A New Approach to US Nuclear Policy: Deterring Nuclear Terrorism

Originally published here.

Back in August of this year, the Pentagon released two fact sheets on the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR. As it states quite simply, the objective of the NPR is:

To establish U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture for the next 5 – 10 years.

At the time, a number of experts expressed concern about whether or not the Obama administration was going to take a fresh, new direction with the NPR, or simply continue Bush administration policies. Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told me in an interview:

The Nuclear Posture Review… will determine our policies and weapons systems certainly at least for the next five to ten years, and that’s the scope of it. If it’s done right, it can allow Obama to transform US nuclear policy to less reliance on nuclear weapons, greater focus on preventing nuclear terrorism, and new [nuclear weapons] states. If it’s done wrong, it sandbags the President. It makes it much more difficult for him to cut weapons and nuclear budgets, much more difficult for him to negotiate and ratify the kinds of treaties that he’s talking about.


So we could very easily end up with… “Bush light”: the Bush nuclear policies and posture tweaked just a bit, and given an Obama gloss. If the Pentagon has its way, that’s what’s going to happen.

Well, there’s finally some news about the NPR, and it looks like it will include a rather significant — and welcome — shift from the status quo.

The New York Times has the story:

The Obama administration’s classified review of nuclear weapons policy will for the first time make thwarting nuclear-armed terrorists a central aim of American strategic nuclear planning, according to senior Pentagon officials.

When completed next year, the Nuclear Posture Review will order the entire government to focus on countering nuclear terrorists — whether armed with rudimentary bombs, stolen warheads or devices surreptitiously supplied by a hostile state — as a task equal to the traditional mission of deterring a strike by major powers or emerging nuclear adversaries.

The nuclear review will affect how warheads are developed by the Department of Energy, deployed by the Department of Defense and limited through negotiations by the Department of State, as well as how the intelligence community and the military do their jobs and spend money. That could mean, for example, devoting less money to modernizing bombers, missiles and submarines, and more to surveillance satellites, reconnaissance planes and undercover agents.

The article quotes “a senior Defense Department official”, who emphasizes that the model of nuclear deterrence that we’ve all gotten used to (i.e. having an overwhelming nuclear arsenal in order to deter other countries from attacking the US or its allies) is far less relevant in the current global security environment:

“The first — and in many ways the most urgent for where we are today — is the threat posed by nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to describe the current draft of the review.

At the core of this threat, which officials say has been growing steadily since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is “the possible transfer of nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist or substate actor,” he said.

The review will probably be completed by February. The issues that remain to be resolved include exactly what “stockpile maintenance and modernization” means, as well as whether or not the United States will conclusively state whether or not we will maintain a “first strike” nuclear stance.

All in all, shifting the focus of the NPR from producing more nuclear weapons, and targeting potential nuclear weapons states (as the Bush administration did), to actual, realistic threats, would be a welcome change.

If you don’t believe that nuclear terrorism is a potential threat, I suggest you read Graham Allison‘s stellar book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. You can read more about it at his website, but I’ll leave you with a quote from his book:

The United States and its allies have the power to define and enforce global constraints on nuclear weapons. By doing so they can preserve all nations from the nightmare of a world in which nuclear terrorists destroy civilization as we know it. To make this order acceptable, however, they must marginalize the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats in international affairs.

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