After much anticipation in the policy field, today the Biden Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—the foundational document which outlines an administration’s approach to nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. security strategy.
The full NPR was completed in March, but the unclassified version was held back amid shifting geopolitical contexts, including continued weapons developments by China and North Korea, a prolonged failure to return to the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s war in particular has sparked a renewed debate around the role and utility of nuclear weapons, making Biden’s NPR—albeit largely prepared well before the invasion—particularly seasonable. While many have reflexively called for the U.S. to match Putin’s nuclear-backed threats with an increased reliance on new or more nuclear weapons, Biden’s NPR stands as a sober and useful response (and foil) to Russia’s irresponsibility.
The previous posture review, released by the Trump Administration in 2018, broke with a long tradition of presidents of both political parties seeking to reduce the role of nuclear weapons within the country’s broader national security strategy. In it, Trump sought (and subsequently funded) several new nuclear weapons projects, including moving forward on modernizations to the Air Force’s ICBM and ALCM fleets that were explored late in the Obama years, and a fast-tracking of a “low-yield” option for the Trident II SLBM which broadened select strategic missile submarines into a dual-use tactical weapons platform. It also called for a resurrection of the Navy’s nuclear sea-launched cruise missile program, which was wisely ended by President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s and led to the full elimination of this type of nuclear weapon under the Obama presidency.
In rhetoric, Trump’s NPR called out the dangerous arms-race behaviors of rivals like Russia and China, but rather than working to isolate and seek an end to such behavior, it concluded that a strategy of matching development and new expenditures must be implemented. It doubled down in the wrong direction, broadening the perceived utility of nuclear weapons and describing them as useful well beyond deterrence: as a “hedge” against other strategic threats.
Compared to the 2018 NPR, Biden’s document aims to blunt the arms-race momentum, maintaining some of the Trump-era modernizations while slowing or halting others. Most notably, it calls for the discontinuation of the new SLCM-N system and aims to resume the retirement plans for the B-83 megaton-class gravity bomb. The Adminsitration chose to sustain other modernization plans, including the GBSD replacement to the Minuteman III ICBM and the B-21 successor to the B-2 stealth bomber.
Importantly, though, the Biden NPR affirms the “fundamental purpose” of nuclear weapons as deterring nuclear attacks, recalling traditional American post-Cold War policy and moving closer to a cooler sole-purpose doctrine. Such a position is not simply rhetorical; it allows the U.S. to start building much-needed momentum in other approaches to arms control, including risk reduction methods, as widely discussed at the most recent NPT RevCon. It also paves the way for smarter strategies and resources for biological and chemical threats to be addressed more effectively than by the threat of nuclear retaliation.
As frightening headlines continue to emanate from the Ukraine war with concerns, rumors, and outright threats of nuclear weapons use, it is critical to avoid validating Putin’s irresponsible reliance on Russia’s arsenal—and Biden’s posture review serves as a viable model for just that. Simply framing nuclear weapons as a fundamentally limited (and deeply costly) deterrent is a far better starting point for effecting stabilizing policy changes than endorsing a dangerous arms race in the name of supremacy.