A Cautious and Conservative US Nuclear Posture Review
10 Jan, 2023 · 5841
Dr. Manpreet Sethi examines the 2022 NPR across three verticals: US threat perceptions the role of nuclear weapons, and arms control.
Manpreet SethiDistinguished Fellow at CAPS
The much-awaited fifth US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was announced on 27 October 2022. It was published along with two other documents: the National Defence Strategy and Missile Defence Review. These three strategic reviews were released together for the first time, and even conducted in an integrated manner to ensure a linkage between strategy and resources.
Divided into eight short sections across 24 pages, the NPR covers all the usual nuclear issues. It dwells upon the US’ complex geopolitical environment. It establishes nuclear weapons as central to addressing these security challenges, and charts pathways to upgrade legacy systems and develop new capabilities. It emphasises integrated deterrence and the need to use every tool at the US’ disposal to address its threats, including close collaboration with allies and partners to also leverage their strengths.
The NPR admits that the US cannot handle these complex challenges alone, and that a collective response that takes advantage of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security architectures is necessary. This is a change from the last NPR of 2018 that adopted a more US-centred approach, with then President Trump raising doubts about US extended deterrence commitments. The latest NPR lays them to rest and reiterates the value of alliances and partnerships.
This article examines the latest NPR’s highlights across three issues: US threat perceptions, the role of nuclear weapons, and arms control. It also explains the NPR’s likely impact on other nuclear-armed states, especially China and Pakistan, since this would have a bearing on India.
US Security Environment
Russia and China, not surprisingly, are among the foremost security challenges listed by the NPR. In fact, for the first time, it flags that by the 2030s the US will face “two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This appears to be a huge change from President Obama’s 2010 NPR that had downgraded this challenge to below the threat of nuclear terrorism. In contrast, the 2022 NPR believes that nuclear Russia and China will pose new stresses on deterrence, assurance, arms control, and risk reduction.
While Russia’s nuclear capabilities, including modernisation and expansion, remain an enduring concern, the NPR identifies the “unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine in 2022” as the contemporary nuclear danger. Russian brandishing of its nuclear weapons in support of a revisionist security policy has contributed, in the US view, to a perception of the growing salience of nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, this Russian behaviour has also awakened Washington to the threat of nuclear brinkmanship. It calls out Moscow for aggressing under the nuclear shadow, “irresponsible sabre-rattling,” and using nuclear weapons “as a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against their neighbours.” But this is not a new trend. India has faced such behaviour from Pakistan since 1999, when its illegal occupation of Indian heights in Kargil first demonstrated the use of nuclear weapons as a shield to deter a conventional response. However, this didn’t affect American threat perception then, or hasn’t since. Having now been subjected to Russian nuclear brinkmanship, the US NPR has finally taken cognisance of irresponsible nuclear behaviour, but it still stops short of addressing others that use the same tool.
The NPR also recognises China as a “pacing challenge” for US’ defence planning and nuclear deterrent, given Beijing’s increasingly aggressive attempts to reshape the global order. The US feels that the growth in Chinese nuclear forces and capabilities would “provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against US allies and partners in the region.”
North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organisations also figure in US threat perceptions. DPRK is acknowledged as a “deterrence dilemma” instead of a non-proliferation challenge, as was done in the past. The NPR notes Pyongyang’s expansion, advancement, and diversification of its nuclear, missile, and non-nuclear capabilities. On Iran, it reiterates the objective of preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but has nothing concrete to offer on how this should be achieved.
Besides state actors, the NPR also flags the threat of integrating kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, including cyber, space, information, and advanced conventional strikes. The integration of multi-domain capabilities will increase the tendency to pursue coercive strategies, creating operational dilemmas for the US. It will also heighten the chances of conflict escalation, since “collective experience, common understandings, and established norms of behaviour (such as cyber and space) are lacking.”
