Reviewing the Review

Obama's new nuke strategy is a good start. But the Cold War's legacy lives on.


Laying out a nuclear weapons strategy for the decade ahead, President Obama struck bold notes on rhetoric and promises in the Nuclear Posture Review report issued Tuesday. The document is filled with laudable goals that mark a change from the past and may help advance his dream of a world without nukes. But flying at high altitude also has certain advantages; you can avoid the rough terrain below. And down on the ground, the president stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that have lingered since the Cold War, such as tactical nuclear weapons and keeping missiles on alert.

Among the most significant decisions, the United States did not brandish the nuclear sword in every direction. Instead, the document declares that nuclear weapons are "fundamentally" for use as a deterrent against nuclear attack, and won’t be used against those who follow the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a real change from George W. Bush’s nuclear posture review, eight years ago, which threatened nukes against all kinds of targets, including any attack involving weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical, or biological — aimed at the United States or its allies and friends.

To fulfill his own vision of reduced nuclear dangers, Obama needs to coax others to believe in the basic deal of the nonproliferation treaty: the existing nuclear powers will move toward disarmament, so others don’t need to pursue their own weapons. But this is a promise many nations have come to doubt. To reassure, Obama affirmed he will not build new nuclear weapons or seek new missions for them. This is another shift from Bush, who wanted to build a new nuclear warhead, but was rebuffed by Congress.

The posture review also speaks candidly about global threats, and the most urgent ones are not in the Kremlin. It says: "Today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism." No. 2 is "nuclear proliferation," especially the quests by Iran and North Korea for nuclear arms. Russia is no longer an adversary, and China is "increasingly interdependent" with the United States. Thus, the world has changed: "The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." While the nuclear arsenal has not become irrelevant, the review declares that the United States can get by with "significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons."

In putting the nuclear pistol in its holster when it comes to conventional and chemical weapons, Obama offered a caveat about biological weapons. The review says that, given their "catastrophic potential" and the revolution in the life sciences, the United States "reserves the right" to use nuclear weapons "that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat." The suggestion is that nuclear weapons are still a possible deterrent against an adversary contemplating the use of dangerous pathogens. This leaves unspoken the very real problem of attribution: in a pandemic or outbreak of disease it may not be at all clear, at least right away, to whom the nuclear missile should be addressed.

Obama had raised hopes that he would opt for some more radical ideas in this nuclear strategy. But after months of internal wrangling, the administration clearly decided not to touch them. The status quo won the day on some big-ticket items.

One idea that was examined but discarded would have been to change the basic structure of America’s nuclear forces, which are in a land-sea-air triad. Instead of getting rid of one leg, such as the bombers, as some have suggested, the new nuclear strategy endorses keeping all three. The thinking is that the bombers have power as signals, if moved onto the runways in a crisis; the land-based missiles are quick to launch; and the submarines are invulnerable. Another more dramatic idea would have been to declare that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. That was also discarded.

The review re-examined the question of keeping nuclear missiles on alert. Many analysts have questioned whether it is still a good idea to keep the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to launch within four minutes and submarine-launched ballistic missiles within 12 minutes now that the superpower confrontation is over. The review concludes that the nuclear alert status quo "should be maintained for the present." The main reason given is that if the missiles were taken off alert, it could give an adversary "the incentive to attack before the ‘re-alerting’ was complete." Over the longer term, the document calls for studies to improve the command and control system and give the president more time to make an informed decision in case of a warning of nuclear attack. For a president under pressure, such decisions as whether to launch a retaliatory strike have been the nightmare of the nuclear age.

On tactical nuclear weapons — the short-range, or battlefield nukes — the administration decided not to decide, for now. The United States currently has about 200 such small weapons in Europe, and the nuclear strategy review calls for waiting for NATO to complete a new "strategic concept" later this year. However, one such weapons system, the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, is to be retired.

All in all, the words of Obama’s nuclear strategy bore the marks of his avowed goal to reduce the nuclear danger, but he eschewed taking more dramatic steps away from the legacy of the Cold War arms race.

 Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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