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Dmitry Stefanovich

Independent expert

Nuclear weapons as an aspect of great power competition were too quick to disappear from the international agenda, with the focus shifting towards various global problems associated with sustainable development. The new US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), published in early 2018, clearly indicates the fallibility of this approach. The Trump administration continues to move towards the reinstatement of nuclear weapons as a fundamental element of national and international security, and negates the possibility of nuclear disarmament in the foreseeable future.

Washington has been accusing Moscow of breaching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, modernizing the Russian nuclear arsenal, and adhering to a “de-escalation through escalation” strategy, which calls for a limited strike with tactical nuclear weapons if the threat of losing a conventional conflict becomes imminent. Washington’s efforts to deter Russia with the US nuclear triad, non-strategic US and NATO nuclear forces, and the nuclear forces of British and French allies appears to be a serious obstacle to future bilateral reduction of strategic offensive arms.

A number of provisions in the NPR make one reconsider the existing attitude towards the role of nuclear arms in the contemporary system of international politico-military relations and start devising new conceptual approaches. It would be an utter mistake to return to “escalation dominance”, the “missile gap” and other antiquated Cold War theses, which are hardly applicable to the contemporary polycentric nuclear world.

Experts and politicians are familiar with several variants of the 2018 NPR. The Huffington Post published a draft in mid-January. On February 2, in the run-up to the February 5 deadline to meet the central limits of the US–Russia New START treaty, the NPR was officially presented in the Pentagon by representatives of the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Energy. The full text of the document was then briefly deleted from the Pentagon website.

On February 6, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis personally presented the NPR to the House Armed Services Committee. Witnesses point out that this version differed slightly from the previous one. One of the main changes had to do with the appearance of a chart showing how the US is lagging behind Russia, China and North Korea in upgrading its nuclear arsenal (see Fig.1). In the first draft, the entire Korean Peninsula was shown in the colours of the North Korean flag; in the next version, the chart represented Taiwan as a Chinese territory; in the following one, Russia “lost” the Kuril Islands in their entirety. The latest variant of the chart appears to be true to life, but this minor incident may indicate a certain degree of inattention to detail on the part of those who compiled the document. It is worth mentioning that the NPR summary has also been published in Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French: this suggests that Washington believes it extremely important to inform its allies and adversaries about the US approach to nuclear arms.

The Russian Factor

The Trump administration’s nuclear doctrine specifically emphasizes the degradation of the system of international politico-military relations in the second decade of the 21st century, a process characterized by the quantitative and qualitative increase of challenges and threats to US interests. This situation resulted from the international activity of “revisionist powers”: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. The document repeatedly mentions this “revisionism”, so it is worth listing the nuclear-related accusations Washington is levelling against Russia.

The NPR accuses Russia of three main “sins”:

  • breaching the INF Treaty by testing and deploying a long-range ground-based cruise missile;
  • pursuing a “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy. This strategy implies delivering a limited tactical nuclear strike should the threat of losing a conventional conflict become imminent, in order to subsequently impose the terms of conflict settlement on the adversary. This concept belonged exclusively to the realm of journalism until recently, even though renowned experts did discuss it actively and aggressively, albeit somewhat sceptically;
  • upgrading its nuclear arsenals, including via the development of various exotic delivery platforms. Everyone seems already accustomed to fantasies about hypersonic glide vehicles, but the mention, in this context, of a strategic intercontinental torpedo with a megaton-class warhead (known as Status-6) is puzzling and unexpected.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the publication of the new US nuclear doctrine came in the form of a prompt and fairly apposite comment: “Russia’s Military Doctrine clearly limits the possibility of using nuclear weapons to two hypothetical defensive scenarios: first, in response to an aggression […] involving the use of nuclear or any other weapons of mass destruction, and second, in response to a non-nuclear aggression, but only if Russia’s survival is endangered. The 2014 Military Doctrine introduced a new term, the ‘system of non-nuclear deterrence’, which implies preventing aggression primarily through reliance on conventional (non-nuclear) forces.”

