Four Big Need To Know Takeaways From The Long Awaited US Nuclear Posture Review

A leaked draft describes revised strategies, new weapons and threats, and a worrying potential for more “usable” nukes.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Homeland photo


As a candidate, President Donald Trump reportedly questioned why the United States had nuclear weapons if it could never really use them and has since pledged to dramatically increase the capability of America’s deadliest arsenal. As such, latest Nuclear Posture Review was always going to be significant, but our first glimpse of the new policies shows a particular dramatic shift in thinking, which not only preserves the nuclear triad in its present form, but looks to expand it considerably in many ways.

On Jan. 11, 2018, HuffPost News published a detailed analysis of the Trump Administration’s nuclear plans based on a draft copy of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that it had obtained, as well as the document itself. It’s dated January 2018 and marked “pre-decisional,” indicating that the text is not necessarily final, but with the Pentagon expecting to finish up the process in February 2018, it’s likely to be very close in tone and overall content to the finished version. It focuses heavily on the need for deterrence strategies tailored to specific enemies and potential opponents, a modernized nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure to respond to those growing threats, and, most worryingly, plans for a more “flexible” posture that could make these potentially world-ending weapons more useable.

“This review candidly addresses the challenges posed by Russian, Chinese, and other states' strategic policies, programs, and capabilities, particularly nuclear,” the review states in its executive summary. “It presents the flexible, adaptable, and resilient U.S. nuclear capabilities now required to protect the United States, allies, and partners, and promote strategic stability.”

The document, which HuffPost made available online, is worth reading in full, but here are four takeaways from the draft review that we at The War Zone think are especially significant.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky, part of America's nuclear triad., USN

New, low-yield nuclear weapons

By far, the most important part of the draft NPR is its emphasis on flexible, low-yield, non-strategic nuclear weapons. The review justifies this with the same basic logic that advocates of the concept have pitched in public for years.

Per their argument, the existing triad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and heavy bombers with long-range cruise missiles and gravity bombs, may be too slow and inflexible to actually deter an opponent. Potential enemies with their own large stockpiles of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in particular might feel they have the ability to launch a quick, limited attack that achieves their objectives before the United States can respond at all. In effect, the focus on large, strategic weapons “self-deters” the U.S. government from taking its own limited action, or so the theory goes.

“These [non-strategic] supplements will enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies,” the draft document says. “For example, Russia's belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow's perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict.”

Concerns about this Russian doctrine, known commonly as “escalating to deescalate,” have grown significantly since 2014, when the Kremlin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Region and then began to further "salami slice" the country apart by way of proxies. There are fears that Russia might use such tactics to bully a neighbor, including certain NATO members with mutual borders, before the United States or its allies could respond. Experts, however, disagree about how serious Moscow is about putting such plans into action.

Regardless, the main focus of this new low-yield nuclear weapon effort would center on the development of new, smaller warheads for the D-5 Trident II SLBM and an all-new submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile, or SLCM. The U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines carry these weapons and they will be the main armament of the upcoming Columbia-class, too.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland fires a Trident D-5 during an exercise., USN

In addition, the draft NPR calls for expanding the U.S. military’s capability to deploy nuclear-capable bombers and multi-role fighter jets to forward locations. The review specifically calls for following through with plans to add a nuclear weapons capability to the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, as well.

Taken together, the goal would be to make it clear that the United States has a diverse array of nuclear options within quick reach of any possible hot spot. Even without low-yield weapons, nuclear ballistic missile submarines are already among the most flexible tools in America's arsenal, able to operate for extended periods underwater, avoiding detection while still being within reach of potential target areas.

The main problem with this plan, of course, is that it assumes potential opponents, large and small, will draw the appropriate conclusions about the restructuring both before and during a potential nuclear exchange. Experts worry that it would be hard, if not impossible for any nation state to see any functional difference between “limited” and “full-scale” nuclear attacks.

It could be especially hard for them to make any determination about the size and nature of the strike within the small decision-making window they would have after detecting it in the first place. Since the U.S. military routinely employs conventional submarine-launched cruise missiles, it could be difficult for an opponent to discern if the incoming weapons are nuclear armed at all. An enemy could easily feel compelled to simply adopt a position of assuming that any incoming missile has a high-yield warhead on board, which could limit the United States ability to launch limited, conventional stand-off strikes without risking a major escalation.

There are concerns that a U.S. doctrine that includes making small-scale statements with nuclear weapons would lower the bar for when it would launch such a strike, and in turn further increase the chances of actually prompting a cataclysmic exchange. The United States does not have a policy of “no first use,” but at present states that it would not ever threaten a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear state that is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

President Donald Trump gives a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, in which he threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea., Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP

The idea that the ability to carry out a smaller strike would deter an enemy more than the threat of massive retaliatory assault seems dubious, as well. It seems hard to believe, especially given Trump’s many public threats implying the use of nuclear weapons, that any nation thinks the U.S. government would hesitate to use them if necessary.

