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Obama’s Atomic Choices

Inside the making of U.S. nuclear policy.

Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images
Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images
Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.

Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama's report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.

After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama’s new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.

Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama’s report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.

Those arguing to keep the number secret said it was too dangerous to reveal, offering states or terrorists seeking to build their own weapons a clue to the amount of fissile material necessary for a bomb. The fear was they might be able to calculate this by comparing the warhead total with previous statements on stocks of fissile material. (Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation disclosed this debate in a blog post that pointed out that the amount of plutonium needed for a weapon is already declassified.) 

In the end, by the time the Nuclear Posture Review was unveiled April 6, a decision had been made to keep the warhead total under wraps. This choice offers a small clue about the president and the process that created the document, only the third such review since the end of the Cold War and described by the administration as a "foundation" of U.S. policy on nuclear weapons for years ahead.

Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world met the reality of a commander in chief’s world; his campaign for change ran into the inertia and complexity of governing. This account of Obama’s choices — where he intervened, and where he chose not to — is based on interviews with several senior administration officials and outsiders familiar with the deliberations.

They described Obama as cautious and pragmatic. The end result was a document that declared a reduced role for nuclear weapons, but eschewed dramatic overhaul of concepts and institutions lingering from the arms race with the Soviet Union. The land-sea-air strategic triad will remain, even though questions have been raised about whether it is necessary any longer; the alert status of nuclear forces will be unchanged, despite Obama’s campaign promise to take missiles off alert; the future of short-range or tactical weapons in Europe, which no longer have military utility, will be left up to a decision later in NATO.

In drafting the review, the administration seems to have paid close attention to politics, with an eye toward winning Senate ratification of the new strategic arms treaty with Russia. Obama avoided decisions that could become possible targets for treaty opponents, and appears to have been especially careful to court all the fractious interests involved, including Congress and U.S. allies.

The making of the posture review suggests that, on nuclear issues at least, Obama is not brimming with ideology. He pointed to the future, with his feet planted firmly in the status quo.  This is entirely in keeping with his actions on other issues, and in line with his speech last year on nuclear issues in Prague, where he combined a pledge "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" with a qualification that "this goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime."

In the posture review, Obama framed goals, but left ambitious action for later. He abandoned a campaign promise with hardly a whimper. He won consensus among competing interests and institutions, but the outcome was not as far-reaching as some had hoped.

The same pattern was evident in the strategic arms treaty he signed with Russia. A year ago, Obama promised to sign one that would be "sufficiently bold," but he eventually negotiated a pact that requires only modest reductions from existing deployed arsenals and leaves both the United States and Russia with 1,550 warheads for seven years. Obama’s posture review acknowledged that both countries "still retain many more nuclear weapons than they need for deterrence." The reason: both still rely on the Cold War concept of counterforce — aiming weapons at the other side’s weapons, even though they are no longer strategic adversaries. Going to much lower levels of nuclear weapons would be bold, but Obama has not yet done so.

It is still early in his presidency.  Out of this nuclear posture review will come classified presidential guidance for the strategic forces, as well as a crop of new studies that could lead to deeper cuts and more radical change.

The making of a policy

Bill Clinton undertook the first posture review after the Cold War, but there was still some uncertainty in 1994 about whether Russia, which inherited the Soviet nuclear deterrent, would become a stable democracy. Thus the United States kept a "hedge" of warheads in reserve. The second posture review, written in George W. Bush’s first year and released in early 2002, retained the hedge idea "to meet unanticipated or surprising political contingencies." The Bush document also envisioned the use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack by nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

The current review was ordered by Congress, with the Pentagon in the lead, and the first goal of the effort in 2009 was to settle key issues of force structure and warhead levels needed to negotiate the new strategic arms treaty with Russia, replacing  START I when it expired Dec. 5, 2009, and to set priorities for the Pentagon budget, also due at year’s end.

In this early phase of the posture review, Obama decided the United States would continue to rely on the strategic triad: bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles. The posture review examined getting rid of one leg, but concluded that each still has value: the submarines are invulnerable under the oceans; the land-based missiles quick to launch; and the bombers are important in signaling when rolled onto a runway in a crisis. Under the final terms of the treaty with Russia, the U.S. triad will have to shrink somewhat, but the mainstay of deterrence will still be a three-legged stool, as it was during the Cold War.