Role of Nuclear Weapons
Given these challenges, the NPR reiterates the centrality of nuclear weapons and makes a case for capability enhancement. It reaffirms the traditional roles of US nuclear weapons to deter strategic attacks, assure allies and partners, and achieve US objectives if deterrence fails. While categorically asserting that “hedging against an uncertain future is no longer a stated role for nuclear weapons,” the NPR nevertheless underscores that the US will sustain actions that build advantage and resilience in its stockpile, production complex, and science and technology efforts to ensure a “resilient and adaptive nuclear enterprise.”
The NPR also states, “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic level attacks.” While claiming to “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment,” it admits that the US doesn’t find it prudent to accept no first use (NFU) or sole purpose as the role for its nuclear weapons.
Much like the 2018 NPR, in fact, the 2022 NPR echoes the need to deter limited nuclear attacks by signalling to the adversary that even a limited nuclear escalation wouldn’t deter the US from achieving its war aims. The Joint Forces would be able to fight in a CBRN environment by ensuring the resilience of conventional systems and personnel to limited nuclear use effects. The US would adopt a tailored deterrence strategy seeking “to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible.” This can be read as a hint at the limited use of nuclear weapons. The 2022 NPR retains the W76-2 ‘low-yield’ SLBM warhead, which was introduced by the 2018 NPR to give the president “a range of limited and graduated options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields.”
Interestingly, in the context of nuclear weapons employment guidance to the president, the NPR emphasises maintaining “consistency with the Law of Armed Conflict.” It asserts that the US would not “purposely threaten civilian population or objects.” As a first user of nuclear weapons, this attempts to showcase the US’ law-abiding nature. However, the problem is that any nuclear use, even if it starts with low yield weapons for limited use, can spiral out of control. An adversary’s retaliation cannot be controlled by Washington. Hence, the assumption that a limited nuclear war can be lawfully conducted and managed is flawed. In this regard, India has a mature stand in its NFU doctrine, which only claims nuclear retaliation in self-defence—it deters, meanwhile, through the threat of unacceptable damage.
Strategic Stability and Arms Control
To its credit, the NPR expresses the intention to renew “emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation, and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally.” Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control is listed as the “most effective, durable and responsible path” to limit the role of nuclear weapons. It also flags the need for new technical capabilities for verification and monitoring, and is ready to invest in these, including through international collaboration.
The NPR also expresses US readiness to engage with Russia on further arms control beyond New START, and with PRC on a full range of strategic issues that would include arms control, crisis communication, information-sharing, mutual restraint, and risk reduction.
While the NPR is a legally mandated US national exercise, the document has a bearing on global nuclear trends and strategies. Others are likely to model similar behaviour and engage in comparable technological developments. Five worrisome aspects stand out for India.
The first pertains to the emphasis on nuclear weapons and deterrence centrality, premised on the modernisation and expansion of capabilities. This is likely to beget more of the same from other nuclear-armed states. Tense nuclear dyads will make worst case assumptions of the adversary and lean further on their military and nuclear capability build-ups. The vicious cycle of negative security perceptions thus set into motion will only further vitiate the international security environment.
Second, India will be affected the most by Chinese modernisation. Beijing has read the NPR as a call for “bloc confrontation,” with it declaring that it will “not be intimidated by the nuclear blackmail of the US.” Chinese military capability enhancement can thus be expected. This development will also be used by China to increase influence in Asia, which will have repercussions for India’s security.
Third, the NPR accepts a role for low-yield nuclear warheads in order to deter similar capabilities in another. Pakistan is only likely to derive further justification for its own brinkmanship strategy that is premised on the use of ‘small’ nuclear weapons.
Fourth, the American emphasis on integration of nuclear and non-nuclear as well as non-strategic capabilities—irrespective of how the US practices this—will lead to a perception of blurring of lines between conventional and nuclear. With deployment of newer technologies such as hypersonic delivery and AI-enabled command and control, compressed decision-making timelines, along with entanglement, will heighten risks of inadvertent escalation.
Finally, with the US focus on establishing credible deterrence against its nuclear peers, relatively less attention can be expected on nuclear terrorism—a threat that India can’tignore. New Delhi will have to continue its individual efforts to address this challenge, while also striving to forge effective collective approaches.
Dr. Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.
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