In late March, the Biden administration sent the results of its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review to Congress in the form of a classified document and with no press briefing. This is unprecedented. All that was released to the public was a less than one page “Fact Sheet,” which spoke almost entirely about the “no first use” issue. Why? Is the Biden administration afraid of offending the tender sensibilities of President Putin, the “butcher” of Moscow and war criminal who must be removed from power? Or is it concerned about the public’s reaction to weakening our nuclear deterrent in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat of Russian WMD use?
There has never been a larger disconnect between an administration’s perception of the nature of Vladimir Putin, the heavily nuclear-armed Russian dictator, and the requirements for nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, the Nuclear Posture Review decisions could negatively impact our credibility with our allies. With the Russians constantly making threats of nuclear war, the Biden administration has cut an already marginal nuclear modernization program. Additionally, movement toward no-first-use of nuclear weapons is difficult to understand when the Biden administration and the United Kingdom are warning that Russia may use chemical and biological weapons in the current war with Ukraine. This policy change seems driven more by ideological considerations than the requirement for a credible, effective deterrent.
The 2018 Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report made it very clear that we reserve the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons against a chemical or biological attack. President Biden’s comments about “in-kind” retaliation against Russian chemical weapons use (immediately repudiated by the White House) suggests that he does not know that we do not have chemical and biological weapons because they are banned by two arms control conventions. The administration’s “Fact Sheet” on the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review walks this back, stating only that “…the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners. The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”
U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK.) and U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL.), ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote, “…this revised policy seems to be little more than a rehash of the Obama administration’s approach.” (Emphasis in the original). The 2010 Obama administration Nuclear Posture Review report ruled out nuclear retaliation against chemical attack, saying that we would respond with conventional weapons. In light of the vast disparity in lethality between chemical and conventional weapons, this is essentially saying that we would not respond at all other than doing what we were doing before the chemical and/or biological weapons were used.
The Biden budget documents for FY 2023 indicate that the Biden administration is funding a replacement for three legs of the nuclear Triad, including the new long-range nuclear air-launched cruise missile. This is a very good decision. However, they have not sped anything up or increased anything in response to the barrage of nuclear threats emanating from Putin’s Russia or his invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, according to STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard, “…two-thirds of those [U.S. nuclear] weapons are ‘operationally unavailable’ because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia.” Thus, the Biden administration’s ill-advised reversal of the Trump administration’s policy by extending the seriously flawed New START Treaty without changes (its extension one week after the inauguration precluded any real analysis) reduced the benefits of the modernization program in terms of nuclear weapons available by two-thirds. The 6 month withdrawal provision in the New START Treaty prevents any rapid augmentation of our nuclear ballistic missile deterrent capability in a crisis. Moreover, Admiral Richard has stated, “Today’s nuclear force is the minimum required to achieve our national strategy.”
The “Fact Sheet” contained no programmatic data, but the strategic modernization program is going so slowly that there will be no benefits from it this decade other than a small number of B-21 bombers carrying nuclear bombs and the first of the new Sentinel ICBMs in 2029. The Government Accountability Office has reported that the new Columbia class ballistic missile submarine may be delayed. Until the new systems become operational in significant numbers, the U.S. nuclear deterrent will continue to decline due to system aging and the deployment of advanced Russian strategic defenses such as the S-500 and the newly revealed S-550.
In June 2017, General John Hyten, then-commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said replacing the existing AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (nuclear ALCM) is particularly needed because it is so old, “It’s a miracle that it can even fly,” and its reliability was “already unacceptable” and would get worse every year. This is the technical context in which the Biden administration made the decision to kill the nuclear SLCM.
The only significant improvement in our nuclear deterrent until late in this decade will be the introduction of F-35s with B61-Mod 12 bombs. However, the Air Force is not saying exactly when this will happen.
A defense official, in a background briefing on the budget, confirmed the cancellation of the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile program. This is a terrible decision. In fact, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress that he supports the missile. Admiral Richard commented that the “…current situation in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory convinces me a deterrence and assurance gap exists.” He went on, “To address this gap, a low-yield, non-ballistic capability to deter and respond without visible generation is necessary to provide a persistent, survivable, regional capability to deter adversaries, assure allies, provide flexible options, as well as complement existing capabilities. I believe a capability with these attributes should be re-examined in the near future.” The Commander of the U.S. European Command General Tod Wolters, in Congressional testimony, also told the lawmakers that he supports the nuclear SLCM. To have the nation’s top military leadership break with the White House on a nuclear deterrence issue is unprecedented and clear evidence of how irresponsible the decision is.
