On October 27, 2022, the Joe Biden administration released a declassified version of its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). There is now a general part in the public domain from which certain conclusions can be drawn.
As the publication, posted on the Federation of American Scientists website, states, “In terms of arms control and risk reduction, the NSF is disappointing. Previous efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals and the role played by nuclear weapons have been undermined by renewed strategic competition abroad and opposition from defense hawks at home”.
So who poses a threat to the United States in terms of the possible use of nuclear weapons? The authors of the NPR believe that Russia, China and North Korea and even Iran, which is surprising. How did it get on the list if the country does not possess nuclear weapons? And they are silent about Israel, which has nuclear warheads, but not only keeps the exact number secret, but has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at all! Obviously, this policy of double standards is allowed, because Israel is a U.S. ally.
As for China, a “the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent” is noted… PRC likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade”. According to the NPR, China’s more diverse nuclear arsenal “could provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. Allies and partners in the region”.
Russia is said to be is diversifying its arsenal and that it views its nuclear weapons as “a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against [its] neighbors”.
It is noted that Russia has up to 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons. The document mentions that in 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Russia “probably possesses 1,000 to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads”. Although the State Department said in April 2022 that the estimate includes retired weapons awaiting dismantlement. The subtle language differences reflect a variance in estimates between the different US military departments and agencies.
It is also noted that “Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or Allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START”. Given that Russia and the USA appear to agree that Russia’s new Sarmat ICBM and Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle fit smoothly into the treaty, this statement is likely referring to Russia’s development of its Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, its Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, and its Status-6 Poseidon nuclear torpedo.
As for North Korea, it is generally clear – the U.S. is concerned, as before, that Pyongyang views the U.S. as a possible target for a nuclear weapons planning and The NPR states that “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”.
On Iran, the NPR says that the United States “relies on non-nuclear overmatch to deter regional aggression by Iran as long as Iran does not possess nuclear weapons”. It is worth noting that Iran is not in compliance with the obligations of the NPT because it has not signed this document.
As for U.S. nuclear weapons, the NPR reaffirms a commitment to the modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command and control and communication systems. Compared to previous assessments, the current one refers to retiring the B83-1 megaton gravity bomb and cancelling the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). It says that “the Administration strongly opposes continued funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N) and its associated warhead”. It is noted that further investment in developing SLCM-N would divert resources from other missions. These decisions were expected, although there was opposition from hawks and nuclear lobbyists.
True, there is a hint of a replacement weapon “for improved defeat” of hard-to-reach and deeply hidden targets. But the new weapons are not identified.
The NPR describes the existing and future capabilities that adequately enable regional deterrence of Russia and China. This deterrent is based on the W76-2 (the low-yield warhead for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile proposed and deployed under the Trump administration), globally-deployed strategic bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, and dual-capable fighter aircraft such as the F-35A equipped with the new B61-12 nuclear bomb.
It is concluded that the W76-2 “currently provides an important means to deter limited nuclear use”. However, it is said that “its deterrence value will be re-evaluated as the F-35A and LRSO are fielded, and in light of the security environment and plausible deterrence scenarios we could face in the future”.
The release of the NPR coincides with the revelation that the United States has sped up the deployment of the B61-12 in Europe. Previously planned for spring 2023, the first B61-12 gravity bombs will now be delivered to bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey in December 2022. The White House was quick to emphasize that its modernization program and nuclear exercises are scheduled years in advance and are not responses to Russia’s actions.
By the way, the Steadfast Noon exercise on the use of nuclear weapons themselves is quite controversial even in the context of the allied relations of NATO countries.
The fact is that the exercises involved the joint use of nuclear weapons, in which the United States installs nuclear equipment on fighter jets of select non-nuclear NATO countries and train their pilots to carry out nuclear strike with U.S. nuclear bombs.
But the United States as a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has promised not to hand over nuclear weapons to other countries, and the non-nuclear countries in the sharing arrangement have promised not to receive nuclear weapons from the nuclear weapon states. In peacetime the nuclear weapons are under U.S. control, but the arrangement means that they would be handed over to the non-nuclear country in war time. The arrangement was in place before the NPT was signed so it is not a violation of the letter of the treaty. But on the other hand, it violates the spirit and has been an irritant for years.
The appearance of B-52 strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons in Australia also looks like a deliberate provocation. They could be stationed at Tindal Air Base, about 300 km south of Darwin. As in the case of Europe and Russia, Australian authorities were quick to point out that plans to deploy the bombers were first announced by the previous Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February 2020.
China responded by saying that “the relevant U.S. behavior has increased regional tensions, seriously undermined peace and stability in the region, and could provoke an arms race. China calls on the parties concerned to abandon the outdated Cold War mentality, zero-sum games and narrow-minded geopolitical thinking and do something that promotes regional peace and mutual trust between countries”.
In light of the Pentagon’s doctrine of warfare in all domains, the reference to the integration of nuclear and conventional forces is troubling.
The NPR states that “non-nuclear capabilities may be able to complement nuclear forces in strategic deterrence plans and operations in ways that are suited to their attributes and consistent with policy on how they are employed… Joint Force can combine nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities in complementary ways that leverage the unique attributes of a multi-domain set of forces to enable a range of deterrence options backstopped by a credible nuclear deterrent”. An important part of this integration is to “better synchronize nuclear and non-nuclear planning, exercises, and operations”.
The Arms Control Association website has previously rightly questioned whether the United States could indicate that it would use nuclear weapons only in the event of an “existential attack” against the United States or its allies. And since this is not the case, a range of assumptions arises – could a cyber or chemical weapons attack ever threaten the existence of an ally? Would the attacks be considered existential if U.S. allies were left unscathed after the attack, but could be subject to subsequent attacks? Interpretations vary, and there is no exact wording.
At the same time, the U.S. leadership and their satellites continue to accuse Russia of its intention to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and even allow threats against Moscow. The NPR, as well as other US military and strategic documents, objectively demonstrates the aggressive nature of Washington’s foreign policy, and particular actions, such as the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe and the appearance of US strategic bombers in Australia clearly confirm this.