Walk Don't Run

Jan 5, 2010

A few days into the new year decade, the Nuclear Posture Review is due out in less than a month and apparently it hasn’t been a walk down easy street. According to Paul Richter in the LA Times, Obama’s nuclear agenda has “run up against powerful resistance from officials in the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies.” This worry is far from new with the importance of this worry highlighted by Ambassador Soderberg’s statement:

"This is the first test of Obama's nuclear commitments," said former U.S. Ambassador Nancy E. Soderberg, who held senior foreign policy positions in the Clinton administration. "They can't afford to fall short at the outset."

Further evidenced by the number two quote on our top of 2009 list, expections for the NPR are running high.  At the same time, the NPR team has been dealt the tough task of trying to square the competing goals of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and ensuring a strong deterrent which will be no cake walk.  As a result, there will undoubtedly be disagreements about how to answer that question both inside and outside the administration but the degree of disagreement explained in the press recently between the White House and the Pentagon may be a bit overstated. That is not to say there are not key disagreements a la the infamous Principals Committee meeting but rather that the sides may not be as diametrically opposed as conveyed.

For example, Richter notes:

Officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere have pushed back against Obama administration proposals to cut the number of weapons and narrow their mission, according to U.S. officials and outsiders who have been briefed on the process.

But concludes his article by noting:

The senior Defense official said the nuclear posture debate centers on the different ways toward the twin goals of nonproliferation and deterrence. "We are not looking at whether to reduce the roles of nuclear weapons and whether to reduce [their numbers]," he said. "We're looking at how."

Those are two very different claims, with the latter an actual quote from a senior defense official. That quote makes it clear that the NPR team is fully cognizant of the President’s guidance to reduce the role on nuclear weapons but the push back occurs in the Pentagon’s unwillingness to go as far as some would like with the 2010 NPR.

On some issues, however, the NPR will make significant changes.  Exhibit A: nuclear terrorism. In Prague, Obama noted

We must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security

As reported by Thom Shankar reported a couple of weeks ago, this priority will be strongly reflected in the NPR. He explains:

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 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.

On some other key issues, however, it appears the NPR will not be able to extend as far as some are hoping. Declaratory policy is one of prime examples. As reported by Bryan Bender, NFU is “under consideration” but it appears improbable that the NPR will make such a recommendation. As noted in a response to Julian Borger’s September claim about the administration rejecting an early draft of the NPR (also echoed by Richter who noted the White House was “unhappy with early Pentagon-led drafts” according to “U.S. officials and others”), it seems unlikely the NPR would differ from both the CFR Task Force and the Strategic Posture Commission on NFU given the number of administration officials involved in each and the gravitas of the members of each.  That said, the NPR may be able to find some wiggle room to begin chipping away at calculated ambiguity without fully embracing complete NFU. The Richter article offers a possible suggestion:

A "no-first-use" policy may represent a bigger step than the Obama administration would be willing to take, private analysts said. Instead, they think the administration might hedge its policy by saying, for instance, that the United States would use nuclear weapons only in situations that threatened its existence.

Another controversial issue under consideration is the triad. Bender described the NPR as a “major showdown” in no small part because:

It is taking on some of the most sacred cows of the nuclear program. For the first time, influential voices, including a former top nuclear commander and senior Obama advisers, are proposing that one leg of the nuclear arms “triad’’ - a $30 billion-a-year enterprise made up of land-, air-, and sea-based weapons - be eliminated.

Much like NFU, efforts to move away from the triad will have to be slow and steady as noted by Shankar’s conclusion that “For at least the near term, though, warhead numbers are expected to remain sufficiently high to allow the continuation of all three legs.” The triad debate in particular suffers from the problem of jobs impacted in constituencies of Congresspeople as evidenced by the “ICBM Coalition” White Paper that seeks to draw fire away from the leg that is the most likely target of the “new START” reductions.

In addition to how many legs the U.S.should have, a parallel question to be answered will be overall numbers. In the short term, the review will pave the way for reductions to numbers in the 1500-1675 range of the July agreement because DoD has put forth a strong effort to highlight that negotiations for the new treaty are occurring in tandem with the analytic work for the NPR. Shankar also noted that

Pentagon and military officials said this week that both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had endorsed the lower warhead levels that the review would propose

Support all the way up the chain in DoD for reductions in the new START range will be an important political tool for the administration to help gain ratification but two vital questions remain outstanding as far as the NPR is concerned with reductions. First, what does the NPR say on the M word? Shankar noted that modernization and declaratory policy were the two big issues outstanding but neither of the articles from yesterday mentioned the former. Where the NPR comes down, particularly in light of the JASON study, on how to ensure the effectiveness of the arsenal will be critical to how the political jockeying occurs to ratify both START and then CTBT. Secretary Gates, for example, has said the CTBT “probably should” be ratified “if there are adequate verification measures.”

Second, what does the NPR say about possible reductions beyond the current START follow-on? Bender notes that the NPR is “intended “to provide a basis’’ for future arms reductions” and “could recommend going even further, to 1,000 warheads or fewer, top administration officials have told Congress.” The political resistance already building to the fairly modest treaty currently being negotiated suggests it will be a large step to even begin work toward a treaty in the 1,000 ballpark but it is also important to remember that a 2007 report signed by now administration officials Kurt Campell, Ash Carter, Bob Einhorn, Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice, Jim Steinberg, and others embraced force levels in the ballpark.

Needless to say, it is important to temper expectations of just how far the NPR can go. Richter quoted a senior Defense official as saying the debate over the NPR as "spirited” and that “we have every possible point of view in the world represented." The marketplace of ideas will inevitably produce a wide range of viewpoints and the end result very well may force compromise but that does not have to be viewed as a bad thing.  A Department of Defense lead interagency government review of unique weapons that are an integral part of our security policy will only be able to do so much to move toward a world without nuclear weapons less than a year after a speech promoting that vision was made. That is not to say the NPR gets a free pass from criticism by citing the constraints of bureaucracy and politics but rather that it should not be considered dead on arrival because some will say it goes way too far and others not nearly far enough. Obama laid out an extremely bold and comprehensive agenda in Prague in which some of the priorities will be able to materialize much quicker than others. The NPR should be able to tackle nuclear terrorism head-on but will likely also contain a strong emphasis on extended (nuclear) deterrence, much to the chagrin of some strongly in favor of the Prague vision. De-alerting is another issue that has dropped off the administration’s radar for the time being, perhaps because it is an idea this town is not yet ready for as noted by John Steinbruner.  In other words, it is important to realistically calibrate the expectations of just how far the NPR can go given the countless number of competing priorities and objectives at play. If this bar is set too high for what the NPR is expected to achieve it becomes ammunition, in the international community and elsewhere, to dismiss the NPR as a failure and more of the same when in fact it may contain valuable, albeit modest, changes in U.S. nuclear policy. At the end of the day, progress on these issues is tough. “Not in my lifetime” kind of tough.