addresses the role of nuclear forces in military strategy and planning, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the importance of missile defense and conventional strike forces; the need to maintain or modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and most critically, plans for maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent. The NPR is a product of an interagency process involving the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy with contributions from military leaders and various congressional committees.

The previous classified NPR was completed in 2001 during the George W. Bush administration; public excerpts contained many controversial strategies, including use of nuclear weapons to deter biological and chemical weapons attacks, withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and development of ballistic missile defenses, refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the possible development of new types of low-yield and bunker-busting nuclear weapons. The Obama administration expected the newest NPR to be completed in December 2009, but its completion reportedly was delayed by debates over initiatives that would reverse many Bush-era strategies. Specifically, President Obama has endorsed the growing movement that supports a world free of nuclear weapons; he has also pledged to win ratification of the CTBT and to stop funding to design new nuclear weapons. While some members of his administration urged that the role of nuclear weapons should be limited to deterring attacks by other nuclear armed states, others argued that the wording of the NPR should allow the United States to retain the option to prevent chemical and biological weapon attacks.

On 6 April 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense released the long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review Report. The report covers five key objectives:

  • Unlike its predecessors, the NPR assigns the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as the number one priority on the U.S. nuclear agenda. It provides steps for securing nuclear materials around the globe and renews the U.S. commitment to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist organization or non-state actor that supports the use of WMD.
  • In a shift from the Bush-era NPR, the 2010 NPR declares that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This strengthens the U.S. negative security assurance to non-nuclear parties to the NPT and is a step toward reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons except as deterrents to nuclear attack on the United States or its allies.
  • The NPR bolsters the U.S. commitment to renew arms control efforts with Russia, including the new START treaty to be signed on 8 April, while maintaining strategic stability. The United States will continue to maintain a triad of nuclear delivery systems: inter-continental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable heavy bombers.
  • The NPR provides that the United States will strengthen regional deterrence measures, including missile defenses and improved conventional forces.
  • The NPR commits the United States to sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal while rejecting the Bush-era plan to develop new nuclear weapons. The NPR also states that the United States will not test nuclear weapons and will seek to ratify the CTBT.

The 2010 NPR not only establishes U.S. nuclear strategy but also sets the tone for U.S. and Russian debates on ratification of the new START treaty, and the continuing negotiation of that treaty’s technical annexes. The NPR will also affect discussions with certain NATO countries over the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on their soil, and with nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty members during the 2010 Review Conference to be held in May. In an interview on 6 April with the New York Times, President Obama emphasized that the NPR “is part of an overall strategy to send a clear message that we’re going to have a strong NPT, that everybody has an interest in being in the NPT, and that we’re going to follow our obligations with the NPT, and that we are going to try to bring every tool that we have at our disposal to prevent proliferation and to prevent nuclear terrorism.” The new NPR outlines the Obama administration’s approach to pursuing a world without nuclear weapons while protecting U.S. security interests.

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