Smart Steps on Nuclear Weapons for the Biden Administration

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By Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber

Just as the administration of President-elect Joseph Biden will need to take urgent action to control the worsening COVID-19 pandemic and proactively address the security risks of climate change, it will need to take on the significant challenge of reducing rising nuclear threats. In October, we recommended in War on the Rocks

“…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.”

Several specific actions can move the United States onto a smarter path regarding nuclear weapons, starting but not ending with extending the New START treaty. In the aforementioned piece we also suggested that the next administration:

  • “…sign a national security directive that provides clear instruction for shaping an updated Nuclear Posture Review [NSPD] that declares that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is for deterrence or responding to nuclear attacks…”


  • The NSPD should “indicate what parts of current U.S. nuclear plans should be prioritized for alteration,” with a focus on “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.” Items of highest concern are the new long-range standoff nuclear air-launched cruise missile and the resurrection of previously retired nuclear submarine-launched cruise missiles. 

These actions can be taken via unilateral adjustments to current U.S. nuclear modernization plans—a potentially strong move by President-elect Biden, akin to what George H.W. Bush did with the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. They could also arise from new arms control concepts, for which we recommend the administration explore several options focused on addressing the types of nuclear weapons that introduce the greatest ambiguity, increase the threat of miscalculation, and raise the risk of nuclear war. 

Options should include:

  • A new, nuclear-only Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty;
  • A political arms control agreement and/or binding treaty ending the expansion and eventually eliminating all nuclear-armed cruise missiles, given their unique attributes that introduce greater uncertainty and alter strategic stability; and 
  • Concepts to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles and nuclear drones. 

President-elect Biden and his national security leaders can help restore the long, bipartisan tradition of reducing nuclear weapons threats and pursuing strong arms control measures that advance U.S. interests. 
CSR is building on its body of past work on a new strategic framework to guide nuclear weapons decisions, and specific ideas for smarter modernization and the future of arms control, with further details rolling out in the months ahead.


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