New nuke policy: more flexible, more robust, more prepared to counter uncertainty

New nuke policy: more flexible, more robust, more prepared to counter uncertainty

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A nuclear-armed U.S. submarine, part of the nuclear triad capability (File photo, Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — The United States will move to a “tailored nuclear deterrent strategy” with a foundation based on “flexible capabilities” to ensure effective deterrence against a vast array of foes, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review unveiled Friday.

“We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in the NPR’s preface. “This NPR reflects the current, pragmatic assessment of the threats we face and the uncertainties regarding the future security environment.”

Cornerstones of the 100-page document: modernizing the command and control system of the TRIAD of land, air and sea nuclear capabilities; lowering the yield of some existing submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads, and bringing back a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

The Review language was blunt in the threat the U.S. faces: “There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent non- state actors,” the report read. “These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, briefing Pentagon reporters, said the only way to keep America’s deterrent credible is by making it modern.

“We leveraged centuries of combined expertise from across the government and the non-proliferation community for a strategy to keep America safe in this century, with a deterrent that is modern and credible,” he said. The changes are “necessary, affordable and long overdue.”

The Review notes that “There is no ‘one size fits all’ for deterrence.”

John Rood, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters that there is no “automaticy” regarding a U.S. nuclear response based on an attack. Instead, Rood said “the context (of the attack) is how we would evaluate the response.”

He said the U.S. “declaratory policy” is to consider the use of nuclear weapons “only in extreme circumstances” and that the policy deliberately is ambiguous as to nuclear use to cause potential foes to be uncertain of the retaliation.

Rood also said that many of the hypothetical scenarios considered in the last NPR, in 2010, are “not hypotheticals any more.”

Mattis warned that “this review comes at a critical moment in our nation’s history, for America confronts an international security situation that is more complex and demanding than any since the end of the Cold War. In this environment, it is not possible to delay modernization of our nuclear forces if we are to preserve a credible nuclear deterrent—ensuring that our diplomats continue to speak from a position of strength on matters of war and peace.“

Mattis called out by name the biggest threats:

  • Russia, for modernizing its nuclear force and other strategic systems. “Even more troubling has been Russia’s adoption of military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success. These developments, coupled with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and nuclear threats against our allies, mark Moscow’s decided return to Great Power competition,” Mattis wrote.
  • China, for also modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces. “Like Russia, China is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military, challenging traditional U.S. military superiority in the Western Pacific,” he wrote.
  • “Elsewhere, the strategic picture brings similar concerns. North Korea’s nuclear provocations threaten regional and global peace, despite universal condemnation in the United Nations. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain an unresolved concern. Globally, nuclear terrorism remains a real danger,” Mattis wrote.

Mattis insisted that the changes make a U.S. nuclear threat more credible and thus improves deterrence by “convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate,” and thus raises that threshold for possible nuclear war.

“Given the range of potential adversaries, their capabilities and strategic objectives, this review calls for a flexible, tailored nuclear deterrent strategy,” he wrote. “This review calls for the diverse set of nuclear capabilities that provides an American President flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.”

On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists said the U.S. was overstating the threat from China.

“The gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue that the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. In fact, the exact opposite is true. By any measure, the U.S. arsenal is far superior,” wrote Gregory Kulacki, manager of the China Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program.

The NPR disagrees.

“The United States has understood the value of flexibility for nuclear deterrence for six decades, but its importance is now magnified by the emerging diversity of nuclear and non- nuclear strategic threats and the dynamism and uncertainties of the security environment,” the Review stated.

This need for flexibility to tailor U.S. capabilities and strategies to meet future requirements and unanticipated developments runs contrary to a rigid, continuing policy of “no new nuclear capabilities,” according to the Review.

In order to identify and address potential needs, the United States will support and expand as necessary the Nuclear Stockpile Responsiveness Program, the Navy Security Technology Program, and the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center Red Team Program, the Review said.

“Potential adversaries do not stand still. On the contrary, they seek to identify and exploit weaknesses in U.S. capabilities and strategy. Thus, U.S. future force requirements for deterrence cannot prudently be considered fixed,” the Review stated. “The United States must be capable of developing and deploying new capabilities, if necessary, to deter, assure, achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedge against uncertainty.”

Despite the need to expand, the Review also promised that the U.S. remains willing to engage in a prudent arms control agenda. “We are prepared to consider arms control opportunities that return parties to predictability and transparency, and remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit and the potential outcome improves the security of the United States and its allies and partners,” it said.

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