A second phase of the nuclear posture review came late last year when the debate grew more intense over philosophical issues. At this point, the White House was unsatisfied with drafts of the document, feeling it was heavy on what was needed to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and maintain safe and reliable warheads, but light on policy, including Obama’s vision of a reduced role for nuclear weapons in national security.

Morton Halperin, senior advisor to the Open Society Institute, who was involved in nuclear policy and arms control in the Clinton, Nixon, and Johnson administrations, recalled recently that he spoke to Pentagon officials early in the process of drafting Obama’s nuclear policy. When he asked them how they were going to link the posture review to the president’s vision in Prague, they told him: "The president said we want a world without nuclear weapons, but not in his lifetime. Which means not in the lifetime of the NPR, so we don’t need to take account of that." Halperin recalled the Pentagon officials were focused on the second point in Obama’s speech, to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable arsenal. "I said what about the third sentence? And they said ‘What was that?’ I said: reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. And they said, ‘Oh, was that in the speech as well?’ And I said ‘Yes, it was in the speech as well.’"

Leaving a mark

U.S. nuclear weapons policy falls into several broad areas. Declaratory policy is how Washington describes its intentions to the outside world — what the U.S. government says about the weapons and their purpose. Employment policy produces the classified set of plans for using the weapons. Then there are policies for acquisition of weapons and the complex that supports them, and for deployment of the forces.

But the big issue for Obama in recent months was declaratory policy, which is important — the words are critical signals to allies and potential adversaries, as well as to the bureaucracy that must interpret the president’s intentions. In the final months of work on the posture review, this became a major point of contention.  The main drafting of the posture review was carried out under James N. Miller, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, with input from both the State and Energy departments. In the end, some of the most intense jockeying came at the meetings of the deputies committee, an interagency group under Thomas Donilon, deputy national security advisor.

The earlier drafts had preserved a long-standing "calculated ambiguity" about the use of nuclear weapons, that they would be used primarily to deter nuclear attack but also could be used in response to a chemical or biological weapons onslaught. The idea behind ambiguity is that an enemy might be deterred by the uncertainty of possible nuclear retaliation.

Obama pressed for an alternative to ambiguity, on grounds that the threats to use nuclear weapons against chemical and biological attacks during the Bush years had unsettled the rest of the world, and was making it harder to build international support to stop Iran and North Korea as they pursued nuclear weapons capability.

In going beyond "calculated ambiguity," the administration came up with something else: a revised "negative security assurance," a statement spelling out when nuclear weapons will not be used. This had existed in earlier years, but was outdated, containing a provision that said members of the Warsaw Pact got no assurances if they attacked; the alliance no longer exists.

Now revised, Obama’s negative security assurance declares: "[T]he United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are a party to the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations." If any state uses chemical or biological weapons in an attack against the United States, they would face a "devastating conventional military response," including "holding accountable" their leaders and national military commanders, which could mean a war crimes trial.

There was one marker: Given the rapid pace of change in the life sciences, the document said the United States would reserve the right to adjust the negative security assurance if needed to counter a biological weapons threat in the future.

Whether or not to make this revised negative security assurance, or just keep the old ambiguity, became a key issue in the final laps of the internal debate, officials said. Some argued for sticking with ambiguity, on grounds that in deterrence, the less said, the better. But others felt that conventional weapons were improving to the extent that the United States could afford to give a negative security assurance-in other words, offer some details about when it would not use nuclear weapons. This was Obama’s main decision — to scrap the ambiguity, and show that nuclear weapons would have less of a role in U.S. security policy than before.

The document declares that the "fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to "deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies and partners." The document said that the United States would eventually like to get to the point where the "sole" purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack, but not yet. There are still "a narrow range of contingencies" in which nuclear weapons might play a role in responding to a conventional or chemical-biological weapons attack, the document said. Still, this appears to be far more restrained than the Bush approach to threaten nuclear weapons use against any attack by weapons of mass destruction.

