“Adjusting U.S. nuclear weapons plans is notoriously difficult, as nearly every president has experienced. Yet it is urgent to halt and reverse the trend of increasing nuclear capabilities that lower the threshold for nuclear war and increase miscalculation risks.”
How might America’s nuclear weapons plans change in the years ahead? Buoyed by the revelation of President Donald Trump describing a potential secret new nuclear weapon system to Bob Woodward, continuing U.S.-Russian dialogue on nuclear weapons, and the upcoming November elections, experts are speculating about what the next four years may mean for U.S. nuclear policy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has indicated that, if elected, he would seek a posture aligned with his stated belief “that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary retaliating against — a nuclear attack.” This would be a pivot from Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which elevated the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense planning by, among other things, describing America’s nuclear forces as a hedge against large-scale conventional attacks and strategic cyber attacks. The declaratory shift — along with elevation of so-called low-yield nuclear options that are considered more usable, and support for more dual conventional and nuclear systems that could be indistinguishable in the absence of verification measures — increased concern that the Trump administration viewed nuclear weapons as acceptable for warfighting, not just deterrence.
If re-elected, Trump would likely continue this posture and may even go beyond these expansions. However, there remains hope that recent changes may be reversed, given the budget pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, or if ongoing arms control talks with Russia succeed in creating an agreement to cap or reduce nuclear capabilities beyond what the current New START Treaty mandates.
Notably, there is a bit of bipartisan, common ground emerging. Language in the Democratic Party platform indicates a President Biden would likely pursue future nuclear arms control approaches more creatively than the bilateral U.S.-Russian paradigm of the past, to include new technologies and other nations. The platform names China specifically, but experts in both U.S. parties and internationally are also weighing the pros and cons of involving the United Kingdom and France, and even including non-nuclear weapons-possessing states, signing onto agreements to show broader political support or to take on narrow roles like contributing to verification. Trump takes this approach as well, albeit for somewhat different reasons, namely to target China and because he generally believed he could get better deals — and that if not, existing arrangements harmed U.S. security anyways.
Even with some similarities in arms control ideas, the execution between the two parties would likely differ starkly. Regardless, this emerging bipartisan agreement on some characteristics of future arms control work could create political space for reducing exorbitant U.S. nuclear weapons plans.
Adjusting U.S. nuclear weapons plans is notoriously difficult, as nearly every president has experienced. Yet it is urgent to halt and reverse the trend of increasing nuclear capabilities that lower the threshold for nuclear war and increase miscalculation risks. Any changes will require clear instruction from the president right at the start of his term. We humbly offer that such presidential direction should center on reducing or eliminating new “low-yield” capabilities and systems that increase uncertainty over whether assets are conventional or nuclear, whether by new arms control arrangements or by bold unilateral action.
Arms Control Steps for the Next Four Years
In the first weeks after being sworn in next Jan. 20, the president should sign a national security directive that provides clear instruction for shaping an updated Nuclear Posture Review. Declaring that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is for deterrence or responding to nuclear attacks would be an important shift for either commander-in-chief and a good start.
However, even that would require further presidential direction. Otherwise, the related instruction to nuclear planners would be overly vague. The Pentagon could easily respond that the full, current plan for modernizing and expanding U.S. nuclear forces already fits this rubric. Current arms racing could continue unchecked. While some argue that current U.S. efforts are simply replacing aging assets, many do in fact introduce new capabilities — for example, in the enhanced accuracy and stealth of a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile transcending the abilities of its Cold War era predecessor.
This presidential directive should then make clear that matching Russia tit for tat on every type of nuclear capability is not required for effective deterrence and war planning — and nor is it desirable. While the current Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that the United States doesn’t need to quantitatively “match or mimic” Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear capabilities, plans and statements from some Obama and Trump administration officials spoke of the need to qualitatively match or exceed Russia’s nuclear forces. Even this step leaves room for debate in terms of the potential roles of specific weapons systems, and so the presidential directive should indicate what parts of current U.S. nuclear plans should be prioritized for alteration.