“Anyone can come up with a scenario that requires a new weapon,” Hans Kristensen, head of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in a deep look into the flaws of deterrent strategies focused on lower-yield nuclear weapons in June 2017. “What’s missing from the debate is why the existing and planned capabilities are not sufficient.”

The nuclear posture review does not mention that the United States already has more than 1,000 nuclear warheads with a so-called “dial-a-yield” feature that includes a low-yield setting. More glaringly, though, the review specifically says that the United States has no plans to fundamentally change its thresholds for when it would use nuclear weapons in general, which calls into question the entire concept.

“If you’re saying that having low-yield nuclear weapons does not lower the threshold for use, then you’re essentially saying there’s no difference between using a low-yield and a high-yield weapon,” Alexandra Bell, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a former senior State Department official, told HuffPost News. “If you’re saying adamantly in here that this won’t change our current posture choices, it basically negates your reason to have this [low-yield] capability in the first place.”

Four B61 nuclear gravity bombs. All of the remaining different versions of this weapon, as well as upcoming B61-12, have variable yields., DOD

Tailored deterrence

Despite this seemingly contradictory logic of the underlying strategy, the idea of the need for a more flexible and usable deterrent permeates through the rest of the review. The authors of the draft NPR are adamant that a “one-size fits all” approach simply does not match the potential threats and so-called “tailored deterrence” is necessary.

“This need for flexibility to tailor U.S. capabilities and strategies to meet future requirements and unanticipated developments runs contrary to a rigid, continuing policy of “no new nuclear capabilities,’” the document states. “Potential adversaries do not stand still.”

There is a tailored strategy for Russia, which again focuses heavily on neutralizing the impact of the escalate to deescalate doctrine. That particular section also reiterates America’s commitment to its NATO allies, something the draft NPR stresses at various points, no doubt in part in response to President Trump’s repeated criticisms of the organization.

Below is a 60 Minutes segment looking at Russian and U.S. nuclear capabilities.

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There is another one for China that strongly implies the United States could consider employing nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear aggression, including potential incidents in space and cyberspace, in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese government is rapidly expanding its capabilities to enforce its massive territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea, and has recently threatened military action should Taiwan decide to make a bid for independence. The U.S. government disputes Beijing’s claims throughout the Pacific and has a legal obligation to defend Taiwan.

Again, the draft NPR does not make clear why the United States cannot deter Russia and China from initiating limited nuclear exchanges with its existing arsenal and policies. The end goal seems to be the same as it ever was, to make sure any hostile nuclear power understands that it can't use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies and somehow escape a response in kind, which is the basic underpinning of deterrence as a concept

The two remaining strategies tailored for particular nations, North Korea and Iran, the latter of which has not officially declared it has nuclear weapons or is developing them, both speak further to a classical deterrence strategy, stressing that the United States would initiate a massive retaliatory operation if either country launched a nuclear strike. This would seem to contradict public statements from senior U.S. government officials, including National Security Adviser U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who has suggested that such strategies might not work against North Korea in particular.

Interestingly, both sections also suggest that the United States could choose to respond to a nuclear attack from either country with major conventional strikes rather than with nuclear weapons. The draft NPR makes it clear that the U.S. government would hold North Korea directly responsible for the end results of it proliferating nuclear weapons technology to other states.

There are additional, broader sections on ensuring America’s posture continues to provide extended deterrence for allies in Europe and Asia, as well as being prepared for unexpected contingencies. Separately, there is another chapter that deals specifically with stepping up efforts to ensure terrorists and other non-state actors do not acquire nuclear weapons, which the Trump Administration also highlighted in its recent National Security Strategy.

North Korean premier Kim Jong-un, in black, stands next to an exmaple of the Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017. North Korea claims it can hit anywhere in the United States with this weapon., KCNA

Modernizing the Triad

Per the draft NPR, this stated need for a more flexible, tailored deterrent means that continued investment in the United States’ nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure, including both command and control nodes and warhead design and production capabilities, is more important than ever. It also makes clear that the U.S. military will retain all three legs of the triad, despite earlier comments from Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2017 that suggested the review could result in a revised nuclear dyad. Mattis later stated publicly that he supported the full triad.

“Throughout past decades, senior U.S. officials have emphasized that the highest priority of the Department of Defense is deterring nuclear attack and, therefore, sustaining the nuclear capabilities necessary to deter [such an attack],” the document notes. “This requirement is now magnified by the need to tailor U.S. strategies to a broader range of adversaries and contingencies and to hedge against unanticipated developments.”

Beyond the plans for the new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, the review does not describe any plans for other previously unannounced future delivery systems. The authors say that the submarine-launched cruise missile is specifically intended to provide that type of capability within the constraints of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, despite reports that the U.S. military will study a weapon that would, if realized, violate the terms of that agreement.  

