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For immediate release 4-7-2010

No significant change seen in Obama nuclear posture

(Part I of comments; Part II to follow – probably not today)

  • Policy continuity dominates long-awaited nuclear review

  • Role of nuclear forces entirely unchanged

  • Alert postures, deployments unchanged

  • One redundant, non-deployed weapon retired

  • One narrow nuclear weapon use scenario removed, or not

  • Large new investments, modernization of stockpile promised

  • Review of new “survivable” ICBM basing modes to begin, ala Reagan

  • Pentagon funds to add to Energy & Water allocations for labs, plants

  • Past promises not to nuke non-nuclear weapon states weakened

  • Iran, North Korea specifically “ruled in” as possible nuclear targets

  • No further disarmament offered or on horizon, “stability” now main goal

  • Dismantlement of retired warheads hostage to new infrastructure

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque – The Obama Administration released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (pdf) (NPR) today. It is the overall nuclear weapons policy document that will guide his Administration’s procurement, deployment, and management of nuclear weapons.

The NPR’s conclusions are to be implemented through a hierarchy of specific policies and budgets related to the stockpile, it’s supporting infrastructure, and so on. It is meant to guide foreign as well as domestic policy. Program, budget, diplomatic, and policy inertia ensures that the NPR is a “snapshot” of already-evolving realities, as well as an aspirational document. Some of the decisions it describes are in the past; others may come to pass for one reason or another.

Some can be implemented by the executive branch alone, but many require congressional authorization and funding.

Given the inertia of the many institutions and actors affected, this or any NPR is primarily an explanatory document. In addition to enunciating and guiding nuclear policies, it substantially concerns itself with explaining to its audiences in the U.S. and abroad how they are to understand these policies. It is text and exegesis, scripture and commentary, both. These strategic explanations are meant to augment military force and diplomacy, and they are sure to be contested in many places.

The NPR’s major themes, as its authors would like them to be understood, have been summarized by those authors and by major news outlets. There is no need to repeat them here. Yet as news coverage and editorials have appeared it has become clear to us that there is a great deal of confusion about the plain meaning of this document.1

The primary purpose of the following remarks by Greg Mello, Study Group director, is to attempt to the best of our ability to quickly dispel some of that confusion. Mello:

The Obama Nuclear Posture Review is largely an extension of prior policies and an explanation of evolving realities on the ground, some of which the Administration largely controls and some of which it largely does not. There is very little altogether new in it, though there are changes in emphasis. Above all, there are new explanations. What have changed are largely the understandings offered about nuclear deployments. The NPR repackages existing policies much more than it changes them. It hardly changes them at all, in fact.

Far from being any kind of change, what is noteworthy in this document is the absence of any change vector at all. Its emphasis, explicitly and implicitly, is on nuclear stability. That nuclear stability is needed as a backdrop for the continued and planned deployment and use of U.S. conventional forces worldwide.

What we see in this NPR is a weak executive, largely surrendering to external forces it is not attempting to resist – not even intellectually. These forces include first and foremost the Pentagon and military hawks who guided the NPR process from inception to completion. To the extent there was disagreement between the White House and the Pentagon – and that widely-reported disagreement appeared primarily to involve a few key words, an almost theological debate – the Pentagon won the day almost entirely.

Focusing on these minor differences misses the central reality that there have been no significant, core disconnects between the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon on these issues. The White House is not supplying any independent intellectual stance or view.

Other forces external to the White House include Republicans in the Senate, the big contractors who run the weapons labs and plants and the pork-barrel politicians who represent them, missile defense contractors and related interests, congressional Democrats across the country who are afraid to appear “weak” on national security in our highly-militarized political culture, and of course the Russian leadership, which isn’t interested in significant reductions in nuclear arms given U.S. and NATO military developments, especially anti-ballistic missile installations, near its borders.

Given the lack of will in the White House to address some of these forces, a status quo NPR was nearly a given.

This NPR is quite specific in the elements it includes to appease these status quo, hawkish forces. The disarmament and arms control steps it includes, to the extent there are any, are by contrast vague, pro forma – as in the case of the obligatory but vain mention of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification – or temporizing.

There is nothing particularly disappointing about this document because the Administration has been quite honest and consistent in its overall nuclear conservatism. Obama’s Prague speech a year ago, to take one example, made a very clear distinction between his “vision” and what he would actually do.

The one area where there has been dramatic change since Obama took office, and since his first budget request of May 2009, is in his Administration’s new-found enthusiasm toward funding the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) nuclear weapons complex, an enthusiasm which is significantly greater than that which prevailed in the last three years of the Bush administration.

