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What’s Holding Up the Nuclear Posture Review?

Is Obama trying to take the nuclear arsenal down to fewer than 1,000 warheads for the first time since the Truman administration?

8:59 PM, Jan 6, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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When I saw Monday’s LA Times story about the debate on the Nuclear Posture Review, I didn’t make much of it because it didn’t reveal anything that someone who has been following the issue wouldn’t already know.

What’s Holding Up the Nuclear Posture Review?

However, as someone who has played the spin … er, “media relations” game from inside the national security infrastructure, I should have known that often the timing of a story is itself the story. Why was this being published now? Is it just an attempt to “match” a similar New York Times story published on December 18?  Or was it that it took a long time to report, and/or Monday was the first day the editors gave it the space?  Or maybe sources started talking now for a reason.

Two subsequent revelations point to the latter.  First is the news that the NPR will be delayed until March 1.  This is the second postponement of this congressionally mandated report.  It was supposed to be delivered to Congress by the end of last year.  Then the administration pushed it off until February 1. Now, it’s been pushed another month.

Why?  The official letter of notification (from Principal Undersecretary of Defense James Miller to Senators Levin and McCain, and Representatives Skelton and McKeon) cites “the complexity of the issues being addressed.”  The LA Times story was more or less complete on what those issues are.  But oddly, it made no mention of any delay—despite the fact that Miller’s letter was delivered on December 29.  Presumably, reporter Ritcher wasn’t told of it—presumably because all his sources are Democratic, and the real purpose of their leaking was to lay the groundwork for an explanation of and blame for the delay.

That blame, it now seems clear, will be heaped on the uniformed military and some of the permanent civilians who handle nuclear issues within the Department of Defense.  They have had a rough time under the new administration.  The Reliable Replacement Warhead—a program championed by Secretary Gates and carefully designed to be acceptable to Democrats (i.e., it requires neither new testing nor the production of new fissile material)—ran afoul of the president’s anti-nuclear absolutism and was cancelled in March (although it is possible that elements may reappear in some other form, and under a different name, down the road).  The mostly sensible (and hardly revolutionary) recommendations of the Perry-Schlesinger Commission have so far gathered dust.  A long and costly program to reconstitute the ability to manufacture “pits” for the W88 (the fissionable first stage of America’s most sophisticated warhead) may also be on the chopping block.

What are they being blamed for now?  In short, for questioning the near term steps that the president wants to talk on the road to his vision of a “nuclear free world.”  Most of the objections have been aired in public quite thoroughly already, including whether or not to proclaim a “no first use” pledge for the first time in U.S. history; whether to further limit the role of nuclear weapons in formal policy; whether and how to pursues stockpile modernization; and most alarming of all, whether or not to axe one leg of the strategic triad (long range bombers).

But the second piece of news is what I suspect is the real sticking point.  The day before the LA Times story appeared, the Boston Globe published its own long survey piece about the NPR. Buried in there was a little-noticed nugget that could well hold the key to the mystery.

About four months ago, the Guardian reported that Obama rejected an early draft of the NPR and told planners, in effect, not to show him another until it came back with a deployed warhead level of three figures; that is, take the arsenal down to fewer than 1,000 warheads for the first time since the closing days of the Truman Administration.  This was particularly alarming since there seemed to be no rationale for that number beyond optics: everyone likes to break a nice, round number.

But I asked around and experts assured me that the report was not true; the real floor was going to be 1,500, a level most (but not all) nuclear professionals—uniformed and civilian—could live with.  In addition, the story was not picked up by any American papers.  Another thing I should have known: never trust British reporting on Washington until you see it somewhere else.

But now it is in an American paper.  Does that make it true?  It makes me believe it more.  And it helps explain the delay, and the sudden appearance of so many fraught stories about a seemingly mundane report to Congress.

In truth, this NPR is anything but mundane.  For one thing, it appears likely that it will espouse a lot of naïve, dangerous rhetoric plucked from the Nuclear Freeze era.  For another, it puts the cart before the horse.  It’s well known that the administration is trying hard to negotiate with the Russians a follow-on treaty to START I, which expired last December 5th (and whose simple extension provisions were not invoked).  That we are negotiating such an agreement before we have figured out what our own force requirements are is troubling.  The last time the U.S. went though this exercise (in 2001), we at least put the horse before the cart.  We calculated our force requirements then used that as the basis for a new treaty (the so-called “Moscow Treaty”).  This time, the delay in finishing the NPR may well be in order to allow the new treaty to be finished first, to that the NPR can be backfilled with rationalizations for all the concessions Obama administration officials are busy making to the Russians.

No doubt the latter would be delighted to set a mutual deployed strategic warhead level of 1,000.  It allows them to maintain parity at much lower cost.  Plus, if the new treaty—like all its predecessors—remains silent on tactical warheads, the Russians (who have thousands more than we do) will once again reap a sizable advantage.  Worst still, a 1,000 warhead level suddenly appears to be a plausible goal for China to reach should Beijing decide to make nuclear parity a trilateral instead of a bilateral game.

There’s a lot riding on this document, or at least on the policy that it will spell out.  Here’s to hoping they get it right.  I for one am not hopeful.

Michael Anton is a writer in New York who served in national security positions in the Bush administration.

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