U.S. Review Envisions Using Nuclear Weapons Against Non-Nuclear Attacks

Ivy Mike nuclear blast, Enewetak Atoll, November 1, 1952. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Joe Biden said the U.S. should never be the first to use nuclear weapons. “There is no first use doctrine we should be pushing,” he said.  But a new administration review has reiterated the long-term policy that the U.S. will launch nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks. It once again underscores the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex to maintain the status quo, even when it poses civilization-ending dangers

Stephen Young, of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, said the new nuclear review “abandons the pledge Biden made on the campaign trail to support a ‘no first use’ policy and declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies.”

Since Clinton, each presidential administration has conducted a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to assess the role nuclear weapons play in U.S. security strategy. The latest released October 27 says, “The United States affirms that its nuclear forces deter all forms of strategic attack . . . nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence strategic-level attacks.”

“Broad and ambiguous” on when weapons used

The document leaves the definition of those attacks deliberately ambiguous, but states elsewhere, “One challenge arises from advances in non-nuclear capabilities, including in the cyber, space, air, and undersea domains, that likely will create complex and unpredictable pathways for conflict escalation  . . . A related challenge is the lack of collective experience and potential limited understanding of the interplay between nuclear and non-nuclear strategic capabilities in shaping a crisis or conflict.”

In other words, when nuclear weapons are brought into the picture, huge possibilities for miscalculation and uncontrolled escalation to full nuclear war exist.

This broad and ambiguous nuclear weapons declaratory policy walks back President Biden’s earlier position and pledge to narrow the role of U.S. nuclear weapons,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.  “In 2020, Biden wrote ‘that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.’”

Notes Kimball, “The 2022 NPR reports that the administration conducted a ‘thorough review of options for nuclear declaratory policy, including both No First Use and Sole Purpose policies, and concluded those approaches would result in an unacceptable level of risk . . . ‘ In reality, policies that threaten the first use of nuclear weapons, whether they are long-range or shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons carry unacceptable risks.”

“Sole purpose” defines the use of nuclear weapons as only to deter or respond to nuclear attacks, but unlike “no first use” does not explicitly limit their use.  “For instance, there are sole purpose formulations that leave enough room for the United States to use nuclear weapons preemptively or first, in the event of extreme and unforeseen non-nuclear attacks against it or its allies,” write Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Vipin Narang of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“A terrifying document”

Young said the NPR “is, at heart, a terrifying document. It not only keeps the world on a path of increasing nuclear risk, in many ways it increases that risk. Citing rising threats from Russia and China, it argues that the only viable U.S. response is to rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, maintain an array of dangerous Cold War-era nuclear policies, and threaten the first use of nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios.”

Calling the review “a failure,” Young said, “The U.S. faces two choices: Spending $1 trillion rebuilding our entire nuclear arsenal and continuing Cold War-era policies that make nuclear war easier to start, or deciding it is time to change, and beginning to move posture and policy back from the brink. This NPR chooses the first path. If maintained, it will mean decades more of nuclear brinkmanship and clear nuclear risk. The chances of catastrophic failure are higher than ever.”

Young was referring to a modernization of the entire strategic triad including a new missile submarine, stealth bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile begun under the Obama Administration. It will cost $634 billion in this decade alone, the Congressional Budget Office projects.

Added Young, “We have to get rid of nuclear weapons. It won’t be quick or easy. But everything we do should be directed toward that end, or we risk facing the end of humanity as we know it.”

Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information Project director, was also critical. “Although Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign spoke strongly in favor of adopting no-first-use and sole-purpose policies, the NPR explicitly rejects both for now. From an arms control and risk reduction perspective, the NPR is a disappointment. Previous 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.”

Emma Claire Foley, who runs the Global Zero Military Incidents Project, wrote “. . . the NPR leaves the door open for nuclear use, attempting to portray such a catastrophic eventuality as fundamentally manageable: such a decision might be taken in order to ensure ‘the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.’ Battlefield nuclear use is portrayed as a possible unfortunate reality of contemporary warfare, and the challenge seems to be, not to do everything in our power to make sure that a nuclear weapon is never again used, but instead to develop ‘resilience’ in the face of their eventual ‘limited’ use.”

The iron triangle stops reform

One might say Joe Biden has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. But a more complex picture presents itself. What happened between Biden’s campaign promises and his administration’s policies is a study in why it is so difficult to change policies against the opposition of the iron triangle composed of the military, arms industries and Congress.

