||Last Updated: Mar 9, 2018 - 10:23:54 AM
Nuclear deterrence may remain the top priority set out by the Trump administration�s �Nuclear Posture Review�. However, Oliver Thr�nert highlights that the administration�s nuclear policy has turned away from the Obama-era policy of reducing the salience of nuclear arms and renouncing new nuclear capability development. Further, as President Trump is dismissive of the concept of arms control, Thr�nert also warns that there is an increasing danger that the return of great-power rivalry with Russia and China could result in a nuclear arms race.
This CSS Analyses in Security Policy was originally published in March 2018 by the Center for Security Studies (CSS). It is also available in German and French.
The US nuclear arsenal currently consists of about 4,480 warheads. About 1,740 of these are deployed. In his recently published Nuclear Posture Review, US President Donald Trump highlighted his priorities regarding the country�s nuclear weapons posture for the duration of his presidency.
There is a longstanding tradition for newly elected US presidents to develop a dedicated government paper on the future of the country�s nuclear arsenal, known as the �Nuclear Posture Review� (NPR). The first NPR was carried out on the orders of then US president Bill Clinton; later, Congress requested that presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama publish NPRs of their own. Donald Trump delegated the NPR to his defense minister, James Mattis. It calls for the US nuclear arsenal to be modern, robust, flexible, resilient, and ready to deter the threats of the 21st century and to offer reassurance to Washington�s allies.
The NPR is a guideline for all decisions relating to the US nuclear arsenal, which includes not only the warheads proper, but also their delivery systems including missiles, bomber aircraft, submarines, and cruise missiles, as well as the underlying infrastructure, including command, control, and communication as well as research and development.
On the one hand, there are continuities in US nuclear policy under both Obama and Trump. The strategic nuclear triad of land-based, sea-based, and airborne delivery systems will be preserved, and the program for their modernization will continue. Like his predecessor, Trump will continue to base US nuclear arms in Europe and to pursue the policy of nuclear sharing with European NATO allies. On the other hand, there are some obvious and noticeable differences. Obama regarded nuclear proliferation and the specter of nuclear terrorism as the main challenges. He wanted the US to deal with them by reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons. Moreover, arms control was a main part of US nuclear policy under Obama. Trump � following up on his National Security Strategy as published in December 2017 � has highlighted the return of great-power rivalry, including in the sphere of nuclear policy. Against this background, Trump is aware of the need to develop flexible nuclear options, and thus rejects Obama�s policy of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy as far as possible. At the same time, Trump does not care much for arms control, again unlike his predecessor. Therefore, Trump�s NPR contains no suggestions for managing the nuclear great-power rivalry.
Obama�s Nuclear Policy
In his speech at Prague Castle on 5 April 2009, Obama announced concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. However, he also stated that as long as such weapons existed, the US would maintain a �safe, secure and effective arsenal� of its own.
According to the NPR of April 2010, the main threat was nuclear terrorism. Furthermore, since Iran and North Korea had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the proliferation of nuclear arms was assessed as another growing threat. Therefore, it was in the US interest to strengthen the NPT, which would require progress on nuclear disarmament. The US wanted to contribute by reducing the importance of nuclear weapons for its own security. A dialog for mutual stability would be initiated with Moscow. One part of these efforts was the New START treaty on limiting US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, which was signed in the same year.
After intense internal debate, the Obama administration refrained from renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons. The main reason was that this might have diminished the credibility of US nuclear security guarantees in the eyes of some allies. According to Obama�s NPR, the US would only use nuclear weapons under extreme circumstances to defend vital US interests or those of its allies. The US would not use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that complied with the NPT. Moreover, the US would work to create the conditions for a feasible nuclear no-first-use policy. This meant strengthening the military�s conventional capabilities.
The classic nuclear triad of land-, air- and sea-based weapons was to be maintained, with the land-based intercontinental missiles each now carrying just one instead of multiple warheads. Additionally, all sea-based nuclear cruise missiles were to be decommissioned. In order to avoid a nuclear arms race that would weaken the NPT, the US refrained from developing new nuclear warheads and limited itself to �life extension programs� for its atomic weapons. Regardless, however, existing delivery platforms, i.e., missiles, submarines, and nuclear-capable military aircraft would have to be replaced. A multi-billion-dollar procurement program was therefore passed.
