Sunday, January 21, 2018

NPR redux



Back in 2002 an earlier Nuclear Posture Review was completed and in March of that year I wrote a note about it, titled: "NPR - Not Your Father's Public Radio." That is reproduced below (note: fifteen years on many of the original links are no longer working!). 

My conclusion at the time? That the NPR "seemed somewhat confused" and "on the one hand it discusses doing research to develop smaller, tactical nuclear devices (implicitly agreeing that the majority of the weapons in the current nuclear arsenal are weapons without suitable targets, present or future) while at the same time keeping these increasingly redundant weapons." 

Fast forward to 2017 and an early draft of the NPR has been leaked. Reaction has been immediate, and for the most part entirely predictable. On the one side nods of affirmation; on the other those who believe that nuclear weapons have no use and should be eliminated, worr that the pendulum is going in the wrong direction. And, supporting the "anti" side's critique/view, many reflexively opposed to President Trump, waxing nostalgic about President Obama's perceived view about the elimination of nuclear weapons. (Note: I say "perceived" because this blogger has long believed there was a serious gap between Obama's nuclear weapons rhetoric and actual actions, for example see here, here, and here.)

My verdict? This NPR hearkens back in spirit to the earlier 2002 NPR and is not a huge break from the past.  However, like the earlier 2002 NPR it too is "confused" and continues (in vain) the search for additional reasons to have these weapons.


Some reactions to the leaked 2017 NPR:

P.S. One (small but illustrative) example of the incoherence in the document, the assertion that "U.S. nuclear capabilities..." contribute to "... the deterrence of... non-nuclear aggression." This blogger has never seen a persuasive example of this!


NPR - Not Your Father's Public Radio 
(originally written March 21st, 2002)


In 2001 when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation required that the Secretary of Defense in consultation with the Secretary of Energy conduct a comprehensive review of US nuclear forces. They were to develop a long-range plan for the modernization of US strategic nuclear forces. This review is known as the Nuclear Posture Review - NPR. This NPR, the second (the first was in 1994), was completed and submitted to Congress 1/8/2002. The majority of the report was classified, but the unclassified portions were presented in a DoD news briefing - Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review

In March the classified portion was leaked and became public NPR excerpts on globalsecurity.org, immediately causing a furor by naming countries that might be nuclear targets, and also seeming to endorse the use of nuclear weapons. The story was broken by a couple of articles in the LA Times.
The following links can be used to examine the topic of nuclear weapons:

Since the reports surfaced the administration has backtracked a bit, saying this report was about possibilities/scenarios and not doctrine. However, it is evident that consideration is being paid to the possible development and use of tactical nuclear weapons. And even before this one could occasionally hear calls for the use of tactical nuclear weapons e.g. when the US was attacking the

Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan a Republican Indiana congressman suggested that the use of nuclear weapons should be considered to destroy and seal up the caves.
  • So, what could nuclear weapons be used for (putting aside for the moment arguments about other aspects of their use)? It is hard to see any practical use for nuclear weapons that could not be accomplished by the use of conventional, non-nuclear firepower except perhaps the destruction of hardened, subterranean targets. The graphic shows the possible use of an existing earth-penetrating nuclear weapon. However, the existing versions of these weapons (e.g. the B61-11) don't have very great penetration, and certainly not enough for all the fallout to be contained in the ground and not dispersed through the air - experiments in Nevada in the '60's showed that for this a (mere) 5 kiloton warhead would need to be 650 feet deep, and a 100 kiloton warhead would have to be 1300 feet underground to avoid a significant amount of radioactive material being vented. Thus new weapons would have to be developed, which would require testing. The US has had a moratorium on testing since 1992. President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, though the Senate did not ratify it. There is also a 1994 law prohibiting research and development of nuclear weapons smaller than 5 kilotons. Meanwhile advances in bunker busting conventional bombs (e.g. the GBU-28 that is supposedly capable of destroying silo-based ICBMs) make this nuclear option much less compelling.
  • On a different level, it is almost impossible to make a case for when nuclear weapons might be used other than in response to a 'traditional' mass nuclear attack from a nuclear nation such as China or Russia. There are no credible first use scenarios against a non-nuclear power. A nuclear response against a nation in answer to a nuclear (or biological, radioactive, or chemical, etc.) terrorist attack (even if sponsored by a government) also provides no positive advantage, given that all these scenarios can be replied to using an overwhelming conventional response (since the US has the means and the ability to deliver mass destruction wherever it wishes). And the down side is that the first 'routine' use of a nuclear weapon immediately takes these weapons out of the "weapons of mass destruction" category and makes them simply another military option in the arsenal of options. This would 'legitimize' the use of these weapons, destroy years of non-proliferation efforts, and give the green light to nations around the world to develop their own nuclear weapons. This 'legitimizing' effect would be even greater if the US use was not in response to a WMD attack, but simply against a natural feature (mountain caves) or hardened target.
Given the above, it is hard to understand where the NPR and the administration seem to be sending US nuclear doctrine. Another confusing thing is the proposed "reduction" of the US nuclear force. President Bush and Russian President Putin discussed significant cutbacks in nuclear warheads, and the administration speaks of the US reducing its nuclear arsenal from its current level of approximately 10,650 warheads to 1,700 - 2,200 by 2012. This reduction allows for a more than sufficient nuclear deterrent, while recognizing that the previous levels are unnecessary given the changed world situation. However, this was followed by the announcement that the warheads reduced would not be decommissioned and destroyed but would be put in storage.


Thus the "reduction" from 10,650 to 2,000 would be achieved by changing the terms of the debate - while currently all warheads are counted, under the administration's plan only "operationally deployed warheads" are counted while ignoring all those in testing, being overhauled or upgraded, or in storage. If you continue to count all the categories the US stock will only be reduced from 10,650 to approximately 9,980 by 2012 (see graph). While the reduction in deployed warheads will result in reduced risk it is hard to understand why the 'reduced' warheads will be kept in storage. The 2,200 active warheads are already many times more than might ever be needed, so it is difficult to see a circumstance under which the other warheads might be pulled out of storage and used! 

In conclusion, the administration's NPR seems somewhat confused. On the one hand it discusses doing research to develop smaller, tactical nuclear devices (implicitly agreeing that the majority of the weapons in the current nuclear arsenal are weapons without suitable targets, present or future) while at the same time keeping these increasingly redundant weapons.

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