NPR 2018: First nuclear report under Trump signals changes for US policy

The document expands the uses of nuclear weapons and emphasizes the resurgence of ‘great power competition,’ writes Christopher Cowan.

By: /
February 2, 2018
nuclear arsenal submarine
This Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, the USS Tennessee, and other Ohio-class submarines are critical elements of the US nuclear weapons delivery system. REUTERS/US Navy handout

Between North Korean nuclear tests and false alarms in Hawaii, nuclear weapons have been front of mind for the Trump administration over the past year. On Friday, it released its roadmap for the future of US nuclear policy: the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (or NPR).

The goal of the report, released every eight years or so, is to review the role of nuclear weapons in the United States’ security strategy, in the context of the current (and future) global security environment.

Past reviews (conducted in 1994, 2002 and 2010) kept many of the core tenets of US Cold War nuclear policy while incorporating tweaks to fit with the strategic environment of the time and the president’s agenda. These documents serve more as a guide to policymakers rather than as concrete assertions of policy, and no NPR has ever been fully implemented.

The 2018 review sticks to that formula — it maintains some continuity with past reports while introducing some new (and worrisome) elements. It keeps the 2010 pledge to not use nuclear weapons first against any country that complies with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as a pledge to only use nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances” to defend its vital interests (and those of its allies and partners). However, it broadens the definition of “extreme circumstances” to include non-nuclear strategic attacks (including cyber and nuclear terror attacks) on civilian populations, infrastructure, nuclear command and control, and early warning systems.

The definition of "extreme circumstances" has always been purposefully ambiguous but new phrasing from Friday’s report reveals how it will be interpreted by the Trump administration:

“Therefore, we must, and will, posture our nuclear capabilities to hedge against multiple potential risks and threat developments. We will, for example, hedge against the potential rapid growth or emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression.” 

The 2010 NPR was focused on enhancing the role of conventional capabilities in deterring non-nuclear strategic attacks with the hope that US nuclear weapons would only be used as deterrence of a nuclear attack against the US. Such a change is noteworthy — albeit not unprecedented — because it seeks to increase the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy by expanding the scenarios in which the US would consider using them, while de-emphasizing the role of conventional capabilities in deterring non-nuclear attacks. It’s also an open question whether the threat of a nuclear response to a large-scale cyber-attack (or any other non-nuclear attack) that doesn’t kill anyone is actually credible.

According to the document, such a shift is necessary due to the re-emergence of great power competition and the increased role of nuclear weapons in Russian, Chinese and North Korean security policy. Russia in particular is regarded as a key challenge due to its ongoing nuclear modernization program, its vast arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons, its violation of various arms control agreements, and its alleged “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine — which calls for limited nuclear strikes on NATO targets in Europe to get NATO to back down and end a conventional conflict on Russian terms.

The issue here is that the document provides almost no justification for those assertions. There is scant publicly available evidence to suggest that Russia still has such a doctrine (although classified evidence may say otherwise), and Russia’s nuclear modernization has been accompanied by a dramatic conventional modernization program that has greatly increased its conventional capabilities. China is modernizing its comparatively small nuclear force to be more survivable and has the technological ability to develop a more aggressive doctrine and posture, but has not done so. North Korea is the sole outlier here, as its rapidly developing nuclear and missile programs are likely designed to overcome conventionally superior adversaries (the US and South Korea).

The policy recommendations

To meet those new challenges, the document states that new, non-strategic nuclear weapons are needed to better deter limited nuclear attacks by ensuring the US arsenal is flexible and is able to retaliate proportionally to any small-scale nuclear strike, such as an attack on a single US airbase. The reasoning behind that claim is that “small” (non-strategic) nuclear weapons can deter conflict or limit escalation within a conflict by giving a state the ability to respond to the use of a “small” nuclear weapon against it. It’s tenuous logic that depends on whether one believes that gradations of nuclear use exist and one’s faith in its (and its adversary’s) ability to interpret signals during a conflict. It’s also important to remember that even a “small” nuclear weapon — the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki qualify as “small” nowadays — can kill thousands of people, or more. 

In preparation for such a conflict, the document specifically calls for the development of low-yield warheads for a limited number of US Trident missiles — which are currently deployed on US nuclear ballistic missile submarines — and a new nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) to supplement the US’ current low-yield arsenal of air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs. These would be modest (but expensive) additions to a US arsenal that currently has over 1,000 warheads that can be deemed “non-strategic.” But the 2018 report fails to provide an argument as to why the current US nuclear arsenal undergoing modernization is inadequate. It also fails to describe why they reassure allies more effectively than the current arsenal. Curiously, the document brings up the possibility that the US may reconsider the development of an SLCM if Russia “returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviours.” That’s a strange offer to make if the SLCM was truly necessary for US deterrence globally.  

It’s difficult to tell if these recommendations will ever become policy, especially since the NPR doesn’t appear to reflect President Donald Trump’s (conflicting) views on nuclear weapons. Nuclear policy received scant mention in the president’s recent State of the Union address, although the president did state that he wanted the US arsenal to be “so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.” And nowhere in the document is there any mention of increasing the size of the arsenal to Cold War-levels like the president supposedly wanted.

Also, the return of “great power competition,” the main threat to US security as cited by the NPR (and its related publications: the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, which were both released recently) received one mention in his entire speech. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Rod Lyon points out, the NPR appears to be more the product of the hawkish orthodoxy found in certain sections of the traditional heavyweights of nuclear policymaking — the US department of defense, US strategic command, and the US nuclear weapons laboratories — than the Trump administration.

Implications beyond the US

Should the recommendations be implemented, these changes to the US nuclear position would likely have several important (and potentially dangerous) effects for the rest of the world. First, it appears that nuclear weapons will again play a prominent role in international affairs and military strategy in the future, which may encourage further proliferation. As Slate writer Fred Kaplan notes, the document’s response to Russia’s growing low-yield arsenal and doctrine is to fight fire with fire by developing more low-yield nuclear weapons. Such a response may lead Russia (and other countries) to believe that limited nuclear strikes are actually a feasible means of deterring US military action, which may prompt more states outside of the US nuclear umbrella to seek nuclear weapons and increase the chance of a nuclear weapon being used or an accident occurring. 

Second, we’re likely to see more US efforts to reassure its allies (including Canada) covered under its extended nuclear deterrence guarantee. Doing so may involve more visible deployments of US nuclear bombers to allied states, or more public discussion about the importance of the US nuclear umbrella.

Third, should the US go down the path set out by the 2018 report, it risks further entrenching the divide between the nuclear weapons states (and their allies) and non-nuclear states seeking to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Though not without criticism, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty is a signal of unhappiness from a part of the international community at the progress being made towards disarmament. Waving away the concerns of the signatories of the treaty and increasing both the role and number of nuclear weapons may lead to diplomatic tension between signatory states and the US (and its allies) that could harm US security. (The US and Canada were not among the 122 states that endorsed the treaty in July 2017).

Ultimately, the 2018 document indicates that the US plans to chart a more aggressive course for its nuclear arsenal. And it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will follow through on the findings of the review. Nonetheless, the path charted in document is one that will likely increase nuclear tensions around the world rather than decrease them. Nuclear weapons are back, and it looks like they’ll be at the front of our minds for the foreseeable future.