There is a specific mention of a planned feasibility study to examine the possibility of including a W78 nuclear warhead, the same one found on the U.S. Air Force’s existing Minuteman III ICBMs, onto an unspecified “Navy flight vehicle.” This is very likely the submarine-launched hypersonic weapon prototype the U.S. Navy tested in 2017, or a further evolution of that concept.

The video below depicts the full end-to-end flight of a Minuteman III ICBM with its single W78 warhead.

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Otherwise, the U.S. military would remain focused on existing nuclear modernization efforts, which are the continued development of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, the B61-12 nuclear bomb, the air-launched Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBM. In addition, the Pentagon would remain committed to improving land- and space-based strategic early warning systems, land and airborne command and control nodes, and other related infrastructure.

Notably, the draft NPR renews calls for improving Department of Energy infrastructure associated with the development and production of nuclear weapons, because of concerns about the environmental impact of existing facilities. These, in general, are the specific responsibility of DoE’s National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA).

“NNSA's ability to achieve its vital national security missions is dependent on safe and reliable infrastructure,” Frank Klotz, the soon to retire NNSA administrator says in a quote in the review. “If not appropriately addressed, the age and condition of NNSA's infrastructure will put NNSA 's missions, safety of its workers, the public, and the environment at risk.”

The NNSA’s main job will be sustaining and extending the life of existing nuclear warheads, including keeping the B83-1 gravity bomb viable past its present unspecified retirement date as a reserve system. At the same time, it will be working on devising new designs that could increase commonality between Air Force and Navy delivery systems.

An inert B83 "shape" on display at Pease Air Force Base in 1989., USAF

Russia's Status-6 is a threat

In addition to the demands of the new flexible nuclear posture, the draft NPR explains that this modernization of America’s arsenal, which could ultimately cost more than $1 trillion, is necessary because of the rapidly expanding capabilities among potential opponents. The authors included a chart showing the dozens of new weapon systems Russia, China, North Korea

have fielded or have put into development since 2010 compared to one such American program, the nuclear-capable F-35A.

The comparison is completely disingenuous though, since many of the systems, especially the North Korean ones, are likely not anywhere near what the U.S. military would consider a full operational capability. A more fair comparison would show the GBSD, LRSO, and B-21 bomber programs in the United States’ row at least. There are almost certainly other projects in the classified domain, such as the Navy's aforementioned submarine-launched hypersonic system, which it only revealed to the public in November 2017.

Regardless, it is interesting to see the flurry of development represented in this fashion. And though the scan of the document is very low quality and the chart’s text is difficult to read, it includes one particularly important addition, Russia’s Status-6, also known as Kanyon.

An edited version of the low-quality scan of the chart from the draft NPR, with Status-6 highlighted., DOD via HuffPost News

This weapon, sometimes referred to as a torpedo, but more accurately show on the chart as an “autonomous underwater vehicle,” first emerged publicly in 2015. Russian television broadcasts caught a glimpse of it in a briefing book while covering an otherwise mundane meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and representatives of the country’s defense industries.

From what little is known about the system, the idea is that Russian submarines would launch the system, which carries a thermonuclear warhead, into an opponent’s port cities to deny access to them in a crisis. The design appears to be deliberately “dirty,” producing deadly amounts of radiation to make it particularly difficult for the enemy to get things back up and running. In theory, it could be especially devastating in confined maritime environments, such as the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, giving Russia an addition means to control access to those areas.

“If detonated, Status-6 would be capable of dousing cities like New York in massive amounts of radioactive fallout,” Jeffery Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in Foreign Policy at the time. “At the risk of understating things, this project is bat-shit crazy.”

A screen grab of the original 2015 broadcast showing the "Status-6" system., via @EvShu

It's not clear how far along Russia might be with the project and letting it leak out in that fashion might have been part of a deliberate disinformation effort. The U.S. government, though, appears to have reason to take it seriously.

The chart also highlights Russia’s INF-breaking ground-launched cruise missile. The NPR’s text separately mentions the country’s work on a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, which it may have tested in 2017. From what else is legible in the chart, there does not appear to be any mention of any other previously unknown nuclear delivery systems.

Now, again, it’s important to note that this is only a draft document, but it’s equally true that broad policies are unlikely to change dramatically at this late date in the process. Even if they did, that the authors initially considered these conclusions is a significant revelation.

As it stands now, the review makes it clear that the U.S. military is in favor of new nuclear weapons and capabilities. It says these additions will not make it any "easier" for the United States to employ its nuclear arsenal, but it seems hard to believe this dramatic shift in priorities won't change the calculus, at least to some degree.

It’s less obvious how adding low-yield weapons, and a new doctrine to with them, will actually impact how the United States expects to deter its opponents from launching a potentially apocalyptic strike.

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