Right now, our only non-strategic nuclear capability are old B-61 bombs delivered by old pre-stealth F-15 and F-16 fighters, with the only operational capability being in NATO Europe. Representative Doug Lamborn, (R-CO.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has recently written that we have “only 200” non-strategic nuclear weapons while Russia has 2,000. A ten-to-one Russian advantage is probably the best case situation because there is a real possibility that the Russian non-strategic nuclear arsenal is 5,000 or more weapons. In February 2021, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten said Russia had “thousands low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying…” Russian expert Sergei Rogov has noted that assessments of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand to over 10,000. The Secretary General of NATO Jen Stoltenberg, in his just released 2021 report, stated that Russia is “…increasing the quality and quantity of its non-strategic nuclear weapons.” This does not only include many types of nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles similar to our only development program, which the Biden administration has just canceled but also their new hypersonic missiles, which are nuclear-capable. On March 17th, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Scott Berrier wrote, “As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.”
The Trump administration’s program for a low-yield Trident warhead program survived the Biden administration’s budget cuts, but according to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, we have fewer than 25 of them.
Getting back to the title of this article, one of the worst decisions in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review is the termination of funding for the B83 bomb, our highest yield nuclear weapon and the best weapon against many types of very hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs). Since Congress killed the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program during the George W. Bush administration, the B83 is apparently the best weapon against HDBTs built-in hard rock areas. Significantly, this decision was also opposed by Admiral Richard and General Wolters. For decades there has been an increasing disconnect between our targeting strategy for deterrence and the nuclear capabilities we actually maintain. In 2002 Admiral (ret.) Richard Mies, the just-retired Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, wrote that the “…longstanding [U.S.] targeting doctrine of flexible response — [was] a doctrine designed to hold at risk our potential adversaries’ military forces, war-supporting industry, command and control capabilities, and military and national civilian leadership while minimizing to the maximum extent collateral damage to population and civilian infrastructure.” In 2013, the Obama administration adopted a nuclear weapons employment strategy that stated, “The new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.”
The United States’ capability to engage hard targets was not even adequate during the Reagan administration. In 1985, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey briefed President Ronald Reagan about the need for improved hard-target kill capability, including the need for 100 MX (Peacekeeper) ICBMs. We actually got 50. Since that time, we have seen successive decisions to reduce our ability to threaten hard targets. Of the three U.S. hard target capable systems created by the Reagan administration, two, the Peacekeeper ICBM and the Advanced Cruise Missile, were eliminated without replacement by the George W. Bush administration. This left us only with the high-yield WW-88 Trident warheads. Reportedly, the U.S. produced only 400 of the high-yield WW-88 warheads for the Trident II missile.
The U.S.’ ability to threaten hard and deeply buried targets is much more limited than our ability against hard targets. Moreover, Putin reportedly is “modernizing [Russia’s] deep underground bunkers…” Destroying such targets requires very high yield and/or earth penetration capabilities. The Biden administration’s modernization program will give us neither. Against the hard and very deeply buried targets, there is essentially zero chance that they can be destroyed with a single U.S. nuclear warhead. With the 83% reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile since the end of the Cold War (illustrated in the chart below), this deficiency has become important. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review partially reversed the Obama administration’s decision to eliminate the two most effective U.S. bombs against HDBTs, the B61 Mod 11 and B83. Now, the Biden administration, in a threat environment vastly more serious than that assumed during the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, has apparently decided to go back to the Obama administration’s ill-conceived decisions.
Noted journalist Bill Gertz writes, “A congressional defense aide said the administration ‘does not have a plan to replace’ the B83. Instead, a study will be conducted at some point in the future to determine how best to get at deeply buried targets, the main mission of the B83….” I am sure President Putin is quite pleased. Reportedly, President Putin has sent his own family to a deep underground bunker in Siberia. Dictators tend to put a high value on their own skins. President Putin has reportedly been isolating himself due to fear of Covid-19. This very bad Biden administration decision has the potential to influence a decision by President Putin to escalate to nuclear weapons’ use.
This is only a preliminary analysis of the Biden NPR. If the administration makes an unclassified version available or stages a major press event, it should be carefully studied. Unfortunately, there are not likely to be any pleasant surprises. One thing is completely clear. Russian and Chinese nuclear capabilities, both strategic and non-strategic, are growing. We now face two peer competitors in nuclear weapons, something that was clearly not assumed during the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review or even the Trump 2018 review. Moreover, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review apparently made no change in the planned number of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to be maintained.
Our nuclear forces are not being improved on a timely basis and deterrence gaps will grow. In the midst of the most serious challenge we have faced since the Cuban missile crisis, the Biden administration obviously thinks it is a good idea to cut our nuclear modernization program and allow inflation to erode our defense capability. One thing is clear about nuclear deterrence: you may not get a second chance to correct your errors.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.