A Changing Environment
Since April 2010, there have been massive shifts in the international environment. The US and NATO on the one side and Russia on the other have once again become opponents in the wake of Russia�s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military intervention in Ukraine. Additionally, China is challenging Washington�s allies with an expansive strategy in Asia and building up its nuclear arsenal. The situation is further aggravated by North Korea�s ascent to become a nuclear power. The possibility that Pyongyang may already be able to destroy US cities with nuclear weapons creates new challenges for the US. Against this background, it came as no surprise that the Trump administration�s NPR would assign a much more important and robust role to nuclear weapons than had been the case during the Obama era.
The transition in nuclear matters from Obama to Trump had already been suggested by the National Security Strategy published by the White House in December 2017. Whereas Obama tried to reduce the role of nuclear arms as far as possible, Trump highlighted the US nuclear arsenal as the foundation of his strategy for maintaining peace and stability and deterring aggression against the US.
Generally, the threat assessment presented in the Trump NPR is a grim one. Since 2010, it notes, no potential adversary has followed suit in mirroring US efforts to reduce the salience or the number of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it states, �they have moved decidedly in the opposite direction.�
Also unsurprisingly, the Trump administration�s NPR adopts a tough tone with regard to Russia and China. Both powers, it claims, want to change the post-Cold War order. Moreover, it asserts that both challengers are pursuing asymmetric strategies to counter conventional US capabilities. The Trump document declares that Moscow is modernizing its nuclear systems at all levels, has many tactical nuclear arms at its disposal, and is in violation of the INF Treaty�s ban on intermediate-range nuclear weapons. What is more, Russia might be developing strategies for winning confrontations through nuclear escalation. According to the report, Moscow does not believe that the US is prepared to respond to Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons of its own. China too is modernizing and expanding its nuclear capabilities, the NPR charges. The nuclear threat from North Korea rounds off the picture. The document asserts that Pyongyang�s nuclear program constitutes the most immediate proliferation threat to international security and stability. Finally, it continues, Iran has by no means given up on its nuclear weapons plans despite the agreement on limiting its atomic program. The Trump NPR claims that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon within about one year of a decision to do so.
Overall, the paper depicts the future as being fraught with insecurity. On the one hand, these fears relate to geopolitical factors: States might change their opinion of the US, or short-term power shifts could create imbalances in the international system. Also, the government of a nuclear-armed state could collapse, or a series of states could go nuclear in a rapid �proliferation cascade�. On the other hand, there are also insecurities relating to future technological advances that could suddenly render the US nuclear forces or their command-and-control system highly vulnerable to attack.
The Role of US Nuclear Weapons
Deterring potential adversaries from any nuclear weapons use remains the top priority of US nuclear policy. Furthermore, non-nuclear attacks must be deterred, allies must be reassured, US aims must be enforced should deterrence fail, and the country�s ability to ensure its safety in an uncertain future must be preserved. Despite initial worries to the contrary, the US under Donald Trump continues to affirm its commitment to the long-term goal of abolishing all nuclear weapons. However, it also asserts as �a bedrock truth� that nuclear weapons will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and preventing large-scale conventional warfare against the US or its allies for the foreseeable future.
Going forward, the US would still �only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests� of the US and its allies. The document says Washington will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are in compliance with their obligations under the NPT. In doing so, the Trump administration is adhering to the wording used by the Obama administration. However, the new nuclear document emphasizes that �[e]xtreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks [�] on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.� Although the document does not explicitly say so, some observers argue that the Trump administration is considering nuclear strikes as a response to cyberattacks that inflict significant damage.
The threat assessment, according to the NPR authors, highlights the need for a flexible nuclear strategy that includes tailored responses to a broader range of adversaries. The US, they claim, would strive to end any conflict and to restore deterrence at the lowest level of damage possible. However, its adversaries must understand that non-nuclear aggression or first use would �result in unacceptable consequences for them.� As a result, US policy retains some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a US nuclear response, as well as the option of deploying those forces at any time and promptly.
