War Stories

Is Biden Going to Keep Wasting America’s Money on New Nukes?

Let’s read between the lines.

President Biden, sitting at a long table, meeting with leaders from the Department of Defense in October.
President Biden meeting with leaders from the Department of Defense in October. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

There are two stand-out passages in the 25-page “Nuclear Posture Review” that the Biden administration released on Thursday. The first could be seen as a last-ditch olive branch to the Islamic Republic of Iran. While expressing “great concern” over its advances in uranium-enrichment, the report states: “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon, and we currently believe it is not pursuing one.” This may signal to Tehran that Biden does not consider a revival of the Iran nuclear deal to be an utterly lost cause (though at this point it is quite unlikely)

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The second is a brutal warning to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un:

Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.

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No American President has ever been so firm or specific on the consequences of a North Korean nuclear attack. No one has outright said that it would mean the death of Kim and the destruction of his power structure.

Other than that, the posture review—the latest edition of a congressionally mandated report, written at the Pentagon and vetted by the White House during every administration—is a slog of cliches. More than that, it’s a sign that another casualty of the war in Ukraine and various other messes in the world is the suspension of creative thinking about nuclear strategy—and, with it, the splurging of hundreds of billions of dollars on new nuclear weapons, many of which are unnecessary. Other than those two passages about Iran and North Korea, it strikes no new ground, sparks no new insights, and its authors seem aware of this, to the point where they did all they could to bury the report—literally.

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Ordinarily a self-standing document, the 2022 edition of the review is hidden away as a chapter of the larger, even drearier National Defense Strategy, which was also issued on Thursday. (I had to phone a Pentagon public-affairs official to help me find the nuclear report; the official had to ask a colleague to help him find it.) And the new report is badly written, I suspect deliberately so, to prevent ordinary citizens from grasping the true depths of its banality. (If you’ve never read one of these reports before, more than half of it will be indecipherable.)

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It’s a shame. When Joe Biden came into office, some hoped that he would make some changes in the nuclear realm—perhaps adopt a “no-first-use” policy or, in any case, reduce the size of the arsenal. In the final days of his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden said in a speech, fully approved by Obama, that deterring (and, if necessary, responding to) a nuclear attack should be the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons.

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Ever since the atomic age began, U.S. policy has expressly reserved the right to use nuclear weapons not only in response to an enemy’s nuclear attack but also in response to an enemy’s non-nuclear invasion of an ally—especially if the U.S. and its allies are unable to resist the invasion with conventional forces alone. In other words, deterring a nuclear attack has not been the “sole purpose” of our nuclear weapons. Biden suggested, in his late-Obama-era speech, that it should be.

Then again, President Obama himself led his National Security Council in two debates on whether the U.S. should officially declare a no-first-use policy—and decided not to. He was convinced to leave the policy unchanged for three reasons. First, our allies would panic that we were abandoning them. Second, they might respond by building nuclear weapons of their own, thus setting off regional arms races. Third, we might want to use nukes in response to a large-scale biological-weapons attack. So, although Obama thought that no U.S. president should actually would use nuclear weapons first, he saw the value in reserving the right to do so—if just to deter a wide range of enemy attacks.

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As a compromise, Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review said that deterring a nuclear attack was the “fundamental” purpose of nuclear weapons—and added that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons first against a country that possesses no nukes and had signed—and was in compliance with—the Non-Proliferation Treaty.* This would still make first-use possible against Russia, China, or North Korea. It also provided some incentive for other adversaries not to go nuclear.

Biden’s posture review repeats Obama’s language, though less clearly.

This was in many ways predictable but there was some chance that Biden might decide not to “modernize all three legs of the nuclear Triad”—i.e., to build all-new replacements for our aging intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, bombers, and cruise missiles. Obama had been manipulated into agreeing to fund them, at least in the short run, in exchange for getting the Senate to ratify the New START arms-reduction treaty, and Biden knew that Obama had regretted doing so. Biden could reverse that move, since these weapons were all in their early stages of research and development. Some of the existing weapons could simply be modified rather than replaced. Several of Biden’s second-tier officials in the Pentagon and the NSC were inclined toward this view.

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But this prospect has fallen by the wayside as well. Biden’s review fully supports pushing ahead with all the new nuclear weapons—which are estimated to cost roughly $2 trillion over the next 25 years. Lots of vague formulas are mustered to rationalize this decision (e.g., “these replacement programs are planned to deliver modernized capabilities to avoid any gaps in our ability to field a credible and effective deterrent”), but none of them make sense, and this would be obvious if someone had written those passages in plain English.

Biden, of course, is in a spot. Given the rising tensions with Russia and China, it would be politically difficult, if not impossible, to cut back on existing plans to build more weapons, even if these weapons do nothing, objectively, to improve our security. In fact, a case can be made that we would be safer if we reduced the number of land-based ICBMs or eliminated them entirely. Just because Moscow and Beijing are wasting their money on new nukes doesn’t mean that Washington has to follow suit. It’s all theater.

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The posture review does announce the cancellation of one nuclear weapon: a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile. on the grounds that a new low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile can handle the mission well enough. Despite Biden’s concessions on every other aspect of the “nuclear enterprise,” Republicans will no doubt accuse him of “appeasement” on this one; my guess is the cruise missile will be funded after all. Liberals sometimes get hammered for “throwing money” at a problem. There is currently no resistance to throwing money at the weapons budget; in fact, there’s enormous resistance to not throwing it.

Correction, Oct. 29, 2022: The article originally did not fully state the conditions under which the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons first.

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