War Stories

Nuclear Posturing

Trump’s official nuclear policy isn’t that different from his predecessors’. That’s what makes it so scary.

A nuclear missile is test-fired.
In this photo provided by the South Korea Defense Ministry, the Hyunmoo II ballistic missile is fired during an exercise at an undisclosed location in South Korea on Sept. 4.
South Korea Defense Ministry/NurPhoto via Getty Images

President Trump has cranked up anxieties about nuclear war, more so than any president since Ronald Reagan’s first term more than 30 years ago. These anxieties are unlikely to be calmed by news that he will soon sign the Nuclear Posture Review, a 47-page Pentagon document that critics say will spur the building of new nuclear weapons, expand the scenarios in which the United States might use them, and thus boost the likelihood of nuclear war.

But the panic over Trump’s willingness to use nukes—stemming mainly from his public comments about raining “fire and fury” on North  Korea—is actually a separate matter from the review. That document—which was leaked to HuffPost earlier this month and has since been the subject of alarming news stories and editorials elsewhere—was written by the U.S.
military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff  (not the White House). It has since been endorsed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. And, with a few exceptions (some of them notable, and we’ll get to those), it reads very similarly to the Nuclear Posture Reviews released by Presidents George W. Bush in 2002 and Barack Obama in 2010.

The last point is the main one. The shuddering thing about this document is that it reflects the views of officers and civilians, deep inside the Pentagon, who have been thinking about nuclear policy for decades. In other words, its premises and logic precede Trump; they have been woven into America’s nuclear-war machine for a very long time. Trump makes it seem more shuddersome because he is the first president since the end of the Cold War to speak about nuclear war so cavalierly—to give the impression that he might actually launch a nuclear first strike—and, therefore, to a degree that wasn’t true of Bush or Obama (or almost any other president), it seems that he might easily be persuaded to take this document as a serious guide to action.

Three points in the new document have triggered particular alarm. The first is that the United States might fire nuclear weapons in response to several types of non-nuclear attacks, including attacks involving biological, chemical, or cyberweapons. This is the most marked contrast to Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which had, as one of its main points, that the U.S. would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.” Trump’s review says, explicitly and several times, that the country will now increase the role of nuclear weapons.

The second source of alarm is its statement that the United States will build new nuclear weapons for precisely this purpose. These include a very low-yield warhead for some Trident II submarine-launched missiles, a nuclear bomb–carrying version of the F-35 fighter jet, and the revival of a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. Some of these weapons are said to blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons—either because they’re mounted on planes or missiles that carry both types and because, in some cases, they’re much less powerful than most nukes—thus making the escalation to nuclear war more seamless and possibly more tempting.

The third alarm bell, which accentuates the second, is the document’s repeated emphasis on the need to “integrate” nuclear and non-nuclear warfare in the U.S. military’s doctrine, training, and exercises.

If these points make you nervous, that’s OK; they should. But here’s the larger point: They have very little to do with Donald Trump; rather, they have everything to do with the nature of the nuclear age and the logic that’s animated it all along, in the United States and in Russia.

Even Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks,” didn’t lead to a change in policy on this score. During the drafting of that review, Obama sparked a lively debate among national-security aides over whether to adopt a “no-first-use” policy on nuclear weapons. (No president has declared such a policy; America’s post–World War II deterrence strategy in Europe and Asia has always relied, in part, on the pledge to use nuclear weapons first, in response to an invasion, if conventional defenses collapse.) The debate under Obama was whether the posture review should say that nuclear weapons’ “only” purpose was for retaliating to a nuclear attack or whether that was merely their “primary” purpose. If it were the only purpose, that meant the United States would not use nukes first; if it were the primary purpose, then first-use was still an option.

Top aides said at the time that Obama backed away from “only”—i.e., backed away from a no-first-use policy—mainly because U.S. allies said they would find such a policy “very unsettling”; it would cast doubt on our commitment to their security and might tempt foes to behave more aggressively. The posture review fudged the issue by saying that deterring a nuclear attack was the “fundamental” purpose of nuclear weapons while noting that they might also be useful for deterring (and, therefore, responding to) biological attacks and large-scale conventional invasions.

Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review lists more examples of non-nuclear attacks that might justify nuclear first use—including cyberattacks that damage America’s infrastructure—and it cites these examples with fewer tonal qualms. But as something that the nuclear-war planners at U.S. Strategic Command might read as guidance on policy, the two documents aren’t so different.

The second main point—calling for new nuclear weapons that might make first use seem easier—does differ from Obama’s review. It is, in fact, a return to George W. Bush’s review of 2002, which called for building these sorts of weapons for precisely this purpose. (Obama’s review did not mention such weapons.) But none of these weapons were ever funded: The Pentagon’s budget requested just scraps for research and development; Congress cut even those.

Not even Trump’s review places these weapons on anything like a front burner. It estimates that a new intercontinental ballistic missile will be fielded by 2029, a new nuclear-missile submarine by 2031. It doesn’t even posit a date for the low-yield Trident warhead and says only that the Pentagon will “pursue” a nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile—and that the program will be dropped if the Russians cut back some of their new shorter-range nuclear missiles aimed at Europe.

