Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review

A Roadmap

Andrew Grotto and Joseph Cirincione identify and provide recommendations for the key nuclear policy issues that demand senior-level attention.

A B-52 bomber with cruise missiles on the wings. (AP/U.S. Air Force)
A B-52 bomber with cruise missiles on the wings. (AP/U.S. Air Force)

Read the full report (pdf)

Read Rep. Ellen Tauscher’s (D-CA) remarks on a 21st century nuclear posture at the Center for American Progress on November 17, 2008. (pdf)

There is an emerging bipartisan consensus that America’s current nuclear weapons posture imposes an unnecessary burden on U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism and curtail the spread of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology to additional nation-states. It holds that the United States must retain a nuclear arsenal as a strategic deterrent, but should embrace the vision laid out by senior statesmen George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn of a world free of nuclear weapons in order to strengthen America’s ability to exercise global leadership in countering 21st century nuclear threats. The Obama administration should use the congressionally mandated 2009–2010 Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, to realign nuclear policy, forces, and posture with these threats. This study makes the case for why a successful NPR should be among the Obama administration’s top priorities and provides a roadmap on how to structure and manage the review so that it achieves key policy objectives. It is not a study on nuclear weapons doctrine.

The 2009–2010 NPR will be the third formal review of U.S. nuclear strategy conducted since the end of the Cold War. The preceding reviews were conducted early in each of the Clinton and Bush administrations’ first terms. The Clinton administration’s review essentially ratified the Cold War status quo, despite an urgent need to recalibrate in light of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the need to work with Moscow to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology. The National Security Council was largely disengaged from the process, as the White House was just emerging from a series of bitter disputes with the armed forces over such issues as Somalia and gays in the military. The administration was also battling both the military and an increasingly hostile Congress over defense spending priorities. The Department of Defense underwent a leadership change in the middle of the review, and other issues, such as dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and the multiple proliferation concerns presented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, competed for senior appointees’ finite time and resources.

The second formal NPR took place in 2001 under vastly different political and policy circumstances. It was driven by presidential prerogatives, which guaranteed that senior officials would invest time and energy in the NPR process. The review yielded the administration’s preferred policy outcomes, but it also undermined America’s nonproliferation credentials.

The goals of the 2009–2010 NPR should be to recalibrate America’s nuclear deterrent in light of existing and emerging threats, strengthen America’s hand in negotiations on improvements to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, and send a clear signal to the world that the United States is charting a new, multilateral course. Success in achieving these goals hinges on development of a coherent, realistic strategy for conducting the review that ensures senior appointees devote sustained attention even as they confront other national security challenges. The strategy should be organized according to these principles:

  • Do not politicize nuclear weapons doctrine.
  • Conduct the review as a strategy-driven exercise guided by a vision for nuclear weapons policy elaborated by the president.
  • Consult and engage the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Consult and engage Congress.
  • Appoint experienced professionals to carry out the vision.
  • Ensure that the review is interagency.
  • Consult and engage key allies and partners.
  • Develop a communications plan.

This study identifies the key nuclear policy issues that demand senior-level attention, which we identify as falling into three categories: “Deterrence and Doctrine,” “Force Structure and the Nuclear Weapons Complex,” and “Nonproliferation and Arms Control.” It also provides a notional timeline for sequencing the review.

These recommendations and findings are based on a review and comparison of how the structure of the Clinton and Bush administration NPRs, conducted in 1993–1994 and 2001, shaped the final review product in each case. The study was also informed by nearly two dozen interviews and informal discussions with experts, congressional staff, and former senior officials with experience in nuclear policy from both sides of the political spectrum. The authors take sole responsibility for the content of this report.

Read the full report (pdf)

Read Rep. Ellen Tauscher’s (D-CA) remarks on a 21st century nuclear posture at the Center for American Progress on November 17, 2008. (pdf)

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