The Nuclear Question America Never Answers

What the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review means

Photo of the warhead of the Titan II nuclear missile
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

What is the purpose of the American nuclear arsenal? Every American president since the end of the Cold War has tried to answer this question in a formal report called the Nuclear Posture Review. And every American president has fudged their answer—now including President Joe Biden, who released his NPR last week even as Russia wages war in Europe and the Russian president makes barely veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine, NATO, and the United States itself.

The first NPR, in 1994, was the result of an initiative by President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense Les Aspin to ask what we should do after the Cold War with a nuclear arsenal that was designed to defeat a Soviet adversary that no longer existed. The process, unfortunately, turned into a kind of bureaucratic free-for-all, in which the Pentagon—better organized, more powerful, and more committed to the status quo than other agencies—outflanked Aspin and his staff (including a talented young assistant secretary of defense named Ashton Carter, later to become secretary himself). Unsurprisingly, the document effectively said that our nuclear establishment, including the triad of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines, was just fine. Its authors conceded that a new force could be smaller and cheaper, a kind of Mini-Me of the old one.

And that’s pretty much what subsequent NPRs have said ever since. Over the years, other administrations have differed in their emphasis but not their conclusions. The 2002 NPR, for example, reflected both the priorities of the George W. Bush administration and the trauma of 9/11. It was, apparently, a mess of a document. I say “apparently” because most of it was classified; the parts that were released—or leaked—to the public looked very much like the result of lazy outsourcing to defense contractors once everyone in the national-security establishment had stampeded over to counterterrorism and insurgency issues. It was soon buried and forgotten.

When Barack Obama released an NPR, his administration hired communications consultants to try to avoid his predecessor’s stumble, but this precaution didn’t matter. I was among many who hoped that the 2010 release would contain serious changes to U.S. nuclear doctrine, especially because a year earlier, Obama had committed the United States to a nuclear-free world. But again, interagency struggles produced a compromise document that kept previous policies and structures intact.

When Donald Trump became president, many in the national-security community held their breath to see what would come from a man so staggeringly ignorant about nuclear issues. But in the end, the 2018 review, while somewhat harder-edged in its rhetoric, didn’t make major changes to U.S. policy. One significant addition was the idea that the United States could respond to “non-nuclear strategic attacks” with nuclear weapons, but Washington has always implicitly reserved the right to such a response; the Trump administration just decided to say it a little louder.

And now here we are with the fifth NPR. Biden’s report does make some changes. Trump, for example, proposed a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile. This was a bad idea, and as a result of deliberations over the NPR, Biden zeroed out the budget for it. Biden’s NPR also jettisons much of Trump’s language about responding to nonnuclear attacks.

But we’re keeping the same kinds of forces and the same strategies we used during our long struggle with the Soviet Union. The NPR says, yet again, that the triad is a good idea, that it should be modernized at great expense, and that nuclear deterrence is the ultimate guarantee of American national security.

And yet the big questions remain unanswered. Does the strategic arsenal exist only to deter the use of similar weapons against us? Or does it exist to fight and prevail in a nuclear war? Biden’s solution is the same compromise found in the four other posture reviews: America hopes for a world in which nuclear arms only deter nuclear arms, but that world isn’t here yet.

The Biden NPR is woven into something the administration calls “integrated deterrence,” and as a symbolic point, it was released not as a stand-alone report, but along with both the National Defense Strategy and the Missile Defense Review. “Integrated deterrence” sounds very sensible, but what is it, and what role do nuclear weapons play in it? Here’s the 2022 National Defense Strategy:

Integrated deterrence entails working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, all instruments of U.S. national power, and our network of Alliances and partnerships. Tailored to specific circumstances, it applies a coordinated, multifaceted approach to reducing competitors’ perceptions of the net benefits of aggression relative to restraint. Integrated deterrence is enabled by combat-credible forces prepared to fight and win, as needed, and backstopped by a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.

If you found all that verbiage hard to parse, so did I. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Posture Review adds this refinement—such that it is:

A key goal of integrated deterrence is to develop tailored options that shape adversary perceptions of benefits and costs. The role of nuclear weapons is well established and embedded in strategic deterrence policy and plans. Non-nuclear capabilities may be able to complement nuclear forces in strategic deterrence plans and operations in ways that are suited to their attributes and consistent with policy on how they are to be employed.

As the writer Fred Kaplan noted, this is just “a slog of cliches.” But what it all boils down to is that we’re going to keep doing what we’ve done for some 60 years or so: The United States will deter its enemies by having very good military forces capable of fighting in various environments, with the ultimate security of America and its allies guaranteed by many hundreds of strategic nuclear warheads deliverable in hours by manned bombers—or in a matter of minutes by sea- and land-based missiles.

There is one part of the NPR that minces no words. It says:

Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.

This is a remarkably stark warning to North Korea. Notice, however, that this passage does not guarantee nuclear retaliation, which is wise. Presidents as far back as Richard Nixon have sought nuclear options against North Korea, a difficult business that carries great risk of escalation as well as damage to other nations. Still, the clarity of this one line raises the question of what might be happening behind the scenes that Biden felt the need to say it.

The report, however, is overall a disappointment for arms-control advocates, especially because Biden, like Obama and Trump before him, remains committed to spending a huge amount of money—more than $600 billion over the next decade—on nuclear weapons. Kaplan, rightly, argued that the 2022 NPR is “a sign that another casualty of the war in Ukraine and various other messes in the world is the suspension of creative thinking about nuclear strategy.” Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda at the Federation of American Scientists said that “efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals and the role that nuclear weapons play have been subdued by renewed strategic competition abroad and opposition from defense hawks at home.” And the arms-control expert Joe Cirincione believes that the whole review process itself is so flawed that Biden’s NPR should be the last ever issued, because it removes too much power from the White House and gives the nuclear establishment too much control over its own interests.

How could this NPR have been different? I am a reformed nuclear hawk—early in my career, I worked in a defense firm that assisted the Strategic Defense Initiative—but since the early 1990s, I have been advocating for reducing our nuclear inventory and decreasing our reliance on nuclear threats. And so I would have liked to have seen a declaration that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter the use of similar nuclear weapons, along with a “no first use” pledge, in which the United States vowed never to be the first to employ nuclear arms. Sole-purpose and no-first-use declarations cause anxiety among our allies, and understandably so, but it is not 1968 and we are not facing two dozen Soviet divisions along the NATO border.

The huge cost of nuclear modernization also shifts resources away from necessary conventional-force improvements, which are important to countering potential Chinese aggression at sea. Nuclear weapons are not a replacement for naval, air, and ground forces that can deter—and if need be, fight and win—a war in the first place. Look no farther than Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin is learning that painful lesson right now: The Kremlin’s mighty nuclear arsenal has not saved tens of thousands of Russian men from being killed or wounded in a losing battle against a nation one-third the size of Russia.

Realistically, the Biden NPR probably said all that could be said in the current circumstances. A drawn-out crisis with Russia is not the time to invite a debate over the role of the American nuclear deterrent; as former U.S. Ambassador Steven Pifer told me earlier this week: “I had hoped for more ambition in the NPR, but given Russia’s actions and nuclear threats, the final product is no surprise.” The military and the nuclear establishment are resistant to change, but if the current NPR looks a lot like a status quo Cold War document rather than a blueprint for reform, we largely have Putin—and the Chinese, who may be ramping up their threats against Taiwan—to thank for it.