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The new nuclear posture actually deters the use of nuclear weapons

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the capabilities needed to correct adversary miscalculations and, in doing, deters the use of nuclear weapons, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy said Feb. 23, 2018, at National Defense University.


David J. Trachtenberg spoke at an NDU Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction seminar on Feb. 16, 2018.

The 2018 Nuclear Policy Review is the Defense Department's fourth review of U.S. nuclear policy, posture, and programs since the end of the Cold War. The newest review, Trachtenberg said, "reaffirms long-standing bipartisan principles of U.S. nuclear policy, while at the same time recognizing the reality that a much more challenging nuclear threat environment has emerged since the previous 2010 Nuclear Posture Review."

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Three outcomes

The review's three corresponding outcomes comprise the "reprioritization of nuclear roles, the clarification of our nuclear policy, and the recommendations for deterrence capabilities, each of which has been subject to considerable mischaracterization in much of the public commentary today."

The first outcome is that the 2018 review returns deterrence of nuclear attack against the United States, its allies, and its partners to the top priority of U.S. nuclear policy, he said.

Weapons Storage and Security System vault in raised position holding a B61 nuclear bomb. (USAF photo)

Second, he said, to strengthen deterrence, the review notes that the United States will consider the use of nuclear weapons only in response to extreme circumstances that threaten its vital interests.

Third, the review recommends two nuclear programs to strengthen U.S. capabilities to deter attack and assure allies: the modification of a small number of existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles to include a low-yield option, and the pursuit of a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, Trachtenberg said.

Effective deterrence

"These specific capabilities are recommended to strengthen the deterrence of war and the assurance of allies, thereby helping to ensure that nuclear weapons are not employed or proliferated," he emphasized.

"Effective deterrence is about tailoring our capabilities to a potential adversary's calculations regarding the use of nuclear force to ensure that it never can appear to be a useful option," Trachtenberg explained. "We must assess our capabilities relative to the doctrine, exercises, statements, threats, and behavior of potential adversaries."

The goal of DOD's recommendations is to deter war, not to fight one, he pointed out.

"If nuclear weapons are employed in conflict, it is because deterrence failed," he said. "And the goal of the 2018 NPR is to make sure that deterrence will not fail."

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Modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, adoption of tailored deterrence strategies with flexible capabilities, and clarification of the roles of nuclear weapons all send a strong deterrence message to potential adversaries, while also reassuring U.S. allies, Trachtenberg noted.

In addition, he said, the review helps to ensure that U.S. diplomats speak from a position of strength.

Nuclear triad modernization

"Russia has little incentive to negotiate seriously about nuclear reductions without a robust and ongoing U.S. modernization program," Trachtenberg said. "In fact, the 2018 NPR calls for the modernization of all three legs of our strategic nuclear triad."

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis recently told Congress that Russia is unlikely to give up something to gain nothing, he noted.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

"Critics who favor eliminating U.S. nuclear systems in the face of what is clearly an expansive Russian nuclear modernization effort, I believe, are undermining America's greatest bargaining leverage and the prospects for future arms agreements," Trachtenberg said.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is one of several important reinforcing U.S. national security documents meant to guide U.S. policy in an increasingly complex and challenging world, he noted.

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"Much as we might prefer otherwise, nuclear weapons are a regrettable necessity in the real world," Trachtenberg said. "After the slaughter of two world wars, [nuclear weapons] have prevented large-scale great power conflict for more than seven decades. This is not a trivial outcome. In an era of renewed great power competition, adversaries, allies and the American people should know that the United States has the will and the flexible resilient nuclear forces needed to protect the peace."