Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance: Nothing New for Nuclear Policy

Jan 17, 2012


By Stephanie Spies
Last week, in an attempt to frame the congressional debate over the defense budget, the Obama administration released its new Defense Strategic Guidance document, prompting immediate criticism from many defense hawks both inside and outside of Congress. The document, entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”, presented the administration’s vision for the future of the U.S. military and proposed a number of changes that the U.S. should make in order to adapt to the current security environment, including reducing the size of the armed forces and cancelling certain weapons systems. President Obama’s public unveiling of the guidance, which included a “rare” visit to the Pentagon, demonstrated the importance of the new strategy in the administration’s foreign policy goals. However, it contained only a brief mention of nuclear weapons, stating that the U.S. will “maintain a safe, secure, and effective [nuclear] arsenal” as long as nuclear weapons exist, but should also strive to reduce the size and role of the nuclear weapons arsenal in national security strategy.  Although some have seized upon this notion as an opportunity to assail the administration’s lack of funding or support for nuclear modernization, the guidance document presents no real change in President Obama’s position on nuclear weapons, in fact reiterating almost word for word the promises he made in his Prague declaration and confirming the findings of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The new defense strategic guidance, although radical and significant in other aspects of U.S. military strategy, does not pose any substantive changes to current U.S. nuclear policy.
The sole reference to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal in the new guidance document falls under the “Primary Missions of the U.S. Armed Forces”:
Maintain a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Deterrent. As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal. We will field nuclear forces that can under any circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments. It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.
Nothing in this paragraph represents a change in U.S. nuclear policy under President Obama. The determination to maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear arsenal which can deter adversaries and assure allies at reduced force levels is not new, but rather has served as the foundation of U.S. nuclear policy since Obama committed to it in Prague:
Now, let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies -- including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.
While the words in the declaration may be slightly different, the sentiment is similar. Since the President articulated his support for moves towards global nuclear disarmament early in his presidency, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he has expressed support for “a smaller nuclear force” in a later strategy document.  
Similarly, the 2010 NPR Report contains several sections in support of maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent with a reduced role and nuclear force levels. In particular, a section entitled “Maintaining Strategic Deterrence and Stability at Reduced Nuclear Force Levels” (in addition to sections called “Sustaining a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Arsenal” and “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons”) espouses the sentiments of the new guidance document.
In sum, the NPR concluded:
-          Stable deterrence can be maintained while reducing accountable U.S. strategic delivery
vehicles by approximately 50 percent from the START level and reducing accountable
strategic warheads by approximately 30 percent from the 2002 Moscow Treaty level.
-          During the ten-year duration of New START, the nuclear Triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and
heavy bombers will be maintained.
-          All U.S. ICBMs will be “de-MIRVed” to a single warhead each to increase stability.
-          Some ability to “upload” non-deployed nuclear weapons on existing delivery vehicles
should be retained as a hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise. Preference will be
given to upload capacity for bombers and strategic submarines.
-          Contributions by non-nuclear systems to U.S. regional deterrence and reassurance goals
will be preserved by avoiding limitations on missile defenses in New START and ensuring
that New START will not preclude options for using heavy bombers or long-range missile
systems in conventional roles.
Although the NPR qualifies a lot of its recommendations with statements such as “several factors will influence the magnitude and pace of” future nuclear reductions, it does commit to a similar strategic vision as the recent guidance document. Not only does the NPR illustrate the Obama administration’s continued support of reducing the size and role of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal after the Prague declaration, but it demonstrates that any future reductions will be carefully considered and tailored to the current security environment and other U.S. military capabilities. The 2012 guidance document’s lone suggestion that “it is possible” the U.S. could achieve its deterrence goals “with a smaller nuclear force” seems to be a greatly toned down version of the NPR, which suggests specific capabilities to eliminate and numbers of weapons to reduce.
If Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance represents no change in U.S. nuclear policy, why are nuclear hawks in uproar? The mere mention that the U.S. could reduce the number and roles of its nuclear weapons does not seem sufficient to warrant current significant opposition, especially given the lack of data and clear new initiatives outlined in the in the new document. Yet, some conservatives, including Rep. Turner (R-OH), chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, are seizing upon this opportunity to attack the administration’s credentials on nuclear issues, particularly modernization funding, arguing that the U.S. is “disarming itself of nuclear weapons” while other countries like Russia and China are continuing to modernize their nuclear forces. This response seems unwarranted given the lack of substantive policy proposals or changes contained in the guidance with regards to nuclear weapons. Some experts such as Stephen Schwartz of The Nonproliferation Review and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists have actually expressed disappointment that the new defense strategy does not commit to any tangible changes in nuclear strategy. Even if the paragraph in the guidance document could be interpreted as new policy to further reduce U.S. nuclear weapons, it is highly unlikely that any such radical changes will emerge in the short-term given political and bureaucratic opposition to nuclear cuts. President Obama’s new Defense Strategic Guidance may be radical and transformative in many ways, but as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, there’s nothing new to see here. 
Stephanie Spies is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.