"I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period."
-President Barack Obama, 5/16/2009
On April 6, 2010, the Administration released a delayed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)-a mandatory evaluation of U.S. nuclear policy, capabilities and requirements for the next five to ten years. While the NPR upholds most current nuclear policies, it does include several apparent problematic policy shifts. As described below, these policies would serve to weaken U.S. nuclear capabilities-threatening our security and breaking the president's promise not to take options off the table when national security is at stake.
Ø "World without Nuclear Weapons": The Administration's review restates and emphasizes the president's well-known desire to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. The NPR correctly notes, of course, that real world conditions do not currently provide for this scenario. However, Members may be concerned that this underlying rhetoric belies the fact that for six decades the threat of using nuclear weapons has served to prevent full-blown world wars and indeed has made the U.S. and our allies safer. In fact, lessening U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities would certainly make the world more dangerous by enticing rogue groups or countries.
Ø Options Off the Table: The NPR suggests that the U.S. will pursue a policy by which the threat of nuclear use to deter a devastating chemical or biological attack against Americans would be taken off the table. Members may be concerned that especially while engaged against groups such as Al Qaeda and countries that may support them in the event of a terrorist attack, the U.S. should not take any deterrence option unilaterally off the table.
o In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and told him that, "God forbid chemical or biological weapons are used against our forces; the American people would demand revenge." Baker later wrote that, "I purposely left the impression that the use of chemical or biological agents by Iraq could invite tactical nuclear retaliation." Under the Obama Administration's policy, the U.S. would not have been able to leverage the nuclear deterrent which quite possibly saved American troops from chemical or biological attack.
Additionally, according to the NPR, the U.S. would not threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. The NPR argues that conventional weapons should be sufficient to deter this whole range of countries from attacking the U.S. or its allies. Members may be concerned that arbitrarily compartmentalizing possible conflicts into deterrence categories will only raise costs and risks and will increase the likelihood of conflict. Moreover, at a time when American troops are heavily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, broadcasting to certain potential adversaries that the U.S. would only rely upon conventional forces in the event of attack is unwise.
Ø No New Weapons or Infrastructure: The NPR would establish a new policy of not developing any new nuclear weapons, contradicting the initial opinion of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The administration will instead emphasize warhead life extension and the maintenance of the aging nuclear complex over the modernization of U.S. nuclear assets. Members may be concerned that this unilateral disarmament policy would actually have the effect of incentivizing countries such as Iran and North Korea to further maintain or develop their own nuclear programs, enhancing their capabilities vis-à-vis the U.S. By forgoing technological innovations and breakthroughs, the U.S. would also weaken its hand relative to Russia and China, which are modernizing their arsenals.
Ø Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: The NPR suggests that the U.S. should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that would ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. Members may be concerned that this treaty would prevent the U.S. from developing the nuclear forces required to deal with current and future threats and leave us with an increasingly obsolete arsenal.
When evaluated in the context of the other significant nuclear policy shifts including the deep cuts in nuclear forces proposed in the U.S.-Russia START follow-on agreement, the Nuclear Posture Review appears to weaken national security at a time when other countries are seeking to strengthen or develop their own nuclear weapons.