Viewed from a certain remove, this NPR broadly hints at a geopolitical vision, a kind of “world management strategy” based on enhancing strategic nuclear stability with respect to Russia and China as peer competitors and the maintenance and enhancement of flexible regional nuclear “umbrellas” to help manage U.S. alliances and keep down regional adversaries and competitors. Nuclear proliferation is elevated as the greatest threat to the U.S. and its critical interests in this strategy. This NPR supports the notion that the possibility of proliferation is the greatest justification we have for strong military and economic intervention – the application of “hard” power – globally.

The NPR’s goals are presented as synergistic, and are to be supported by increased (and essentially-unending) investments in nuclear weapons in both the Department of Defense (DoD) and NNSA. One of the distinguishing features of this NPR, different from the unclassified versions of past NPRs, is the specificity in which some of these investments, which would otherwise be highly controversial, are spelled out.

This NPR, which changes so little actual policy, could accurately be seen as a sales document for these investments, which are a considerable part of its real, as opposed to its rhetorical, content. It is meant to establish the ideological basis for renewed nuclear investments. Such a presidential statement has been long sought by the weapons laboratories and prominent nuclear hawks. In Obama’s team they have found a powerful voice.

The “antinuclear nuclearism” propaganda message offered by the Obama Administration has been and continues to be an effective means of promoting nuclear weapons interests and broader imperial objectives.2

Perhaps only by articulating a nuclear abolition “vision” could such a massive increase in actual nuclear weapons expenditures be sold. This tradeoff appears again and again in the NPR – we must spend more on nuclear weapons in order to have fewer of them.

In fact, this NPR suggests for the first time that physical dismantlement of excess nuclear weapons is contingent upon new infrastructure investments.3

All the familiar roles of nuclear weapons return in this NPR, with the partial exception of one: retaliation by nuclear weapons in the event of a chemical weapon or small-scale biological weapon attack. Even this one change is hedged in three important ways, however.

First of all, both the text of the NPR and Secretary Gate’s oral remarks were careful to leave open the possibility of nuclear use (either reprisal or preemptive first strike, as present doctrine allows) in the event of planned or actual biological attacks that exceed some unspecified threat or danger threshold.4

Second, this self-restraint is contingent on evolving “U.S. [conventional warfare] capacities.”5

Third, this self-restraint in the event of planned or actual chemical and biological attack does not apply to two classes of states: those which possess nuclear weapons,6 and states which the U.S. deems to be “not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”7 This latter class of states specifically includes Iran and North Korea8 but may include others as well either now or in the future, as facts and their subjective interpretation change.

For these two classes of states, however they are defined, the possibility of U.S. nuclear reprisal or preemptive strike as a response or prevention not just for chemical and biological weapons but for conventional military attack “against the United States or its allies and partners” is not ruled out.9

As noted above, a policy of potential first-use remains. The new NPR is silent on this topic.

The “fundamental” stated role of U.S. nuclear weapons (“to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners”) remains unchanged from what it has always been.10

Alert postures are to remain unchanged. They are viewed as “satisfactory” at the present time, in Secretary Gates’ words.11 “Satisfactory” is perhaps the key attitude toward existing nuclear arrangements overall conveyed by this NPR.

With the exception of the retirement of the “redundant” (and non-deployed) Navy Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile/Nuclear (TLAM/N),12 nuclear deployments are to remain unchanged from “New START” levels pending negotiations with Russia at some uncertain future date. These negotiations will by all accounts be quite difficult, assumed they do some day occur.

“New START” treaty actually allows more warheads and bombs than the predecessor Moscow Treaty which it would replace.

The NPR TLAM/N retirement is carefully explained as having no impact on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy.

U.S. nuclear weapons deployments in Europe are to be continued and upgraded with enhanced bomb features and a more capable delivery system, the F-35 fighter/bomber. Adding these enhanced features to B61 bombs is currently expected to cost over $2 billion between fiscal year (FY) 2011 and 2015 alone, not including infrastructure and other costs common to all warheads.13

It is not correct to say, as the NPR does, that no new nuclear military capabilities are being, or will be, added. Significantly-enhanced military capabilities are already being added in the case of W76-1 Trident warhead Life Extension Program (LEP), capabilities which will give these warheads hard-target-kill capability and greatly expand their potential target set.

This NPR describes a continuous process of modernization of warheads, bombs and delivery systems, mentioning three successive warhead programs to do that. In chronological order, these are the W76-1 LEP, the proposed B61-12 LEP, and the W78 or W78/W88 replacement warhead, which is timed to begin about two years after the B61-12. All these are (or will be if funded), multi-billion-dollar programs.

This NPR specifically endorses the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), currently a $4.2 billion project aimed at enhancing LANL’s capacity to manufacture new plutonium warhead cores (“pits”). It also specifically endorses construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 in Tennessee, another multi-billion project. It requests that both projects be concluded by 2021, which at least in the case of CMRR-NF is a year faster than NNSA currently believes possible.