Russian misperceptions that the US would be unwilling to respond to a limited nuclear aggression in a regional scenario with nuclear escalation of their own must be �corrected�, the NPR states. Therefore, the US nuclear arsenal must be expanded to include low-yield options. The authors claim that such a step �is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, �nuclear war-fighting,� but would instead raise the nuclear threshold, to maintain the unlikeliness of a use of such weapons. China, too, must be given to understand that any limited use of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable for the US. Regarding North Korea, the NPR leaves no room for ambiguity: There is no scenario, the authors state, in which the North Korean regime could use nuclear weapons and hope to survive. Neither should Tehran expect to find a plausible scenario in which it could gain an advantage through a strategic attack.
Like its predecessors, the Trump administration is committed to maintaining the nuclear triad and stationing dual-capable aircraft as well as matching nuclear warheads in Europe. Armaments programs begun under Obama are to be continued. Citing the need for more flexible and tailored nuclear options, Trump has rejected as inappropriate the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had renounced the development of new nuclear capabilities.
Specifically, over the coming years, the 14 Ohio-class submarines equipped with Trident nuclear missiles will be replaced by 12 Columbia-class boats. The 400 land-based Minuteman intercontinental rockets will be replaced from 2029 onwards by a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Likewise, the 46 B-52H bombers carrying cruise missiles as well as the 20 B-2A bombers will be retired from the mid-2020s onwards, to be replaced by the new B-21 bomber. Furthermore, the US air fleet will take delivery of a new long-range cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon.
Furthermore, the fighter jets of the types F-15E and F-16, which are also stationed in Europe, will be replaced by the F-35A. These jets have both conventional and nuclear use. The Trump administration particularly emphasizes the modernization of the largely ageing US nuclear infrastructure, for example command and control. The US have to be capable to meet new challenges with well-educated personnel and the technology required, the NPR reads.
Probably the most controversial measure is the plan to equip a small number of existing sea-borne nuclear warheads with a low-yield option. Here, Trump is returning to plans that George W. Bush had pursued in similar fashion, but for which Congress had refused the necessary funds. Critics maintain such smaller nuclear weapons could make a nuclear war more likely, since it could lower the threshold for the use of such weapons. A long-term program will reverse the Obama administration�s policy by developing a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). The apparent aim is to reassure US allies in Asia in the face of threats from North Korea and China. The total number of deployed US nuclear warheads will reportedly not be increased.
The perceived advantages of the new, sea-borne systems are seen in the fact that the US is thus not dependent on the support of its allies for strengthening regional deterrence. Neither, it is argued, would Washington be in violation of the INF Treaty, which only prohibits land-based intermediate-range systems. At the same time, the planned SLCMs are presented as a response to Russia�s INF violations. Should Russia return to compliance, reduce its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and end �other destabilizing behaviors�, the US might reconsider its pursuit of a new SLCM.
Even under President Trump, the US is not abandoning nuclear arms control altogether. As the document lays out, arms control can foster transparency, mutual understanding, and predictability. However, arms control treaties must be verifiable and enforceable. It is here that the authors identify past deficiencies, as evidenced by Russia�s violation of the INF Treaty.
The US continues to acknowledge the NPT as the cornerstone of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Washington will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Committee as well as the related International Monitoring System for the detection of nuclear weapons tests, even though the agreement has not entered into force and the US does not intend to ratify it. The document further explains that the US will not resume nuclear explosive testing, unless necessary to meet geopolitical and technological challenges or to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the US nuclear arsenal. The US calls on all other states possessing nuclear weapons to declare or maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing. Washington has already implemented all reductions that it agreed to under the New START Treaty and will continue to abide by this agreement with Russia, which limits the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons on both sides. The US also reserves the option of extending the treaty until 2026. At the same time, it rejects the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, which has been opened for signature since 2017, claiming that it has �polarized the international community� and could damage the security of the US and its allies.
Nuclear deterrence remains the guiding principle under President Trump. However, the White House has turned away from the Obama-era policy of reducing the salience of nuclear arms. Since Trump is also dismissive of the concept of arms control, there is an increasing danger that the great-power rivalry with Russia and China could also result in a nuclear arms race.
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