Why Did the Nuclear Posture Review Bomb?

On Tuesday, the Department of Defense released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), setting forth the government's position on the procurement and use of nuclear weapons. But unfortunately for the Obama administration, no one seemed particularly thrilled with it.

The NPR arrives on the heels of the recent successful START negotiations with Russia and of President Barack Obama's expressed preference for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Obama's NPR shifts attention away from confrontation with China and Russia and toward the threat of nuclear terrorism and regional rogue states. While it marks a departure from the Bush administration's aggressive theories of nuclear-weapons use, arms-control advocates are disappointed that the NPR takes only hesitant steps toward a non-nuclear future. Conservatives are outraged at the move toward a "no first use" policy against states that attack the U.S. with chemical and biological weapons. They're also displeased by the rejection of new nuclear-weapon designs. Both sides are right to be dismayed -- no one should be terribly happy with the document that has emerged.

Changing nuclear-weapons policy means negotiating with a vast national security bureaucracy -- involving the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the uniformed military services -- that was designed in the late 1940s and that remains embedded in a post-World War II vision of the threat environment. While the United States now has presumptive conventional military superiority against any foe or conceivable coalition, there is bitter institutional resistance to changing a policy designed to deter the Soviet Union from marching its hordes through the North German Plain. Instead, today's threats come from uncontrolled nuclear proliferation and from the potential nexus of nuclear weapons and international terror.

The Obama administration NPR recognizes some of these changes, acknowledging that "the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are gone" and that "Russia is not an enemy, and is increasingly a partner in confronting proliferation." Nevertheless, the same nuclear arsenal -- a triad of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines -- that was created in the Cold War remains, even as other nuclear powers abandon the first two components in favor of more secure submarine-launched nuclear missiles. But revamping our nuclear-weapons policy requires both creative thinking and brutal bureaucratic warfare against all of the organizations that have developed a stake in the nuclear force since 1949.

The institutional constraints aren't simply part of the U.S. national security bureaucracy but are replicated in the international architecture that the United States painstakingly created over the course of the Cold War. Multilateral organizations such as NATO, and bilateral agreements such as the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty bound nations together and created interdependence between organizations. Even though the people of Europe react to the idea of tactical nuclear weapons with a sort of hostile indifference, the structure of NATO assumes a U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The guarantee that America would respond to a Soviet conventional attack with nuclear weapons underlies the security bureaucracies of the major European powers -- this rhetorical assumption must continue to exist even as the Soviet Union has passed away. This foundational European assumption about nuclear policy becomes embedded in the U.S. process through military-to-military contacts in the Pentagon and through the State Department, both of which resisted the shift to no first use and the reduced deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. European security issues thus become part of the U.S. bureaucratic fight.

The Obama administration doesn't have the stomach for a fight with its own entrenched bureaucracy, and it's unclear that the battle  could be won in any case. Consequently, the Obama NPR is filled with compromises. The nuclear-weapons labs, which fought during the Bush administration for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) gets the mission of extending the service life of the existing U.S. stockpile rather than building new weapons. Tactical nuclear stockpiles in Europe and Asia are reduced but not eliminated.

The United States commits to a "no first use" policy, but the pledge is sufficiently filled with caveats to render it practically meaningless. The U.S. will consider reducing the number of ballistic-missile submarines but will also investigate the possibility of "prompt global strike," which would fit conventional warheads onto nuclear missiles, a capability popular with the Navy and with the Defense Department. Perhaps most irritating to progressives, missile defense becomes a key part of the replacement for nuclear deterrence against chemical and biological weapons, mollifying critics within the Navy, Air Force, and Congress.

It's worth noting, however, that the same forces that have prevented Obama from undertaking revolutionary change also prevented the Bush administration from realizing its most fevered nuclear fantasies.

As Fred Kaplan points out at Slate, the Rumsfeld Nuclear Posture Review envisioned both a transformation of the nuclear arsenal and a thorough revision of nuclear-use doctrine. Nuclear weapons would ultimately become "conventional" and could be used against enemies whenever circumstances dictated. While a more casual approach to nuclear-weapons use won some fleeting support in Congress, the new stance would have required a transformation of existing military doctrine and a full-scale reconstruction of America’s international commitments. These difficulties helped render the proposals a dead letter. They did not win much support in the uniformed military and were viewed with appropriate horror abroad.

In this constrained context, the Obama NPR represents a very measured step in the ongoing fight to determine the future of nuclear weapons. It pushes back against the Bush administration's desire to revolutionize nuclear-weapons doctrine, and it restores the aspirational thinking about nuclear-weapons abolition that held at the end of the Reagan administration. Conservatives may howl, but their attacks are geared more toward defending the status quo than at imposing their own revolution in weapons policy.

The Obama NPR also shifts nuclear thinking toward asymmetric and non-state threats in a manner that doesn’t overtly threaten entrenched institutional interests. This move has its own costs -- nuclear terrorism is the ultimate phantom menace -- but at least begins to recognize that we no longer live in 1947. The larger problem is that the United States has a national security bureaucracy that was designed in and for another era. Until the system is rebuilt in a way that fundamentally recognizes that the world has changed, the product of our grand strategic thinking will continue to disappoint.