- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
As North Korea continues to launch ballistic missiles over Japan and puts U.S. territory within range, the U.S. Defense Department is trying to wrap up two critical reports that will outline the Trump administration’s strategy for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal and its domestic missile defense programs.
But the work has been slowed somewhat by the lack of mid-level officials at the Pentagon and State Department who helped shepherd the previous 2010 nuclear review to completion, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.
The delay is expected to be relatively short, and the reports are slated to be sent to the White House in early 2018, missing the self-imposed December deadline.
The two reviews were ordered by President Donald Trump in the first days of his administration and come amid growing debates over how much to spend on modernizing what is known as the “triad,” or the sea-, air-, and ground-based nuclear delivery systems.
The Barack Obama administration laid a course to spend approximately $400 billion between 2017 and 2026 to begin work on new submarines, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and cruise missiles, a bottom line that is expected to grow as new technologies are developed and demands for new delivery systems increase. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the modernization program could exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Speaking to reporters while inspecting ICBM sites in North Dakota this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he is still narrowing the scope of the reviews but that he’s not going to set a completion date.
Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan are running the review. But another official, Robert Soofer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy — one of the handful of Trump appointees in place — is helming the day-to-day work on both the nuclear posture review and a separate review of the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense systems.
The last time a nuclear posture review was completed was 2009, when the Pentagon worked closely with a team of top officials at the State Department.
One of the key State Department officials who worked on that document, Robert Einhorn, says several of the Foggy Bottom offices that coordinated most closely with the Pentagon in 2009 are now empty, including his old position as special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control. The undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, a position last held by Rose Gottemoeller, is also vacant.
“The Trump administration approach will likely focus on defense issues more narrowly defined and strategic issues more narrowly defined,” Einhorn said. “My guess is that the State Department will play a less significant role in this review than the previous one. State simply doesn’t have people on board.”
Gottemoeller, currently the deputy secretary-general of NATO, had years of nonproliferation work under her belt before working on the Obama nuclear policy document.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told Foreign Policy in an email that the nuclear review “will guide modernization efforts and establish U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and posture for the next 5-10 years.”
As part of the review, the Trump administration is also considering smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less destruction than the current U.S. stockpile.
“There is some discussion over building new or more usable nukes,” including the low-yield variety, said one person with knowledge of the deliberations. “The thinking is that we are self-deterred because our nuclear weapons are too big and would cause too much damage if used,” but a lower-yield weapon would serve as a more effective deterrent because the barriers for their use might be lowered.
While in North Dakota this week, Mattis conceded that his thinking on the U.S. nuclear arsenal had changed since he assumed office. In 2015, as a private citizen, he said the United States could do away with ICBMs.
“I’ve questioned the triad,” Mattis said Wednesday but added, “I cannot solve the deterrent problem reducing it from a triad. If I want to send the most compelling message, I have been persuaded that the triad in its framework is the right way to go.”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force