The comment continues: “We are deeply concerned about Washington’s no-limits approach, under which it might use nuclear weapons in ‘extreme circumstances’, which are not limited to military scenarios in the new US doctrine. [...] If this is not the doctrinal enhancement of the role of nuclear weapons, what then does Washington imply when it uses the term with regard to Russia?”

One may mock the lexical peculiarities of the Russian comment, but it does contain a commendably succinct and exhaustive description of the country’s nuclear doctrine. It should be stressed that the Foreign Ministry was merely reacting. Had it been proactive in explaining the country’s stance on nuclear weapons and their qualitative and quantitative parameters to partners, opponents and society, all questions regarding Russia’s conceptions and arms may have been resolved before making their way into the NPR and similar documents.

Such positive promotion of Russia’s strategic non-nuclear deterrence concept merits in-depth analysis. In his speech at an open session of the Defence Ministry’s Board in late 2017, General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Chief of the General Staff, provided an exhaustive description of the “non-nuclear deterrence components” being formed in Russia as applied to the weapons systems currently employed. These include the S-400 SAM system, the Bastion coastal anti-ship missile system, submarines and sea-surface ships armed with Kalibr missiles and also, with certain reservations, the Iskander-M theatre missile system (“operational-tactical”). It is worth mentioning that all the aforementioned systems are, to varying degrees, dual-capable, i.e. they can be tipped with nuclear warheads. The problem of dual-capable nuclear/conventional arms is growing ever more acute. In particular, one of last year’s publications by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, under the editorship of James M. Acton, is devoted to this topic.

The US Response

Washington is planning to employ a combination of the following elements in order to deter Russia:

  • the US nuclear triad (intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers);
  • non-strategic nuclear forces from the USA and other countries in Europe, i.e. B611 aerial bombs and the nuclear sharing concept, which Russia has been criticizing for many years;
  • the nuclear forces of British and French allies.

This approach appears to be a serious obstacle to the future of bilateral strategic offensive arms reduction. At the same time, it may also prove instrumental in overcoming the seeming deadlock. Washington, in effect, is introducing its allies’ nuclear arsenals into the Russia–US strategic stability equation, meaning that Russia now has every reason to take these arsenals into account in future talks. Moscow will certainly have to introduce into the equation some of the Russian nuclear components that have until now remained outside the scope of limitation and reduction agreements, and were even excluded from the transparency principle. However, certain progress is possible here, provided that third nuclear countries (ideally China as well) are involved in the process.

Let us now discuss the materiel portion of the NPR: the assessment of America’s needs for nuclear delivery platforms.


Fig. 1 New nuclear delivery systems, with corrections and amendments by Hans Kristensen (Federation of American Scientists) in red.

The Trump administration believes that America is nowhere near being “great again” when it comes to nuclear weapons. This opinion is not entirely true. Nevertheless, the NPR calls for creation and deployment of new systems in addition to the new B-21 Raider bomber, LRSO air-launched cruise missile, GBSD intercontinental ballistic missile, new Columbia-class submarine (all effectively launched under the Obama administration), and the modernization/service life extension programmes for existing nuclear warheads, which are nearing completion. The document identifies the need for nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missiles and lower-yield warheads for Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The NPR also sets the rather vague objective of developing advanced nuclear delivery platforms and “alternative basing modes”, which may imply mobile ground-based (or airborne!) launchers. Sea-launched cruise missiles are meant to fill the gap caused by the INF-Treaty-related limitations, both in response to Russia’s “transgressions” and in other theatres saturated with missiles of nations not bound by the treaty. Notionally, low-yield warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles are meant as a deterrent against attempted use of tactical nuclear weapons in conventional conflict.

