Nuclear Posture Review 2010: The Darker Side

On April 6, 2010, the US Department of Defense released the much awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). While the NPR comprises of an optimistic promise and asserts Obama’s path towards a nuclear-free world, a careful study of the document reflects a rather different side, possessing numerous caveats. Primarily, it is important to laud the NPR for a few positive changes vis-a-vis Bush’s NPR 2001. This is the first time in history that the notion of elimination of nuclear weapons has been included in an NPR. Another most important reversal in the latest review is the restricted possible use of nuclear weapons as compared to Bush’s review which threatened to employ nuclear weapons against any WMD attack (nuclear, chemical or biological) on the US or its allies. The NPR gives immense importance to the “changing international security environment” and focuses on nuclear terrorism and its equation with other nations, such as Iran, North Korea, Russia and China.

Many analysts have hailed the NPR for clarifying the nuclear carrot. Although the review has achieved a sense of restriction in terms of possible nuclear use, it is important to read between the lines. The NPR declared that “that the U.S. will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” These assurances are seemingly offered to encourage states to sign the NPT and conform to it, but its effectiveness in terms of realpolitik is uncertain. Countries like India, Israel and Pakistan have not taken the NPT road, but certainly face no US threat presently, therefore making the statement extraneous. Moreover, the NPR has singled out Iran and North Korea for their nuclear ambitions, thereby justifying a first strike on these countries, if need be. Iran, which is not a nuclear state presently, will be further forced to accelerate their efforts toward nuclear weapons, to ensure their survival or offer credible threat to deter the U.S. North Korea on the other hand may enhance its nuclear capabilities, which could also result in augmented illicit nuclear trade.

Further, the statement means that the U.S. reserves the right to strike nations that it feels has violated the NPT. The Iraq war has shown that the U.S. is not above ‘modifying’ facts to suit it motives. Therefore, the US can regard any state as a violator of the NPT, even if it is not deemed so by the IAEA, and justify a nuclear strike. This notion is further strengthened with the mention that the U.S. “reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.” This can also apply to states that adhere to the NPT but are considered a threat to the U.S., owing to their chemical and biological weapons.

A significant part of the NPR centres on the need to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. It emphasises on the need to “enhance capabilities to disrupt illicit proliferation networks and interdict smuggled nuclear materials, and identify the source of nuclear material used or intended for use in a terrorist nuclear explosive device.” While this statement looks good on paper, the US seems to be ignoring this in terms of application. Undoubtedly, the US is perpetuating the illicit nuclear network, by supporting Pakistan, an epitome of illicit nuclear proliferation, which allows rogue actors like A Q Khan to remain unpunished for his misdeeds (especially when reports indicate his involvement in resurrecting the once disbanded nuclear network).

In addition, the review claims that the US intends to move away from nuclear weapons and would focus on missile defence to deter its adversaries. “Improvements in missile defenses and counter-weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities” may seem to be an inferior yet good replacement, but would facilitate a conventional arms race globally. While the statement of lowering the utility of nuclear weapons may make good public relations, it results in an arms race of missiles, proving to be a greater threat globally.

Post-Cold war, the NPR called for reduction in the nuclear force levels especially when, Russia is no longer an adversary. The START which adds to the hope of nuclear reduction has many lacunae. The NPR has no mention of a reduction in the size of the total nuclear weapons stockpiles, which is estimated at 5000 warheads. Another important part that reflects a sense of optimism for nuclear-pessimists needs to be examined. The NPR states that the US will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. Hans Kristensen of Federation of American Scientists, points out that this policy clearly gives the US an option of extensive modification of nuclear warheads and also permits production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) which may be considered dead by officials. The NPR also states that the options for replacement of nuclear components are open “if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”

Apart from this, there seems to be no change in the structure of US’s nuclear forces, which enjoy a land-sea-air triad. While there was much debate about subtracting one leg, the review asserted the American decision to retain the “triad of SLBMs, ICBMs, and heavy bombers” with the justification that they would  “best  maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities.” This clearly does not reflect any difference as compared to its triad arrangement during the Cold War or as mentioned in Bush’s NPR.

Additionally, the NPR called for “increased investment in the nuclear weapons complex …to ensure security and effectiveness of nuclear arsenal.” This statement evidently reveals that the officials believe that Obama’s idea of a nuclear-free world will take numerous more years as compared to the idea reflected in Obama’s Prague speech in 2009. While Obama professed to offer a cake, the modest NPR appears to be nothing more than an empty box.



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