Some nuclear experts argue that planned upgrades to U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles should be reduced or eliminated in the near term. True, these plans are incredibly expensive, and the intercontinental ballistic missile forces have been plagued by numerous issues, including coming far too close to potentially catastrophic incidents. However, they are not altering the already complex geopolitical landscape as significantly as other planned changes in U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities.
The more dangerous trends in current U.S. nuclear plans do not involve these Cold War weapons, as problematic as they are. Instead, nuclear weapons that represent increased blurring between conventional and nuclear warfare, and those that are intended to have lower thresholds for use and thereby weaken deterrence, are a more pressing issue.
Topping that list are the new long-range standoff nuclear air-launched cruise missile, the resurrection of previously retired nuclear submarine-launched cruise missiles, and lower-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Each of these convey that the United States is expanding its envisioned roles of nuclear weapons. They also introduce greater ambiguity into the strategic environment by expanding the scenarios in which an adversary in combat would not know if they were being attacked by a conventional weapon or with a lower- or higher-yield nuclear blast — raising uncertainty and the risk of escalation in ways that no country needs more of these days.
Each of these capabilities is unnecessary and counterproductive if the sole purpose of the U.S. arsenal is to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. Some argue that the standoff cruise missile and other weapons enhance U.S. capabilities for limited retaliatory strikes in the event of a limited nuclear strike by an adversary. However, the United States already has nuclear options capable of such limited strikes. More important, strategic nuclear weapons are better suited for deterring such a first strike by an adversary, as they better convey that any use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its protected allies would be met with an unacceptable level of devastation.
A vital question then becomes whether to unilaterally remove these excessive nuclear weapons from U.S. plans, echoing the smart changes made by President George H.W. Bush in his Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, or to seek to use them in bargaining with Russia (and potentially others) in new arms control agreements. Either way, this is a discussion to hold at the highest levels with allies, with the president then sending resulting instructions down to his defense and diplomatic leaders to implement.
The next administration should pursue a modern follow-on to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Russia breached, and that the United States, to Russia’s relief, then unilaterally scrapped. A new nuclear INF-like treaty should seek to prohibit putting nuclear warheads on the tips of ground-launched cruise missiles of any range. The United States and Russia are both concerned that the other will deploy systems capable of swapping in a nuclear warhead without their knowledge. The high risks brought by the dual conventional-nuclear capabilities of these systems mean they make everyone less secure. They may therefore present optimal conditions for arms control dialogue. If so, verification concepts could mimic past processes or include newer approaches such as a recent U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research design for verifying the absence of nuclear warheads on dual-capable systems at specific sites.
Both Russia and the United States wished to end the INF Treaty in part because China was not a part of it. In the past several decades, China has significantly ramped up its conventional intermediate range missiles. Thankfully, China has not yet put nuclear weapons on its cruise missiles. The challenge of this buildup is one to be addressed diplomatically at the high political level and through non-nuclear means of deterrence. The spread of conventional cruise missiles makes the prospect of mixing-in indistinguishable nuclear variants a recipe for nuclear miscalculation. Focusing such an agreement on just nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles would be an important first step. Hopefully it would be followed by efforts to ban similar nuclear ballistic missile systems. The United States should lead this effort.
Washington should also develop arms control measures for cutting off future nuclear options that are (hopefully) not yet under serious consideration, but that nevertheless concern many countries. These should include concepts to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles and nuclear drones.
Arms Control Is Challenging but Necessary
No matter who is elected in November, changes may be coming to U.S. nuclear plans and programs. This would be a welcome shift, but it will require strong leadership and clear direction from the president. This instruction should prioritize reversing the trend toward new U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, especially those that heighten risks of escalation and miscalculation. The next administration should take full advantage of the growing bipartisan agreement that the future of nuclear arms control will take new forms and include more players.
This work is not easy, of course, for any president. But these measures warrant serious consideration, as they could drive a critical shift in reducing the roles of weapons of mass destruction in how the United States pursues national security, and serve to strengthen America’s nuclear deterrent, while lowering the palpable risk of nuclear war.
Christine Parthemore is the chief executive officer of the Council on Strategic Risks, where she also leads the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons. She was formerly senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.
Andy Weber is a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. His decades of U.S. government service included five-and-a-half years as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.