Obama’s Revamped Nuclear Strategy


Obama’s Revamped Nuclear Strategy

Pete Souza

For the first time in decades, since the early days of the Cold War, the United States has issued a new set of policy guidelines regarding the use of nuclear weapons that differs significantly from past efforts. President Obama clearly lays out when, how and under what circumstances nuclear weapons would be used. The nuclear strategy would eliminate previous ambiguity that has existed for decades, and which many of his predecessors had failed to or wished not to address.

In laying out his new strategy, Obama said, “Today, my Administration is taking a significant step forward by fulfilling another pledge that I made in Prague—to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and focus on reducing the nuclear dangers of the 21st century, while sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for the United States and our allies and partners as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

Exercising his prerogative, the President ordered the new strategy titled the Nuclear Posture Review. In fact, former President Bush had issued one in 2002; and former President Clinton issued his in 1994. The fact that Obama issued a Nuclear Posture Review in and of itself is not significant – what is significant is that it defines a much more limited role for nuclear weapons. In particular, the United States will not launch a nuclear attack against any state that is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even if that state should launch a chemical or biological weapons attack, or cripples the United States via a cyberattack.

Specifically, the Nuclear Posture Report says, “the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing ‘negative security assurance’ by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT and persuade non-nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty to work with the United States and other interested parties to adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.”

President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review is an effort to begin the groundwork for his policy advocacy of a nuclear-free world. The strategy, while acknowledging that this is a long-term endeavor he alone will not be able to fulfill, is a significant effort in that direction.

Obama began his policy advocacy in a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, shortly after taking office. In the speech, given in Hradcany Square in front of several thousand Czech citizens, Obama said, “Some argue that the spread of these (nuclear) weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked -– that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable…So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons…I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”

The Nuclear Posture Review puts in place a strategy to eliminate the development of new offensive nuclear weapons, which is not supported by the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. One aspect of the NPR is an increasing reliance on ballistic missile defense. Regarding ballistic missile defensive systems, the NPR suggests, “As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national security strategy, these non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.”

Essentially, ballistic missile defense relies on a land-based or sea-based system of missile silos and radar stations. Currently, a system is in operation to protect North America from the North Korean threat. Yet the system that has garnered the most attention is the one proposed to shield NATO states from an Iranian/Middle Eastern attack, to be operating in Europe. Essentially, if the radar station detects a missile launch from an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or medium range missile, the silos or sea based ships would launch interceptor missiles to shoot down any incoming attack.

A second component of the NPR is a “DeMIRVed” ICBM Force, or Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles. MIRVs operate as a single rocket with several nuclear warheads. When a single rocket is launched and it approaches its target, each warhead has a separate target destination. The NPR lays out the goal of removing these several warheads from each ICMB, and making each rocket a single weapon vehicle. Currently, the United States has 450 Minuteman III’s, which are silo-based and currently deployed. Under the NPR, each Minuteman III will be reduced from the current MIRV capability of one to three warheads to just one.

A third component of the NPR relates to the United States 76 B-52H bombers and 18 B-2 bombers. Some will still retain the capability to be armed with nuclear weapons; however, some will be converted to conventional bombers.

The goal of addressing these capabilities, while still retaining a nuclear deterrent, is that the United States has historically relied on the Triad system: SLBM’s (submarine-launched ballistic missile), ICBM’s and strategic bombers as a nuclear deterrent. While it is limiting the enormous number of its nuclear arsenal, to a certain extent, the United States still posseses a significant deterrent against future aggressors through the Triad threat deterrent. The Nuclear Posture Review suggests, “Security architectures in key regions will retain a nuclear dimension as long as nuclear threats to U.S. allies and partners remain. U.S. nuclear weapons have played an essential role in extending deterrence to U.S. allies and partners against nuclear attacks or nuclear-backed coercion by states in their region that possess or are seeking nuclear weapons.”

In a statement following the release of the NPR, Obama addressed several themes. He reassured a world that has been historically nervous about the incredible size of America’s nuclear arsenal that the United States will continue to practice restraint in the face of an increasing hostilities; and he addressed those who are nervous about the threat of state and nonstate actors wishing to acquire nuclear weapons. In his statement at the White House on April 6, 2010, Obama said, “First, and for the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America’s nuclear agenda, which affirms the central importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have aligned our policies and proposed major funding increases for programs to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.”

In an interview with the media the day before the NPR was to be released, Obama stated that those countries like Iran and North Korea, who shun the wishes of the international community by pursuing a nuclear tract, would be allowed no exception.

Against the backdrop of the release of the NPR, Obama has also been pursuing other initiatives aimed at achieving his goal of a nuclear-free world. In Washington, in April of this year, Obama hosted the Nuclear Security Summit with 46 world leaders – the largest gathering of world leaders since the United Nations was formed in the 1940s. Obama gained assurances that more would be done to pressure states like Iran and North Korea to surrender their nuclear programs. States also committed to shoring up and securing many of the stockpiles of nuclear material left over from the Cold War.

The Nuclear Security Summit’s Communiqué addressed these issues and suggested, “In addition to our shared goals of nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, we also all share the objective of nuclear security. Therefore those gathered here in Washington, D.C. on April 13, 2010, commit to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. Success will require responsible national actions and sustained and effective international cooperation.”

Another major accomplishment curtailing nuclear brinkmanship is the New START Treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague this year. The Treaty - once passed in the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma – will limit ICBM, SLBM and heavy bomber warheads on deployed vehicles to 1,550; and ICBM, SLBM and heavy bombers, deployed and non-deployed, to 800.

After presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty, Obama remarked, “nuclear weapons are not simply an issue for the United States and Russia — they threaten the common security of all nations. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a danger to people everywhere — from Moscow to New York; from the cities of Europe to South Asia. So next week, 47 nations will come together in Washington to discuss concrete steps that can be taken to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years.”

While these efforts are remarkable, they are only the first steps towards achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and a world void of the threat posed by rogue state and non-state actors intent on acquiring nuclear capabilities. Much more work remains to be done.

Obama will have to significantly buffer the capabilities of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program and other nuclear arms control regimes like the NPT in insuring that certain states and regions do not risk the status quo of the international system. The effectiveness of these nonproliferation regimes and programs relies on their enforcement and oversight power, creating a de facto global arms control framework. Yet, as these treaties rely on voluntary signatories and self-enforcement, nations do have both the ability to directly opt out of any weapons control measures, or simply be non-committal about treaty support.

Domestically, there are other concerns. While the Nuclear Posture Review is a step in the right direction, Obama will have to portray this decision positively in the face of growing opposition from the political right to his administration’s policies. He is surely anticipating having to defend his nuclear agenda as continuing to keep the U.S. safe from traditional and non-traditional threats.

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