The Biden administration has confirmed it will cancel a submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile programme begun by Donald Trump, as part of its review of nuclear policy.
The administration will also retire a gravity bomb, the B83-1, from its arsenal as part of its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), but arms control advocates argued the changes from the Trump era did not go far enough.
The administration is retaining another weapon variant introduced by Trump, a low-yield warhead called the W76-2, intended to deter an adversary like Russia using a low-yield weapon. The Democratic party manifesto in 2020 had called the W76-2 “unnecessary, wasteful, and indefensible”.
The Biden NPR said that the “fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners”. That declaratory policy stops sort of saying deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of the arsenal, which is what Biden promised in his election campaign. Instead, the NPR says that the US could strike back against “a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks”.
Jon Wolfsthal, who was special assistant to Barack Obama on arms control and nonproliferation issues, expressed disappointment in the Biden NPR.
“The world is a dangerous place and our allies and we still rely on nuclear deterrence but this document ignores the role the US can play to make nukes less usable, less likely,” Wolfsthal said on Twitter.
The policy document points to arms control agreements as offering “the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy.”
It undertakes to uphold the last remaining arms control agreement with Russia, the New Start treaty, and negotiate a successor agreement when it expires in 2026, but it adds: “negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith”.
The NPR points out that as well as strategic weapons subject to the limits of New Start, Russia has an active stockpile of up to 2,000 non-strategic, or tactical, warheads, of the sort Vladimir Putin and his officials have hinted could be used against Ukraine. The US only has a few hundred tactical weapons.
“Similarly, Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the US homeland or allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New Start,” the NPR said.
The document repeats an earlier US estimate that China will have 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade, so that by the 2030s the US “will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.”
Introducing the National Defence Strategy, in which the NPR is a part, the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, described China as America’s “pacing challenge” while Russia was an “immediate and sharp threat” which “could not systemically challenge the US over the long term”.
The NPR leaves open the possibility that the US might have to increase its arsenal as a result of the dual threat from China and Russia, saying that “as the security environment evolves, it may be necessary to consider nuclear strategy and force adjustments to assure our ability to achieve deterrence.”
In response to the NPR, Jessica Sleight, partner for policy at Global Zero, a disarmament advocacy group, said: “Contrary to President Biden’s stated intentions to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, this Nuclear Posture Review continues decades of nuclear overkill, doubles down on needless weapons programs, and fails to advance overdue reforms to policy and posture that would make the United States, its allies, and the world safer.”