Briefing on the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review

October 25th, 2018

The Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations held a side event briefing on the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on 11 October 2018. A group of panelists moderated by Ambassador Robert Wood, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament and Special Representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Issues, presented a series of perspectives on the NPR before taking questions and comments from the audience.

Mr. Gregory Weaver, Deputy Director for Strategic Plans and Policy of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated statements on the NPR that Ambassador Wood had made both during its February 2018 rollout and during a side event of the 2018 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). He stated that the U.S. nuclear strategy serves four roles: to deter nuclear and non-nuclear attack, to assure allies and partners, to achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails and to hedge against an uncertain future. He explained that the NPR fulfills these objectives in three ways: tailoring, flexibility and hedging. Mr. Weaver noted that geopolitical, technological, operational and programmatic developments may require hedging.

Mr. Weaver asserted that assumptions inherent to the previous NPR, released in 2010, had since been challenged or defied, resulting in a need for the United States to review what assumptions, strategies and capabilities could fulfil its strategic objectives. He contended that trust had deteriorated with certain other nuclear-weapon States; as the United States took the lead in reducing its nuclear arsenal, China and the Russian Federation continued modernizing or expanding their nuclear forces while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea significantly advanced its capabilities and threatened their use against the United States and its allies.

Mr. Weaver argued that the addition of low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to the U.S. arsenal—a change discussed in the NPR—is necessary to augment U.S. nuclear options for flexibility, but it does not signal a lower threshold for nuclear weapons use. Instead, he argued, the new systems are designed to raise the threshold for adversarial nuclear weapons use. He described plans for a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile as a longer-term response to expanding adversarial nuclear forces, including non-strategic nuclear weapons. He reiterated that the United States is willing to forgo the pursuit of SLBMs if the Russian Federation agrees to terms for verifiable arms control, as in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Mr. Weaver stated that the United States does not foresee tensions easing in the near-term, and he suggested that they may intensify in the long-term.

He argued that some geopolitical developments and new technologies are destabilizing and may affect nuclear weapons and the roles they are required to fulfil. In the U.S. view, strategic adjustments, including new declaratory policies on U.S. first use of nuclear weapons, are thus necessary to bolster deterrence and assurance strategies, hedge against future uncertainties and drive adversaries to pursue verifiable arms control agreements.

Ms. Andrea Thompson, Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. Department of State, proposed that the 2018 NPR reflects a high degree of continuity from previous U.S. nuclear strategy. She argued, however, that the deterioration of the international security environment was a significant change. She stated that U.S. allies agreed in consultations that this change has occurred.

Ms. Thompson said the United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances, in defense of its vital interests. She reaffirmed that the United States was strongly committed to non-proliferation and arms control, noting reductions of its nuclear stockpile by 88 percent from its peak in the Cold War. She contended that the United States will uphold its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; continue to support the NPT and the Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START); and maintain negotiations with the Russian Federation on abiding by the INF Treaty. She explained that the United States does not desire adversarial relationships with the Russian Federation or other States, and she urged the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to work together in preserving peace and non-proliferation.

Ambassador Wood fielded questions and remarks from several audience members. Mr. John Burroughs, Director of the United Nations Office of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Weapons, argued that the United States has hardly altered its nuclear strategy since the beginning of the Cold War and asked whether it had considered ending deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or deploying a successor to existing anti-ballistic missile capabilities. Mr. Paul Ingram, Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council, expressed his hope that nuclear-weapons States would continue to publicly explain and justify their nuclear postures, and he asked if the United States had considered unintended or negative consequences that might arise from the dissemination of an NPR that focuses on capabilities.

Responding to these questions, Mr. Weaver stated that the United States had considered dropping a leg of its nuclear “triad”, but Defense Secretary James Mattis concluded that all legs had a necessary mutually supporting effect on nuclear deterrence. Mr. Weaver argued that ICBM forces are not destabilizing, and that participants in the NPR process had not considered an anti-ballistic missile follow-on amid an ongoing Missile Defense Review. He further noted that the NPR process had accounted for potential negative diplomatic and military responses to the 2018 NPR’s conclusions and to U.S. nuclear modernization. He asserted that the modernization programmes are under New START limits and leave room for further arms control agreements and disarmament instruments.

Mr. Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute, suggested that modernization could have adverse effects on strategic stability and nuclear command, control and communication, and he expressed concern that modernization could be used as an excuse to resume nuclear testing. He argued that testing moratoria are insufficient and called for an early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

In response to an inquiry by Mr. Granoff regarding who advocated for arms control in the NPR process, Ms. Thompson identified the International Security and Non-Proliferation (ISN) and the Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC) bureaus of the U.S. Department of State. She further reaffirmed that the United States is committed to its testing moratorium. Mr. Weaver also responded to Mr. Granoff’s remarks, arguing that the

modernization of strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces is intended to enhance survivability and penetrability, not to achieve strategic military advantage. The United States recognizes that if deterrence fails, it will require high confidence in its forces’ ability to penetrate adversaries’ defenses and in the survivability of its nuclear command, control and communication.

Ms. Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director of the Western States Legal Union, commented that there is no reference in the NPR to NPT Article VI, in which States parties commit to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament. She argued that modernization signifies an escalation of arms races, and she alleged that the United States is presently not working in good faith to meet Article VI commitments.

Ambassador Wood responded that the NPR displays good faith towards nuclear disarmament, and that Article VI proposes no timeframe for disarmament and only details an end result of a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Weaver noted that the Russian Federation has pursued nuclear modernization efforts for nearly two decades, amid U.S. delays in beginning its own modernization programmes. He argued that the United States could not further delay a replacement of its existing capabilities before they become obsolete. He added that the U.S. modernization programmes would replace but not expand the current arsenal, unlike programmes pursued by China, the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He also stated that the United States has no new warhead designs planned as part of the modernization programme.

Text by Mark Duncan and Cyrus Jabbari