For almost 30 years, the White House has conducted a strange nuclear weapons ritual. Every new presidential administration, from Clinton to Trump to Biden, releases a Nuclear Posture Review.
When President Clinton’s secretary of defense Lee Aspin ordered the first Nuclear Posture Review, it began as an audit of weapons some had started to think were outdated, but over the years it’s become a document that outlines the justifications for keeping those weapons. President Biden’s long delayed review is out now and, though experts point to some bright spots, it mostly affirms a terrifying new reality: once thought of as Cold War relics, nuclear weapons never really went away and the world’s militaries are preparing for a future defined by nuclear war.
Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review comes at a time of geopolitical upheaval. It’s been finished for most of the year, but only just released to the public. Congress has had access to it for the past 7 months. Part of what’s different is that Russia invaded Ukraine and Putin has constantly reminded the world that he has nuclear weapons. It’s a war that’s seen NATO expand and the U.S. pour millions of dollars worth of advanced weapons systems in the European country.
In that context, some of what's in the review has nuclear experts on edge. Emma Claire Foley, a research and policy assistant at Global Zero—a group that advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons—highlighted language in the review that pointed to a world where nukes may be used on the battlefield. “There’s a lot of pretty troubling language in there about the need for resilience,” she said. “Resilience, on its face, is not a bad thing…but the way it’s framed here it sounds like it’s talking about the inevitability of the battlefield use of nuclear weapons…this is a scenario that we’ve been hearing about a lot with reference to Ukraine.”
The review has always been a weird ritual for the Pentagon. It wasn’t intended to be. “The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is gone. We should maybe rethink this,” Stephen I. Schwartz, nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, told Motherboard about the birth of the review. “Do we need all these weapons? Are these policies actually helpful? Are they counterproductive? Could we maybe save some money?”
According to Schwartz, Aspin’s ambitions got away from him. The entrenched military bureaucracy around nuclear weapons took control of the project and what began as a bottom-up critique of U.S. nuclear weapons policy became a ritual affirmation of the Pentagon’s nuclear goals. “They’ve all essentially done the same thing in different ways,” Schwartz said. “Which is to effectively rubber stamp both the posture and the weapons systems that are in place.”
Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review is largely like every other review. It affirmed the nuclear triad—America’s use of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers—as a deterrent against other people launching nukes. It called out Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran for its nuclear ambitions. And it talked about spending billions of dollars to build new nuclear weapons and revamp old ones, a feature of the Trump era Nuclear Posture Review.
That does not mean there weren’t a few bright spots. “They’re canceling the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile and the B83 gravity bomb,” Foley said. “There’s been a big push on the part of people who want to reduce defense spending and reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons to get rid of them.”
The sea-launched nuclear cruise missile has been a point of contention between Congress and the military for a few years now. As part of the 2023 military budget, the House Armed Services Committee allocated $45 million to fund the project despite protests from the U.S. Navy, which said it did not want or need them. Now it appears to actually and finally be dead.
Correction 11/4/22: After the publication of this article, Stephen Young—Senior Washington Representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists—reached out to explain that the death of the sea-launched cruise missile is overstated.
“Even though the [review] cancels it, Congress can and will fund it,” Young told me in an email. “And Congress is funding it largely because senior military leaders, including the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Milley, publicly supported it even though they knew the NPR opposed it. Moreover, with Republicans likely to take the House and the Senate, funding for it could potentially go up considerably, if not this year (when the $45 million for R&D you mention is practically guaranteed), then next year. Exactly what the Biden administration will do when Congress appropriates money for a project the administration does not want is not clear. It is relatively uncharted territory for a new weapons system – but Congress often does provide funding for existing military systems that the military doesn’t want, and Congress gets its way.”
The B83 gravity bomb is the most powerful nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal. The 2,400 pound bomb can cause a 1.2 megaton explosion which is roughly 80 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. Both the B83 and new nuclear cruise missiles were weapons that the Trump administration pushed for in its review.
“It’s good that that’s back on track after being waylaid by the Trump administration, which never met a nuclear weapon that it didn’t like,” Schwartz said of the B83. “There’s no need for it and it’s increasingly expensive to maintain it. If we did keep it, we would have to overhaul it.”
But that’s where the bright spots end. For decades there’s been a taboo against nuclear weapons. After the Cold War, countries across the world made slow but steady progress towards dismantling the old weapons. The review is part of a worldwide trend of ramping up tensions. Old nuclear powers are spending billions to make new weapons and revamp old ones while countries like North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear programs.
Nuclear weapons are so technically complicated and so rarely used that they’ve developed their own lexicon. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly. In the nuclear world resilience is the ability to recover quickly and launch nukes at the person who nuked you. In the logic of nuclear weapons, if you can prove to your enemy that you’re “resilient” enough to do that, then you can stop them from even launching a nuclear weapon in the first place.
This language is in Biden’s nuke review in a section called “Deterrence by Resilience. Denying the benefits of aggression also requires resilience,” the review said. It promised the Pentagon would improve resilience and highlighted the cyber domain specifically. “The Department will reduce adversary incentives for early attack by fielding diverse, resilient, and redundant satellite constellations.”
Correction 11/4/22: The original version of this article claimed the satellite constellations from the review were a reference to the nuclear triad. Young also clarified this. “In fact they are constellations of satellites in space that are used for communication,” he said. “The resilience comes from the fact that the US will have enough satellites to communicate with its nuclear forces even if the system is attacked.”
This is an especially important given that China has claimed it’s testing anti-satellite weapons. I’ve changed the article to reflect this and regret the error.
U.S. resilience depends on the myriad weapon systems that make up the nuclear triad—the collection of ICBMS, bombers, and SLBMs that constitute America’s nuclear forces. The logic is that should one thing be destroyed then the other two can still retaliate.
Putin has stopped short of making a direct nuclear threat, but has promised to do whatever it takes to protect the sovereignty of Russia. When he announced the illegal annexation of parts of east Ukraine, Putin highlighted America’s past use of nuclear weapons and said that the U.S. had set a precedent. He also previously put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.
It’s a lot of signaling, dancing around the topic without making direct reference to it. Biden’s review is similar. “We must be able to deter conventional aggression that has the potential to escalate to nuclear employment of any scale,” the review said. “Russia presents the most acute example of this problem today given its significantly larger stockpile of regional nuclear systems and the possibility it would use these forces to try to win a war on its periphery or avoid defeat if it was in danger of losing a conventional war. Deterring Russian limited nuclear use in a regional conflict is a high U.S.and NATO priority.”
The review doesn’t explicitly say that it’s talking about Ukraine, but it’s talking about Ukraine. It’s a paragraph that highlights the absurdity of nuclear weapons. In the logic of deterrence, militaries build more nuclear weapons to make sure that no one uses nuclear weapons. The Pentagon is saying that, should someone use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield, it will respond with nuclear weapons.
Foley said that she’s watched as the Pentagon and others, especially during the Trump administration, pushed for so-called low-yield nuclear weapons. They’re the kind of nukes that, theoretically, someone could deploy on the battlefield without setting off a wider nuclear war. “That’s highly doubtful,” she said.