Implementing a key recommendation from the April 2010 "Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report," the Obama administration announced in May that it has started the process of revising guidance issued by the Bush administration for nuclear weapons operations and deterrence policy.
In May 4 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said that the review will assess "deterrence requirements, including analyzing potential changes in targeting requirements and force postures." Miller said the review would inform the administration's goals for future nuclear reductions below the levels of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). According to senior administration officials, the Pentagon review will provide options to President Barack Obama by late summer or early fall, but final decisions may not be public until the United States reaches agreements with Russia for comparable policy changes.
The Obama administration has been operating under a 2008 guidance document. After Obama's inauguration, administration officials determined they did not need to revise the Bush guidance in advance of the negotiation of New START, as the treaty's modest reductions in weapons levels to 1,550 deployed strategicwarheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles were consistent with existing plans. The 2010 NPR report, however, found that an "updated assessment of deterrent requirements" would be needed for reductions below New START levels.
The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is determined in large part by the missions assigned to U.S. nuclear forces and the number of targets against which they must be aimed. For example, since the 1960s, the primary mission for U.S. strategic weapons has been to attack "counterforce" targets, that is, an adversary's leadership and nuclear and other military targets, to be able to degrade their ability to inflict further damage through a second or third strike. The operational requirements for a counterforce mission are reflected in current U.S. nuclear policy, which calls for more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, with hundreds kept at high levels of alert, ready to launch upon warning of an enemy attack.
In addition, a "hedging" policy quires the military to keep about 2,000 warheads in reserve, which could be "uploaded" onto deployed delivery systems, to guard against strategic surprises or unforeseeable technical failure. To reduce the U.S. arsenal below New START levels and to change the alert posture, officials say, the core missions assigned to the nuclear arsenal, such as counterforce, may need to change. "To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence," national security adviser Tom Donilon told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference March 29.
This has already become a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are seeking to limit the Obama administration's ability to change the current guidance. For example, the House version of the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act would prohibit the president from reducing the hedge force until new weapons production facilities are completed. The bill also would prohibit any shift from counterforce targeting unless the president submits a report to Congress on the proposed changes.
Another reason for revising the nuclear guidance, according to the officials, is that the Obama administration's NPR set new nuclear policy that is not reflected in existing Pentagon plans. For example, the Bush administration policy was to "use" nuclear weapons to deter an adversary's use of weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons, an approach that is presumably reflected in the targeting guidance, which is classified. Obama's NPR narrowed the …