The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Pentagon: Obama’s nuke strategy delayed

The Obama administration’s rollout of its new nuclear strategy will be delayed until March, the Pentagon told Congress last week. The notification came in the form of a letter from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services ...

The Obama administration's rollout of its new nuclear strategy will be delayed until March, the Pentagon told Congress last week.

The notification came in the form of a letter from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, respectively. The letter, obtained by The Cable, said that the new strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be delivered to Congress on March 1, not Feb. 1 as was previously planned.

The Obama administration’s rollout of its new nuclear strategy will be delayed until March, the Pentagon told Congress last week.

The notification came in the form of a letter from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, respectively. The letter, obtained by The Cable, said that the new strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be delivered to Congress on March 1, not Feb. 1 as was previously planned.

The announcement comes amid reports that the NPR is mired in an internal administration debate over some key issues, such as whether or not to abandon a "first use" policy, how many nuclear weapons are needed for whatever missions the NPR identifies as crucial, and how far the review will go toward advancing President Obama’s stated goal of a future world free of nuclear weapons.

But arms-control advocates see the delay as not so surprising (what review isn’t delayed in Washington?) and they argue that the postponement will give the administration more time to give the NPR the senior-level attention it deserves.

"It’s not particularly surprising. I believe it’s due to the fact that principals haven’t been able to really dig in to the substantive issues of the NPR," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Some who favor sharp reductions and more commitments to a nuclear drawdown see the delay as one last chance to have their views considered by the White House and the National Security Council, which may have a different take than the Pentagon on some issues. For example, the Pentagon is said to be against adopting a "no first use" policy and may still be pushing for a new class of nuclear warhead.

The Bush administration program to build a new warhead, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, is dead, senior administration officials such as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher have said repeatedly. But Tauscher and other have also indicated that they would present a budget in February that meets Senate Republican calls for "stockpile modernization," although there is no consensus on what that means.

"The trouble in the debate is that the term ‘modernization’ gets used to describe a number of things, from new weapons to improvements to the nuclear weapons complex, and other things as well," said John Isaacs, executive director at the Council for a Livable World, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the goal of zero nuclear weapons that Obama announced in his Prague speech.

All 40 Senate Republicans and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman penned a letter to Obama in December specifically outlining several points they said must be included in the stockpile modernization program, which they are demanding in order to support the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which is being negotiated now.

The relationship between the NPR and the START follow-on agreement is an interesting one. It would seem that the administration would have to know its overall nuclear policy before negotiating weapons levels, and yet the START agreement may come out before the NPR.

Administration officials have told The Cable that the NPR tasked out a set of weapons numbers to inform the START negotiations months ago, so there shouldn’t be any problem. Besides, the NPR is setting policy for future reductions, not just those to be agreed to in this negotiation, experts point out.

But for Senate Republicans, that explanation is simply not enough.

"The key thing for senators is, they do not understand how officials are in Geneva discussing force-level reductions and meanwhile the NPR is apparently delayed," said one senior GOP senate aide, adding that the GOP was not being briefed on the NPR’s progress.

Meanwhile, the aide said that the follow-on START agreement could be ratified in the Senate only if the stockpile-management aspects of the president’s budget meet the demands in the letter and if there is no link between START and missile defense, despite statements from the Russian side.

"If we wanted to kill the treaty, we would just let them negotiate a bad treaty and then kill it in the Senate," the aide said. "We’re trying to help them come up with a treaty that can pass muster in the Senate."

UPDATE: Lt. Col. Jonathan Withingon, spokesman for the Pentagon policy shop, e-mails in this explanation in response to our request for an explanation for the delay. "As we’re nearing completion, the Department requires additional time to appropriately address the range of complex issues under consideration in the Nuclear Posture Review."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.