By requesting both of these high-dollar projects, and by asking for them a) simultaneously and b) quickly, the Administration is signaling its endorsement for an aggressive stockpile management policy of continuously modernizing warheads. Whether this approach can withstand budgetary and diplomatic pressure remains to be seen. It is far from clear that the Department of Energy (DOE) can successfully build these and other new facilities simultaneously.

These infrastructure investments are only part of a large, permanent proposed NNSA budget increase, which Secretary Gates committed to supporting in substantial part by a $5 billion transfer from Pentagon accounts. Politically, this will weaken the fiscal and programmatic oversight provided by the two Energy and Water subcommittees and rebalance congressional power toward the Armed Services committees.

We have many more comments on this interesting and revealing document, but we must conclude this press remarks for today. If you have read this far, thank you for your attention.


1 So far, expert commentators whose views seem especially reality-based in our opinion include the highly-conservative Stephen Rademaker, Assistant Secretary of State for arms control under the second President Bush, as expressed on the PBS Newshour of 4/6/10, and the short remark of liberal nuclear expert Bruce Blair, commenting to Jonathan Weisman and Peter Spiegel in the Wall Street Journal, also on 4/6/10. Blair: “It’s a status-quo document, I think, in virtually every respect.” Rademaker’s remarks, available at the above link, are especially worth reading.

2 “Anti-nuclear Nuclearism,” Darwin BondGraham, Will Parrish, 1/12/09, Foreign Policy in Focus,

3 “Progress in restoring NNSA’s production infrastructure will allow these excess [non-deployed] warheads to be retired along with other stockpile reductions planned over the next decade…. Today, there are several thousand nuclear warheads awaiting dismantlement, and this number will increase as weapons are removed from the stockpile under New START. We anticipate it will take more than a decade to eliminate the dismantlement backlog. Investments to modernize the nuclear infrastructure, outlined below, will ensure that the United States can continue to decrease this backlog in a responsible manner.” (p. 60)

4 “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.” (p. 14)

5 Ibid.

6 These states are the U.S., Russia, France, U.K., China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea – nine in all.

7 NPR, p. 14.

8 “In pursuit of their nuclear ambitions, North Korea and Iran have violated non-proliferation obligations, defied directives of the United Nations Security Council, pursued missile delivery capabilities, and resisted international efforts to resolve through diplomatic means the crises they have created. Their provocative behavior has increased instability in their regions and could generate pressures in neighboring countries for considering nuclear deterrent options of their own. Continued non-compliance with non-proliferation norms by these and other countries would seriously weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with adverse security implications for the United States and the international community.” (p. 10)

9 NPR, p. 14.

10 NPR, p. 37.

11 “The NPR concluded that the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present.” (p. 16)

Secretary Gates: “Oh, on the alert status. Well, frankly, we feel like the situation is pretty -- is a satisfactory one at the current time.” NPR Rollout press conference, transcript at  

12 “The United States will retire the nuclear-equipped sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM-N). This system serves a redundant purpose in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. It has been one of a number of means to forward-deploy nuclear weapons in time of crisis. Other means include forward-deployment of bombers with either bombs or cruise missiles, as well as forward-deployment of dual-capable fighters. In addition, U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs are capable of striking any potential adversary. The deterrence and assurance roles of TLAMN can be adequately substituted by these other means, and the United States remains committed to providing a credible extended deterrence posture and capabilities.” (p. 50)

13 NNSA Congressional Budget Request, FY2011, Vol. 1, pp. 65-66.

It is sometimes forgotten – and is not mentioned in this NPR – that a nuclear weapon is more than just a nuclear explosive. Improvements in the capabilities of bombs and warheads outside their nuclear explosives, or in their delivery systems, or in command and control, or in targeting, can and often are improvements to nuclear military capability. Thus this NPR and the budget request which preceded it would increase the military capability of the B61 bomb and its forward-based fighter/bomber delivery system, which together comprise one of the B61 weapon systems.

Even enhancements to bomb security and use control affect the practicality of potential uses. For example, a “dud” in an air-delivered nuclear cruise missile warhead or gravity bomb could lead to capture of a live nuclear explosive by an adversary. Decreasing the likelihood of such an event makes the use of such bombs and warheads more practical and hence credible. “Surety enhancements” may sometimes be motivated as much or more by considerations that may arise in nuclear weapon use as by concerns related to nuclear weapon storage or transportation.

Los Alamos Study Group • 2901 Summit Place NE • Albuquerque, NM 87106 • ph 505-265-1200 • fax 505-265-1207

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