Obama’s document, though falling short of proclaiming a no-first-use policy, did change nuclear policy in three significant ways. First, it declared that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first against a country that had signed, and was in compliance with, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. This still kept North Korea (and, at the time, Iran) in the crosshairs but provided an incentive for other countries, which might be thinking about going nuclear, to refrain. Second, Obama’s document declared that the 400 Minuteman ICBMs, each of which carried three warheads, would now carry just one.

A striking thing about Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (and this hasn’t been noted by any alarmed article on the subject) is that it reaffirms Obama’s pledge not to fire nuclear weapons first against a country in compliance with the NPT. (It doesn’t credit Obama with the idea, but it does repeat his language, word for word, and in italics.) It also pledges to keep just one warhead on each Minuteman missile—and, for good measure, not to violate any arms-control accord that puts limits on America’s nuclear arsenal.

The authors of Trump’s document also note, in italics, that the use of nuclear weapons would be considered only “in extreme circumstances to defend the interests of the United States, its allies and partners”—though it does broaden, a bit, the definition of “extreme circumstances.” It is also worth noting that, while Obama put these pledges up front in his document, Trump’s officials buried them in his. They start off, repeat many times, and conclude with the warning that the world is more dangerous, that Russia in particular has been boosting the role of nuclear weapons in its defense planning, and that therefore so must we.

The Trump officials’ premise is true. While the United States hasn’t built a new nuclear weapon in two decades, Russia is modernizing two of its ICBMs, has built more short- and medium-range nukes (even to the point of violating the Reagan-Gorbachev era treaty that banned intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe), and has carried out exercises that integrate nuclear and non-nuclear operations. If Russian military officers and political leaders really believe that they’ve figured out some gap in the U.S. deterrent—if they believe that they can use nuclear weapons in some way that forces us to back down in a conflict, rather than to respond in kind—then this is worrisome.

One way to deal with Russia’s new programs and doctrine might be to ignore them—to say, We see what you’re doing, and you’re wasting your money. We have enough nuclear weapons, of enough versatility, to retaliate to any move you make at any level you choose. One might also take steps to bolster everybody’s confidence in that statement—for instance, improving the security of command-control links. One might also strengthen conventional and cyberdefenses, in order to reinforce—rather than blur—the threshold between nuclear and non-nuclear warfare.

But the Trump officials’ response is flawed and potentially dangerous. Rather than deride and diminish the Russians’ nuclear illusion, they are taking it seriously and saying that we need to make nuclear weapons more usable in order to survive. In short, the Nuclear Posture Review is, in effect, telling the Russians that they’re on to something, that they really have uncovered a weakness in our defenses.

In fact, this weakness doesn’t exist—the document breathlessly asserts, but never makes so much as an argument, much less a clear case, that our current arsenal can’t meet the new threats. The danger is that, to the extent the Russians believe they have an advantage, the Pentagon’s review might bolster their belief. When this document goes public, reportedly in the next week or so, and when Mattis appears on Capitol Hill to defend it, members of Congress should ask him to explain, point by point, just which threats he can’t meet with the current policy and arsenal—and just how his new policies and weapons can handle the threat.

There’s a key bit of context to this document, a fact that most people don’t know but that’s crucial to understanding what’s going on here: From the beginning of the nuclear age, the people entrusted with the bombs and missiles and warheads—the people who spend their workaday lives thinking about how to deter nuclear war and how to fight nuclear war if deterrence fails—have always sought ways to make nuclear weapons usable, to make them like other military weapons writ large. The popular myth is that our policy has been mutual assured destruction—we threaten to blow up the bad guys’ cities if they attack us, and so they don’t attack us. But in fact, our weapons have always been aimed mainly at the bad guys’ military targets—their own nuclear forces, military bases, command posts, etc.—and our nuclear plans have always incorporated options for going first, if just to pre-empt the bad guys from going first.

The people who devise these war plans are not, for the most part, the crazed generals in Dr.
Strangelove
. They base their plans on elaborate logic chains of what’s needed to deter the enemy and assure our friends. Somewhere along the way, they decided that a credible assuring deterrent must involve actual plans to fight the nuclear war, if possible to win it, and from that point on, the “options” and “scenarios” mount endlessly, and the capabilities we “need” mount endlessly too.

This is the nature of the nuclear age. This has been going on since the first A-bombs exploded, and it’s continued to go on these past few decades, since the end of the Cold War, even though few in the outside world have noticed. That’s the difference in the Trump age. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric has highlighted the fact, which we’ve all tried to forget, that these nuclear weapons are still here. In one sense, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is a bit of exceptionally bad timing. It really isn’t so different, in substance, from the posture reviews of the past; but, in particular contrast to the previous review, in 2010, we now have a president who might take it seriously.

Obama accepted the logic of the nuclear machine, though reluctantly; in that context, his expressed desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, at some point in the far-off future, signaled that, despite the machine’s logic, he would be very averse to using these things—and, because of that, our anxieties about the machine were abated. Trump seems exuberant about the machine, not so much about its logic, which I can’t imagine he’s ever explored, but more about its sheer destructiveness. That’s what makes the Nuclear Posture Review such a frightening document.