“Although all prior NPRs (there have been four) have generally – and disappointingly – rubber-stamped the nuclear status quo, this one had the potential to be different thanks to President Biden’s deep knowledge of – and longstanding involvement in – nuclear policy matters as a US senator and vice president,” wrote Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “Just as important to the possibility of a real review of the US nuclear posture was Leonor Tomero, the highly experienced woman (she served as a senior aide on the House Armed Services Committee for nearly 11 years) Biden nominated to work on those issues and lead the review for the Defense Department as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy.”

Tomero was the official in charge of conducting the NPR. But she made the mistake of taking seriously whether it should be a genuine review or another status quo rubber stamp. Tomero was opening up questions about no first use or sole purpose. Work on the NPR began in July 2021, but that September, she was reorganized out. Her office was split in two, and she was advised she could not have any other position at the Pentagon.

Wrote Schwartz, “Tomero had run afoul of the permanent nuclear bureaucracy (or theocracy, given this cadre’s better-known appellation: the nuclear priesthood), the largely male, largely white, largely conservative group of civilian and military officials who for more than 76 years have designed, built, tested, operated, maintained, and upgraded US nuclear weapons and prepared, programmed, and practiced numerous highly-detailed war plans across a variety of threat scenarios.

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee were pressuring higher-ups at the Department of Defense to push her out. “Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, grilled Tomero about whether the United States should adopt a nuclear no-first-use policy or sole-use policy. When Tomero explained her job was to coordinate the review process, consider the risks and benefits of current declaratory policy, assess alternative options, and not impose any personal views she might have, Cotton ended his questioning by complaining he was ‘now troubled by the direction’ of the NPR.’”

The status quo holds firm

Schwartz noted, “The writing was on the wall back in early January (2021) when Adm. Charles Richard, commander of US Strategic Command (in charge of all U.S. nuclear weapons), told the Defense Writers Group that the objective of the NPR should be ‘validation, that we like the strategy that we have. … [T]his nation has had basically the same strategy dating back to the Kennedy administration. It’s been repeatedly validated through multiple administrations. It would be useful to do that again. And then to be satisfied that the capabilities that we have are able to accomplish that.’”

So instead of limiting the use of nuclear weapons to their only legitimate use, deterring the use of nuclear weapons, we have a policy review that re-affirms strategies and weapons systems that are, at their core, irrational. Though the so called “strategic triad” of nuclear weapons on submarines, bombers and land-based missiles grew out of interservice competition, it is regarded as a sacred necessity. Thus, a costly program to replace the current 400 Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles with the new Sentinel rocket is endorsed, even though ICBMs are the most hair-trigger leg of the triad. A president only has a few minutes after a nuclear attack alert has come in to order their launch or risk losing them. Early warning systems have delivered false alerts a number of times.

In that same vein, Foley noted the NPR “bears the effects of a broad shift in perception around nuclear use, driven in part by a concerted campaign by the defense industry and its allies in government and the think tank world to popularize the notion of so-called ‘low-yield,’ more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons, as well as relatively frequent threats of nuclear use from world leaders in recent years.”

The NPR endorsement of such weapons implies limited nuclear war is possible. Those include the W76-2 warhead being placed on submarine-based Trident missiles with “only” 8 kilotons of explosive potential, and the super-accurate B61-12 gravity bomb, a so-called adjustable nuclear weapon offering a range of explosive potentials from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. The U.S. recently speeded delivery of these to Europe. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

Ideas of usable nuclear weapons and winnable nuclear wars go forward even though the Pentagon’s own war games tell a different story. General John Hyten, then head of U.S. Strategic Command, in 2018 told a security conference, “So we played a big exercise just this last February, and the exercise, let’s just say that you do a Global Thunder exercise in U.S. Strategic Command. I just want you to ask in your own head, how do you think it ends? It ends the same way every time. It does. It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”

Change only comes from the streets

The latest NPR makes crystal clear what we have known for a long time. Policy change on nuclear weapons and warfare, as with military and foreign policy in general, is not going to come from inside the beltway. The national security establishment is too self-interested and set in its ways to do anything but perpetuate the current course, no matter how irrational or existentially dangerous. Military leaders do not want to let go of weapons or strategies. Arms industries want to keep the gravy train rolling. Congressional representatives want to make sure arms contracts keep coming to their states and districts.

It is going to take a people powered movement to demand change, on the order of the 1980s nuclear freeze uprising that saw millions in the streets. But despite the current nuclear danger, perhaps the greatest in the 77 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is little sign of such movement appearing.

Will we wake up before it is too late?

This first appeared on The Raven.