The Biden administration has quietly reduced the role of nuclear weapons in American defense strategy by eliminating a decades-long policy of using nuclear arms to hedge against future developments and threats.
The latest Nuclear Posture Review quietly eliminates a formal role for the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a “hedge against an uncertain future.” The phrase was included in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and three earlier reviews.
Every word and phrase is carefully calibrated and parsed in the document, and nuclear policy analysts say the change in language could result in the elimination of hundreds of stored nuclear weapons. Critics of the change say the weapons are needed to backstop arms control talks and could be deployed to respond to any large-scale “breakout” by nuclear rivals.
Defense sources told The Washington Times that the policy shift is significant and, in the view of critics, will undermine efforts to reach arms control accords and weaken deterrence against unanticipated nuclear threats.
A senior Pentagon official confirmed that the removal of the hedge language eliminates a formal role for nuclear arms but the review seeks to keep unspecified “robust risk management strategies” and “full-scope” nuclear modernization.
The United States “will not undertake unilateral reductions in nuclear forces outside a robust arms control framework,” the senior official told The Times. “The NPR provides a clear-eyed assessment of Russia and China’s nuclear programs and recognizes that there are limits to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in the current security environment.”
A former Pentagon nuclear policy official said removing the hedge language “could be the most serious issue in the report.”
“To me, the report language implies that they will not run most inactive weapons through life extension programs. If so, this is a disaster,” the former official said.
Although the total number of U.S. nuclear warheads is secret, the State Department reported on Sept. 1 as part of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that there were 1,549 deployed warheads on American missiles, submarines and bombers.
Most U.S. nuclear weapons are either held in reserve and not deployed in the field or are awaiting dismantlement. The State Department said in a statement in October 2021 that, as of 2020, the total arsenal included 3,750 warheads. That would leave 2,201 non-deployed weapons.
The Biden policy limits the use of U.S. nuclear weapons to three roles: to deter strategic attacks, to assure allies and partners, and to “achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.”
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly laid out a fourth role: to serve as a “capacity to hedge against an uncertain future.” The review four years ago said potential nuclear adversaries “have moved decidedly in the opposite direction” despite U.S. efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons globally.
The 2018 review said a hedging strategy was needed against unanticipated risks, whether geopolitical, technological, operational or programmatic.
“Hedge weapons” also bolster deterrence and reduce the confidence of foreign adversaries that might be considering an expansion of their nuclear capabilities, the 2018 report said.
“Given the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in potential adversaries’ defense policies and strategies, and the uncertainties of the future threat environment, U.S. nuclear capabilities and the ability to quickly modify those capabilities can be essential to mitigate or overcome risk, including the unexpected,” the older report said.
A 2017 study by the National Institute for Public Policy, a private-sector think tank that includes several former U.S. Strategic Command leaders, said four nuclear posture reviews across different presidential administrations explicitly included the hedging role for U.S. nuclear arms.
“Part of the ‘hedge’ strategy is the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which includes non-deployed warheads which could be uploaded on deployed [submarine-launched ballistic missiles], ICBMs, and heavy bombers,” the report said. “Each of the NPRs has described the stockpile as providing insurance against reliability failure or adverse geopolitical trends.”
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the elimination of the hedge language is benign and is simply “cleaning up language.”
“I have not heard anyone suggest they’re scrapping the warhead upload hedge,” Mr. Kristensen said. “I mean, all the weapons for the bombers are part of the hedge. Minuteman III upload warheads are part of the hedge. Upload from four to five warhead average to eight on Trident is part of the hedge.
“The future will always be uncertain. To reduce the size of the technical hedge, the plan is to increase production capacity,” he said.
“The People’s Republic of China is the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent,” the report said.
Analysts project that China’s large-scale nuclear buildup will result in an arsenal of at least 1,000 warheads by 2029, up from an estimated 250 strategic warheads several years ago, the report said.
China’s growing nuclear power could give Beijing the ability to coerce an adversary during a crisis or conflict, including military provocations against U.S. allies and partners in the region, according to the report.
Russia, the report said, is also expanding and modernizing its nuclear arsenal, which it described as “an enduring existential threat.” Moscow has 1,550 warheads under the New START accord and at least 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons. The concern that the Kremlin could resort to a nuclear strike in its war with Ukraine is a high priority, U.S. officials said.
“By 2030, the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries,” the review states.
China and Russia are augmenting nuclear forces with advanced warfare capabilities, including cyber, space, information and advanced conventional strike weapons. Beijing’s large-scale buildup of nuclear forces will be factored into arms control and risk reduction efforts with Russia.
