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DOD strategy reports show rising nuclear tensions

Questions have been largely prompted by Vladimir Putin’s veiled but unsubtle threats to use his atomic arsenal

The Defense Department made public on Thursday unclassified versions of the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review after having previously sent Congress classified versions while releasing just fact sheets to the public.
The Defense Department made public on Thursday unclassified versions of the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review after having previously sent Congress classified versions while releasing just fact sheets to the public. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Newly released Pentagon strategy documents reveal a growing U.S. military focus on adjusting policies, plans and programs to respond to Russian threats to use nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department made public on Thursday unclassified versions of the documents — the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review — after having previously sent Congress classified versions while releasing just fact sheets to the public. 

Each U.S. president issues a National Security Strategy, as the Biden administration did publicly earlier this month, followed by a National Defense Strategy that spells out the military’s part in executing it. Defense Department officials conducted their defense strategy review and the nuclear and missile-defense reviews simultaneously — a first, they said.

The nuclear review, in particular, and a public discussion of it Thursday by senior Defense Department officials, revealed urgent questions inside the Pentagon about new atomic realities. The questions have been largely prompted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled but unsubtle threats to use his atomic arsenal either in Ukraine or against nations that contest him there. 

“We are certainly concerned about escalation, and we have been so from the very beginning of this conflict,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters Thursday.

Russian use of a battlefield nuclear weapon “would be the first time that a nuclear weapon has been used in over 70 years,” he said. “If this happened, we have been very clear from the very beginning that you would see a very significant response from the international community.” 

Austin declined, when pressed, to discuss what America’s part of that response might entail.

New nuclear issues

The National Defense Strategy differs from its 2018 predecessor in singling out China — including its growing nuclear arsenal of perhaps 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade — as the “pacing” U.S. national security competitor, more so than Russia. China, the report effectively said, is richer and more technologically advanced than Russia. 

Russia is described as an “acute” but secondary challenge. North Korea, Iran, violent extremists, climate change and pandemics all warrant a mention in the so-called “NDS.”

The missile defense review, meanwhile, also mostly expresses how U.S. policy is marked by continuity, though there is new emphasis on destroying missiles before they are launched, on combating drone attacks and on defending Guam, to name a few highlights. 

But right now only Russia is waging war on a neighboring state and implying it could use nuclear weapons if necessary in prosecuting that conflict. The reviews were made public as both Russia and the United States have recently engaged in nuclear-war exercises and as both countries deploy new air- and sea-launched atomic weapons and forge ahead with the development of still others. 

And the nuclear posture review, in sometimes subtle ways, highlights how the Russian threat is changing the way the Pentagon is thinking about nuclear issues. 

In a nutshell, the nuclear report says:

  • The department has placed a “high priority” on deterring Russia from using nuclear weapons;
  • It is “critically important” to ensure U.S. troops can fight in a radioactive environment;
  • America has deployed new atomic weapons that have less explosive yield and that Russia and China might consequently believe the U.S. military could use, not just threaten to use;
  • The Pentagon is increasingly concerned that new military systems available to adversaries, especially in cyberspace and space, could cause confusion during a crisis and make it harder to avoid escalation, including to nuclear war.

Atomic arms continuity 

The Nuclear Posture Review for the most part articulates how U.S. nuclear policies and strategies are unchanged. The nuclear triad of air, sea and land delivery vehicles remains and is, in fact, being updated. To be sure, the administration would like to see few weapons programs terminated, namely the sea-launched cruise missile and the B83-1 gravity bomb. But those positions were known. Development of the W93 — a potential new $14 billion submarine-launched missile warhead program that gets little attention — will carry on, the review said. 

The nuclear document also makes no changes to America’s so-called declaratory policy on nuclear arms. The Pentagon rejected liberal attempts to get the administration to pledge that America would never be the first to use nuclear weapons or to say that their sole purpose is to deter nuclear war and respond to nuclear attacks. President Joe Biden has long espoused a “sole purpose” declaration. The report said that was a “goal” to strive for. 

However, the review made an opposing argument: that non-nuclear strategic threats that were not named — but that presumably include cyber, biological weapons or destruction of U.S. satellites — could warrant a nuclear response, or at least the threat of one should remain, the review argued.

Austin told reporters Thursday that U.S. nuclear capabilities “remain the ultimate backstop for our strategic deterrence.”

Ukraine’s troubling questions

Despite all the continuity, the document also suggests that Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing the Pentagon to grapple with new calculations.

Or, as a senior defense official told reporters Thursday, speaking of Russia’s nuclear threats: “It does focus the mind.” 

The nuclear review calls Russia “an enduring existential threat”  and says Moscow “should have no doubt regarding the resolve of the United States to both resist nuclear coercion and act as a responsible nuclear power.”

The growing salience of nuclear weapons in the strategies and forces of U.S. adversaries heightens the risks and stakes of any confrontation, the report said. 

“Russia presents the most acute example of this problem today given its significantly larger stockpile of regional nuclear systems and the possibility it would use these forces to try to win a war on its periphery or avoid defeat if it was in danger of losing a conventional war,” it said.

The report said Russia has 1,500 atomic warheads limited by strategic arms treaties and up to 2,000 that are not. 

But the United States, the report said, has its own “flexible, tailorable” warhead options with lower yields than larger atomic devices and atomic weapons that can be delivered by aircraft or cruise missiles, such as the W76-2 sub-launched warhead, the air-launched cruise missile called the Long Range Standoff Weapon and the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. 

Politico reported Wednesday that the U.S. is speeding up delivery of B61-12s to Europe from spring of next year to this December. 

“Deterring Russian limited nuclear use in a regional conflict is a high U.S. and NATO priority,” the document said. 

Radiation and escalation

In addition, the review said Russia’s threats show that U.S. forces need to pay greater attention to being able to fight on a battlefield where nuclear weapons have been used or nuclear fallout is occurring. 

It is “critically important” that U.S. forces “can fight and win in a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN)-contaminated environment,” the document said. “Further development of plans and force requirements to enable military operations in a nuclear environment will be a focus of NPR implementation, including requirements to ensure the resilience of conventional systems to limited nuclear use effects and enhanced mission assurance of space assets critical to conventional force operations.”

Moreover, both the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Defense Strategy kept coming back to a worrisome point: it will be harder and harder to prevent crises from escalating to conflict, even nuclear war, they said. 

That is largely because attacks in cyberspace or the disabling of U.S. satellite systems used for spying or navigation, for example, can make it harder to understand what is happening. 

“Changes in the security environment — particularly in the space and cyber domains — are likely to increase opacity during a crisis or conflict, threatening strategic stability,” the National Defense Strategy said. 

The future, it said, could hold “complex and unpredictable pathways for conflict escalation, especially where collective experience, common understandings, and established norms of behavior (such as cyber and space) are lacking.”

Defense Department officials say in the report that they are hard at work ensuring they can respond to potentially confusing scenarios. 

They are conducting analysis of “escalation pathways and thresholds” and planning for situations with “decreased domain awareness and impaired communications.” Improving command and control systems and ensuring satellite constellations can withstand attacks are also part of the plan.

Austin told reporters that maintaining channels of communication with adversaries is key, though the nuclear report notes that China has not responded to efforts to improve such connections. 

The nuclear report also points out another risk from Russia’s nuclear threats during the Ukraine crisis, as well as North Korea’s similar threats and the prospect of Iran gaining nuclear weapons: These developments, the report said, could increase the risk that other nations want to obtain nuclear arms too. 

China is America’s top threat, Austin said, but “Russian aggression does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interest and values, and Putin’s reckless war of choice against Ukraine — the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II — has made that very clear for the whole world.”