The nuclear posture review also added language saying that reducing the threats of nuclear terrorism and proliferation were at the top of the list of U.S. objectives, giving them more prominence than in the past and in keeping with Obama’s other goals, including his promise to lock down all vulnerable fissile material in four years.

Facing the opposition

Republican critics of the administration — and potential opponents of the strategic arms treaty — have insisted that the administration come up with a plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and maintain the stockpile if there is to be another treaty with Moscow. Obama has sought to meet these demands, and vowed not to let the weapons complex atrophy. In a time of huge deficits, he has requested a 13.4 percent increase in the budget for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the weapons complex, including 10 percent more for the weapons programs and stockpile stewardship, and 25.7 percent more for nonproliferation efforts.

In the posture review, the administration said it would not develop new nuclear warheads and, in extending the life of existing ones, would not support new military missions or capabilities. Congress had repeatedly rebuffed Bush administration requests to build new warheads. But the posture review said the administration will consider a "full range" of options for maintaining the weapons: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components, and replacement of components, if necessary and approved by the president and Congress.

In the days after the posture review was released, the three nuclear laboratory directors issued a statement that said they were "reassured" by the posture review, and that it would allow them to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future "with an acceptable level of risk."

The roads not taken

Obama had promised in his presidential campaign to work with Russia to reduce the number of missiles on launch-ready alert. Today, U.S. land-based missiles remain on four-minute alert and submarine-based missiles can be launched in about 12 minutes. Since relations with Moscow are no longer so hostile, the idea would be to build some kind of reversible, physical change in the weapons — verifiable, on both sides — so they could not be fired for a longer period, and thus reduce the danger of a tragic error. But in drafting the nuclear posture review, the military advised the president that U.S. forces are secure and would not be launched by mistake, such as confusing a flock of geese for a missile attack. The real vulnerability, they said, is Russia’s early warning system, and the way to fix it is on the Russian side. Moreover, they said, such steps as taking missiles off alert could lead to instability in a crisis, as an adversary might have an incentive to strike before "re-alerting" is complete.

Obama was persuaded to defer his campaign pledge. For a decade, plans have languished for better sharing of missile-launch data with Moscow. The United States hopes to revive the effort, administration officials said, and the posture review promises to find other ways to ease the dangers.

In the document, the administration vowed to "significantly" reduce the hedge or reserve of nuclear warheads, but didn’t specify how much. The actual number of warheads in the reserve is classified, but estimates by outsiders suggest about 2,500. There are two parts to the hedge: one for technical reasons, if a large number needed to be replaced quickly, and the other for geopolitical uncertainty. Administration officials discussed a reduction of about half the overall hedge, or perhaps even more.         On short-range or tactical nuclear weapons, the Obama posture review announced withdrawal of one system, the Navy’s nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missile. But the president did not take the lead on reducing other tactical nuclear weapons, an area of potential risk that has not been covered by any treaty with Russia, which retains a much larger tactical stockpile left over from the Cold War.

The United States still maintains a few hundred nuclear gravity bombs in five European countries. Many analysts inside and outside the U.S. government have acknowledged the weapons have no remaining military utility now that the Warsaw Pact is gone. But they are politically symbolic, especially for the former Warsaw Pact nations on the frontier with Russia, and Obama has left the decision about their future up to a consensus decision to be taken within NATO, which will debate it this year as part of drafting a new "strategic concept." Several nations in the alliance have already suggested they want the weapons to be withdrawn.

The road ahead

Obama may take a harder look at all these issues after getting beyond the treaty battle in the Senate. If the treaty is ratified, ideally the United States would want to pursue a follow-on agreement with Moscow for deeper reductions, but all signs are that it will be difficult. Russia is reluctant to talk about further cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, while the United States will not want to negotiate limits on missile defenses or conventional arms.

Obama also will have to issue classified guidance on nuclear weapons employment policy and may take a much deeper look at the concepts of deterrence in today’s world and how many nuclear weapons are really necessary to support it. The nuclear posture review announced a series of follow-on studies that may take a year or two.

Obama has not finished with nuclear weapons policy, but just begun.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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