Implications of the US Nuclear Posture Review

The US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released at the beginning of April has some significant implications for America's friends and allies as well as potential adversaries.

By Trevor Taylor, RUSI Professorial Fellow

The NPR process was not presented as a unilateral US move, since Secretary of State Clinton emphasised the consultations that had been held with more than thirty allied and partner countries. Nor interestingly should the NPR be seen as solely a Department of Defense (DoD) document, since the Department of Energy, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs were also said to have played a constructive role in its generation, and the move to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in US defence is very much an initiative associated with President Obama himself.  That said, the document accepts that there are a number of issues yet to be sorted out regarding allies, not least the role of tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe.  Secretaries Gates and Clinton recognised that at the very least collective nuclear deterrence needed to be on the arms control agenda and pointed to the importance of the outcome of the upcoming NATO New Strategic Concept.  The impression given is of some difficulty in justifying these weapons continued deployment, but the Obama administration hopes to use reductions in European nuclear capabilities as a diplomatic tool in 'dual-track' modernisation with Russia. The NPR observes that 'Russia maintains a much larger force of non-strategic nuclear weapons, a significant number of which are deployed near the territories of several ... NATO states and are therefore a concern to NATO'.


Importantly for NATO, the NPR did not endorse a 'No-First-Use' stance for the US, since many US allies in NATO have resisted such a stance before and after the Cold War. The US emphasis is on the non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states who are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and have respected their obligations under it.  There is also a qualified commitment that the US would not use nuclear weapons even in the event of a biological or chemical attack, and had the NPR been in place a decade ago, it might have eased the concerns of those who feared that the US might use nuclear weapons against Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre.  However, the document makes clear that NATO states should not expect that the US will stay away from a no-first-use posture indefinitely.  It is worth citing the precise words of the NPR statement at this point:

In case of ... states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations, there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that the 'sole purpose' of US nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and partners, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted. (emphasis author's own)

The current US President after all has an ultimate vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Implications for conventional force

The NPR involves a strong commitment to the development of American conventional forces as a means of dealing with non-nuclear threats, which has serious implications for the research, development and production of new conventional weapons.  Such an emphasis may well be seen as necessary in the White House to secure a majority in Congress for the new START Treaty as well as NPR commitments. However, some observers expect funding for conventional forces to be restricted in light of the state of US public finances, especially in the event of progress in Afghanistan, so the implementation of a commitment to conventional forces cannot be expected to be problem free.  For America's allies, including the UK, who aim to be able to work effectively alongside US forces on major operations, there is a signal of intent; the US seeks to maintain the current rate of technological innovation in the field of conventional forces. ,

Gaining domestic support

The NPR also recognises the need for the US to maintain the human capital, knowledge base, infrastructure and industrial supply needed for the maintenance and life extension of its nuclear weapons.   With an eye on those in the US political system , particularly those who do not share the President's preference for the reduction and eventual elimination of the need for nuclear weapons in American defence policy, the document stresses that maintenance of the nuclear arsenal for the immediate future will need more rather than less investment.  However, in the light of the Obama commitment not to develop new types of weapon, a number of questions arise. Can the US expect to attract and retain the high quality scientists it would like if it cannot offer them more than what is essentially an obsolescence management/weapon life extension role and does not provide the opportunity to develop and prove new designs? It is in this context that the NPR observes that 'a renewal of the sense of national purpose and direction in nuclear strategy will also be helpful' and further emphasises 'the challenging research and development activities' essential to the recruitment and retention of the right people. Clearly the US government as a whole does not feel this is likely to be a major problem area, with the Department of Energy already signed up to the NPR.

The NPR represents another significant step in the reduction of the centrality of nuclear weapons in US defence, and it has implications for America's allies: nuclear weapons cannot be more important in NATO's approach to defence than they are in the US approach.  It will also be intriguing to observe which bits of the NPR, if any, UK political parties chose to cite during the election campaign as backing for their judgements and how precisely the NPR will feed into the coming SDR after the election on 6 May 2010.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Nuclear Posture Review Report (NPR), April 2010. Read the full report here


Issues including 'No First Use' and Negative Security Assurances, pledging not to use nuclear weapons against states which are not nuclear-armed, are the subject of ongoing research at RUSI, with a full report on Nuclear Declaratory Policy by Professor Malcolm Chalmers due for publication in May.


Trevor Taylor

Professorial Research Fellow

Defence, Industries and Society

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