The NPR authors believe the US president will thus be able to deliver a nuclear strike that would not result in a full-scale nuclear war. It remains unclear how Washington’s adversary is supposed to distinguish an incoming low-yield munition from a full-blown first-strike weapon. The single-missile argument does not hold water, because a single launch from a submarine with subsequent air burst is considered a classic tactic for blinding enemy early warning and missile defence radars, to be followed by the multiple-launch application of the entire arsenal. Curiously, the UK had such sub-strategic submarine-launched ballistic missiles in its armoury more than 20 years ago. Discussions continue as to whether these munitions are effective. It would appear that the preservation of the “nuclear taboo” proves the usefulness of such munitions. On the other hand, the existence of “serious” strategic weapons in the arsenals of several leading world powers seems no less convincing a reason why nuclear arms have not been used in anger to date.

Apart from the aforementioned aspects of nuclear arms development, the NPR pays special attention to less publicly known components of the US nuclear arsenal: the nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) system and nuclear warheads.

The US NC3 system has long been in need of modernization because it consists largely of slightly modified Cold-War-era technology. At the same time, the NPR emphasizes the increase in, and qualitative changes to, the threats in outer space and cyberspace, the two key command-and-control arenas that apply not only to nuclear arms. To bring the NC3 system up to date and make it reliably stable, the NPR calls for massive reforms, the deployment of new subsystems, and the introduction of protection against all types of threats. It is in this context that the document contains the extremely controversial thesis stating that nuclear weapons may be used in response to a conventional attack on critical infrastructure, even a cyberattack against NC3 systems. The connection between nuclear arms and cyberthreats is becoming a particularly hot topic. It appears that within the debates involving the NPR, the sides would do well to at least reach a mutual understanding of the problem, if not work out common rules of the game.

The NPR contains detailed and tightly deadlined targets for the National Nuclear Security Administration (which formally reports to the Department of Energy but operates independently) to prolong the service life of existing warhead types until 2030 (this may require upgrades, as illustrated by the example of the W-76 warhead for the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile). Also by 2030, the USA must produce up to 80 plutonium pits, which are critical to the manufacture of nuclear charges. In fact, these targets were generally described back in 2007–2008, and their importance was reiterated following the signature of New START in 2010–2011. The USA is not planning to conduct any nuclear tests (with the exception of those required to ensure the safety and efficiency of the nuclear arsenal). On the other hand, Washington does not intend to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty either.

The new NPR pays somewhat less attention to non-proliferation, nuclear terrorism and arms control than the previous versions, and mainly focuses on the rivalry between the superpowers.

According to official estimates made public in late 2017, full implementation of the US nuclear modernization programme will require up to $1.2 trillion through the year 2046. Coupled with massive spending on missile defence (incidentally, the Department of Defense will shortly release a Missile Defense Review, whose title conspicuously omits the word "ballistic"), and the growing needs of all conventional military branches, the planned expenses might be streamlined by postponing the implementation of some projects and completely abandoning others, which is not unknown in the history of the US defence industry.

The Doctrine as the Catalyst of Discussion

The modernization of nuclear weapons is inevitable and even advisable for all nuclear powers. Russia, for one, continues to deploy and develop advanced nuclear systems. Universal nuclear disarmament remains a thing of the distant future; shiny new missiles appear to be safer to handle than rusty old ones, and they are better at deterring potential adversaries.

A number of provisions contained in the NPR make one reconsider the existing attitude towards the role of nuclear arms in the contemporary system of international politico-military relations and start devising new conceptual approaches. It would be an utter mistake to return to “escalation dominance”, the “missile gap,” and other antiquated Cold War theses, which are hardly applicable to the contemporary polycentric nuclear world.

Nuclear weapons as an aspect of great power competition were too quick to disappear from the international agenda (together with the very notions of competition and great power), with the focus shifting towards various global problems associated with sustainable development. The new US NPR clearly indicates the fallibility of this approach. At the same time the discussion spurred by the publication of this document gives one hope for the emergence of a new approach to building a stable multipolar world.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
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