|"Forget the Rest" blog|
For immediate release February 2, 2018
Nuclear Posture Review Calls for Continuing Weapons Modernization -- Minus "Interoperable" Warhead, Plus New Nuclear Attack Options
Aims to return nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to some attack submarines -- but when, with what missiles, and at what cost?
Contact: Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, 505-265-1200 (office) 505-577-8563 (cell)
Albuquerque, NM – President Trump's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released today by the Department of Defense (DoD), continues (but makes much more explicit) a number of long-standing US nuclear weapons policies, using newly-bellicose rhetoric, in the context of a "hard power" approach to national security.
The 2010 NPR, by contrast, soft-pedaled nuclear weapons use policies, such as the potential US first use of nuclear weapons. The present NPR highlights this possibility, in detail, and calls for new nuclear weapons.
The most striking feature of the new NPR is its emphasis on US military weakness abroad -- including in relation to Russian tactical nuclear capabilities, which by definition do not threaten the US itself but rather US and allied militaries and "vital interests" overseas.
To more credibly deter Russian nuclear strikes against US conventional forces and interests, the new NPR seeks new nuclear strike options, including new low-yield options which do not rely on foreign bases. Existing Ohio- and Virginia-class submarines are to be used as platforms for these new weapons.
While the new NPR does not much change long-standing US policies, its political-military context -- vis-a-vis Russia especially -- has changed, and drastically so, since Obama's 2010 NPR.
For example the Trump Administration has, in its broader policy formulations, focused its National Defense Strategy (subtitled, "Sharpening the American Military's Competitive Edge") on Russia and China as the main threats to the United States, a major shift. This corresponds with a widespread belief in official Washington in (especially) Russian "aggression." Factually, there has been a notable lack of success in US military and political gambits across Eurasia and the Levant.
The primary if not the sole policy response to these events and changing circumstances is now being conceived in military, rather than diplomatic, terms. It is primarily this broad sea-change, the roots of which lie in the second Obama administration and which is by no means confined to a single political party, which makes the rhetorical tone and concrete policies in new NPR especially consequential.
The NPR calls for two major additions to the stockpile: submarine-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles (SLCMs), a type of weapon which the US retired in 2010 under Obama; and a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead for existing Trident missiles.
These two proposed new weapons are the most visible and concrete evidence of this NPR's proposed expanded role for nuclear weapons in US military plans and postures.
The low-yield Trident warhead is described as a "low-cost and near term modification" of an existing warhead. The SLCMs, by contrast, are to be an "arms control compliant response" to Russia and a "longer-term" pursuit, beginning with a "capability study leading to an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA)." The warhead to be used in the new or modified "modern" missile is not mentioned. Use of the term "modern," and the long development path mentioned for the missile, apparently precludes reusing, or rebuilding as-is, the retired Tomahawk Land Attack Missile for this role.
As noted, the proposed SLCM would comply with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the United States accuses Russia of violating. In a separate development, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, Section 1243) mandates a research and development program toward an explicitly INF-violating road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile.
The new NPR would continue Obama-era warhead programs, with some changes. Two have been discussed above.
The third change is the cancellation of what was a centerpiece of Obama's warhead plan, a so-called "interoperable" warhead ("IW-1"). IW-1 was to replace two different warheads: an existing warhead (the W78) for ground-launched ballistic missiles; and another (the W88) on SLBMs.
The NPR scraps the IW-1. It has been replaced by a much simpler Life Extension Program (LEP) for the W78 warhead, which the NPR says will begin in 2019, one year before the IW-1 was to begin. The IW-1 had been trenchantly opposed by the Navy as well as others in both the Obama and Trump administrations.
IW-1 was expected to cost $15 billion (B) in then-year dollars, plus any cost associated with accelerating construction of a new factory for the new plutonium warhead cores ("pits") that IW-1 would require [note 1]. The IW-1 program was to be centered at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
The cost of, and schedule for, the two proposed new warheads is unknown at this time. Partial information may become available with the Administration's Budget Request, expected February 12.
The NPR calls for completing all the warhead LEPs planned for the 2020s one year earlier than recently planned (as of November 2017). [See FY18 SSMP (Note 1), pp. 8-33 to 8-35]. This proposed acceleration includes the LEP for the B61-12 gravity bomb, the W88 SLBM warhead, and the W80-4 warhead for the proposed Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile. The First Production Unit for what is now the W78 LEP is to be advanced one year from that estimated previously for the IW-1 which it replaces.
This schedule acceleration appears to be entirely unrealistic. According to the DOE CEPE, both the B61-12 and W88 LEPs are likely to be delayed from their stated schedule, the former by 2 years and the latter by one year [note 2].
This NPR, like its predecessors, provides guidance only. It does not establish unwavering policies. The past two NPRs (2001 and 2010) were poor predictors of subsequent realized policy. The first was very hawkish in both rhetoric and in the specific weapons it proposed, the second portrayed more dovish aspirations. For various reasons neither set of changes in nuclear policy were supported by Congress.
This NPR, by itself, does not authorize or fund nuclear weapons programs, build infrastructure, or order deployments. Congress authorizes and funds programs. Even after doing so there have been many nuclear weapons programs which were not successfully executed. Even in the purely military sphere the President can only order what is possible and may encounter resistance from generals and admirals, as was the case with Obama's IW-1 program.
The leaked draft of this NPR has been a source of alarm for many commentators. All parties should understand, as long-time nuclear journalist Fred Kaplan has written ("Nuclear Posturing: Trump’s official nuclear policy isn’t that different from his predecessors’; That’s what makes it so scary.") that:
The shuddering thing about this document is that it reflects the views of officers and civilians, deep inside the Pentagon, who have been thinking about nuclear policy for decades. In other words, its premises and logic precede Trump; they have been woven into America’s nuclear-war machine for a very long time. Trump makes it seem more shuddersome because he is the first president since the end of the Cold War to speak about nuclear war so cavalierly—to give the impression that he might actually launch a nuclear first strike—and, therefore, to a degree that wasn’t true of Bush or Obama (or almost any other president), it seems that he might easily be persuaded to take this document as a serious guide to action.
Much of the alarm about this document centers on US policy to not forswear nuclear first strikes, a long-term problem in our view. Obama's NPR did not discuss the shocking details or implications of this policy, which he did not change. Trump's NPR does discuss them.
Study Group Director Greg Mello:
Note 1: IW-1 cost and schedule can be seen on p. 8-36 of the NNSA/DOE FY 2018 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, Nov 2017. IW-1 was the only warhead LEP to require new pits; see NNSA: Pit Sources for Life Extension Programs (LEPs) 2015. The NPR does not change the pit production requirement from that was set under Obama (see 50 USC section 2538a).