“The PRC and Russia are at different stages of their nuclear weapons development, but each poses a major and growing nuclear threat to the United States and its partners,” the review states.
North Korea also poses a nuclear threat, and the review states that the U.S. strategy is to make clear to the regime of Kim Jong-un the “dire consequences” of his use of nuclear weapons.
The posture review also calls for dropping plans for a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile that senior military commanders have supported and retiring the B83-1 thermonuclear gravity bomb. Congress added funds for the nuclear cruise missile in the most recent defense authorization bill to keep the weapon program alive, but a senior Pentagon official briefing reporters last week strongly pushed against the effort.
The sea-launched cruise missile “has zero value because even at the full funding value it would not arrive until 2035,” the senior defense official said, dismissing talk that the missile could play a role in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Regarding the shift on nuclear policy, Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, nominee to be the next U.S. Strategic Command chief, revealed in September that administration officials considered even more restrictive language on the use of nuclear weapons but ultimately were pressured into keeping many policies sought by military leaders.
Gen. Cotton said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that Biden nuclear officials wanted to adopt a policy declaring that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter war and retaliate if necessary. Eliminating the hedge role of nuclear arms appears to have met that demand.
The four-star general said the administration also tried to alter policy on the use of nuclear arms from “in extreme circumstances” to when faced with “existential” threats — a more restrictive standard. The final Nuclear Posture Review kept the “extreme circumstances” language.
Gen. Cotton said the administration wanted to change U.S. nuclear policy to “no-first-use” — a declaration that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. The proposed policy change did not make it into the final document.
The Nuclear Posture Review said the administration is committed to modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems as part of a multiyear program that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $634 billion from 2021 to 2030. New weapons being built include the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, which will replace the 400 Minuteman III missiles, and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine to replace 12 Ohio-class boats beginning in 2030.
B-52 bombers, first deployed in the 1960s, will be modernized, and at least 100 new B-21 Raider nuclear bombers are slated to be built.
F-35 jets will replace F-15s for NATO nuclear missions.
Despite the modernization, the review adopts a strategy and declaratory policy that sets “a very high bar” for using nuclear arms and strongly endorses diplomacy as a way to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals. The administration regards arms control as “the most effective, durable and responsible path for achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy,” the report concluded.
The review notes that Beijing is required to seek strategic arms reductions as part of its signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, China is engaged in one of the largest nuclear force expansions since the Cold War.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal is described as “safe, secure and effective,” but officials acknowledge that most deterrent systems are operating beyond their original design life.
“Replacement programs are on track at this time but there is little or no margin between the end of effective life of existing systems and the fielding of their replacements,” the review states.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said U.S. nuclear forces are “dangerously old.”
“In the meantime, Russia and China have been expanding their arsenals and rapidly catching up to us,” he said. “Having a nuclear arsenal that’s second to none has been the best guarantee of our national security in the modern age, and if we lose our edge, it’ll be disastrous for the world.”
Patty-Jane Geller, a nuclear analyst with The Heritage Foundation, said the Biden Nuclear Posture Review presents a “largely incoherent strategy” as a blueprint for dealing with growing nuclear threats from China, Russia and North Korea.
“Given the attempts in this document to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in ways that do not strengthen national security, I’m not sure this meets that standard,” Ms. Geller said.
Mark Schneider, a nuclear policy specialist, said the good news from the posture review is that the administration did not cancel plans for nuclear modernization of missiles, submarines and bombers, but still falls short while Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides are “making constant nuclear threats” regarding the conflict in Ukraine.
“President Biden has just asked if Putin has no intent to use nuclear weapons — ‘Why does he keep talking about it?’ A good question. It should have impacted U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but it did not,” he said.
John Maurer, a nuclear expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the dropping of the hedging language is technically a reduction in the role from previous reviews. “In some ways, I think it reflects the reality of our current moment,” he said.
“Hedging against an uncertain future was mostly a polite way of saying ‘preparing for the possibility that China and/or Russia become our adversaries again,’” Mr. Maurer said. “Unfortunately, we don’t need to ‘hedge’ against that possibility anymore because Chinese and Russian nuclear challenges are now an undeniable reality.”
Mr. Maurer also cautioned that the administration would be making a serious mistake if it moves toward unilaterally eliminating non-deployed weapons.
“Those weapons represent the ultimate guarantee of sufficient nuclear deterrence in the near- to midterm, especially given China’s projected nuclear expansion,” he said.
“They also represent an important capability for arms control bargaining. Semantically, they may no longer be a ‘hedge,’ but that does not make them any less important to actual deterrence and arms control.”
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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