Reliable Security Information

After the Nuclear Posture Review: The Next Steps

The Nuclear Posture Review has been released. Now the hard part begins: translating its recommendations into hard policy.

The drafters of the report had to engage in a policy version of "jenga": where the clarification of a policy goal, a modification in position or even an outright change in one area might have negative ramifications in another area. Is moving the U.S. away from decades of strategic ambiguity about when and under what circumstances we might employ nuclear weapons help our non-proliferation efforts (by taking nuclear weapons use off the table in a number of scenarios) or hurt them (because allies and partners might decide that the worth of America's nuclear umbrella has been lessened)? Does de-emphasizing the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy lessen their importance for other countries--or will other states conclude that nuclear weapons are the only way to balance against America's overwhelming conventional (and technological) advantages on the battlefield?

The NPR is only a start. What now matters is what signals are sent, not just from policy statements and speeches, but in terms of budgetary priorities. Will the United States engage in a major overhaul of its conventional capabilities so that America can credibly threaten other states and actors with a devastating conventional equivalent of nuclear force? Will there be increased deployments overseas of U.S. military personnel and equipment (and/or increased sales of sensitive U.S. conventional systems to allies) to bolster security guarantees (and to prevent other states from re-assessing the value of U.S. promises of protection)? This NPR certainly doesn't lead to any sort of "peace dividend"; on the contrary, if the U.S. is going to maintain its current strategic position and network of alliances, then upgrading conventional capabilities, reinforcing the ability to deploy overseas and continuing to devote significant funds to research and develop new technologies capable of making nuclear weapons obsolete are all on the table.

A bigger question is whether the U.S. political and pundit classes will be comfortable with the perception of heightened risk. If one believes that, during the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam Hussein had been deterred from using his unconventional weapons--even when launching ballistic missile strikes--because of the threat delivered to him that the U.S. reserved the right to use nuclear force in retaliation, then having the United States now come out and take use of nuclear weapons off the table in most instances might affect the willingness to deploy U.S. military forces into situations where some sort of WMD might be used to inflict mass casualties. There is also the loss of the reassurance that the U.S. could turn a potential enemy into a slag of radioactive glass and wash its hands of the problem.

But let's face it: the NPR doesn't change the basic calculus that U.S. military internventions ought to be driven by needs of national interest, not whether or not they are "easy" or "cost free." In none of its post-Cold War military actions was the United States going to employ the use even of low-yield nuclear weapons which would have provided no advantages on the battlefield and been extremely corrosive to other core U.S. security goals--such as ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used again, and certainly not seen as "just another weapons system."

The NPR, therefore, must be integrated into an overall recabilibration of U.S. strategy--and I wait to see how its principles will be reflected in the next several defense budgets submitted by the administration.

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