The Nuclear Posture Review – The Real Story

On March 10, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times reported the release of a secret Pentagon paper, presenting the findings of the second Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). According to both newspapers, this report is a comprehensive plan for developing and deploying nuclear weapons. The newspaper coverage purported to reveal controversial information about the NPR that captured the imagination of world leaders and generated significant negative reaction towards the United States from around the world.

It is surprising that these eminent newspapers only reported on this development on March 10, since the actual paper was disseminated to the press back on Jan. 9 by J. D. Crouch, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, with the active participation of Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, Deputy Director for Strategy and Policy on the Joint Staff; John Harvey, Director, Office of Policy, Planning, Assessment and Analysis for the Department of Energy, and Richard McGraw, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

McGraw led off the Jan. 9 briefing with some general remarks alluding to the first Nuclear Posture Review completed in 1994. This review was a response to the dramatically altered world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It created an operating framework for this changed situation.

Crouch then presented fifteen slides that outlined the findings of the current Nuclear Posture Review. This presentation was followed by questions from the press answered by one or more of the participants.

While it is true that portions of the review are classified, the reasons for this classification were clearly stated in the briefing. Crouch and his assembled experts answered questions about these reasons, and went into significant detail about the motivations for and findings of the review.

A cover letter from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had been sent to Congress and was handed out at this briefing. Rumsfeld explained that the Nuclear Posture Review was built on the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) ordered earlier by President Bush. The QDR and NPR together, he wrote, put in place a major change in approach to the role of nuclear defensive forces in U.S. deterrent strategy, and present the blueprint for transforming our strategic policy.

He went on to write that the NPR establishes a New Triad composed of (1) Offensive strike systems (both nuclear and non-nuclear); (2) Defenses (both active and passive), and (3) a revitalized defense infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats.

He then explained that the New Triad was designed both to reduce our dependence on nuclear weapons, and improve our ability to deter attack in the face of proliferating Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capabilities by (1) The addition of Defenses, reducing our reliance on offensive strike forces; and (2) The addition of non-nuclear strike forces, reducing our reliance on nuclear strike forces.

In several articles breathlessly echoed by broadcast and cable news networks, both newspapers last week reported that the United States had taken a dramatic turn towards a war footing. Both papers seemed to see these actions as justifying the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists adjusting their Doomsday Clock closer to midnight (see for more information). They reported that the list of potential nuclear targets had expanded to include Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya, engendering a flood of protest and invective from these countries and their friends.

Contrary to what has been reported, the first leg of the New Triad – the offensive leg – will go beyond a reduced level of the Cold War trio of ICBMs, SLBMs, and manned bombers, to include new non-nuclear strike weapons and newly developed, lower-yield nukes. This will dramatically strengthen the credibility of our strategic deterrence.

The second leg of the New Triad, recognizing the impact of 9/11, requires development of both active and passive defenses that will deny or reduce the effectiveness of limited attacks, and so discourage those attacks. This leg will also “provide new capabilities for managing crises, and provide insurance against the failure of traditional deterrence,” according to Rumsfeld.

The third leg is a responsive defense infrastructure. It will address our ability to bring new weapons on line, and will reshape our nuclear infrastructure. This will make us far less reliant upon large, strategic nuclear weapons, and better able to deploy tactical weapons that pose a much smaller threat to the world at large. These smaller weapons will also give us the ability to hold off massed armies that might otherwise be able to overrun our forces. Furthermore, maintaining our flexible response capability to large strategic changes can positively dissuade potential adversaries from developing WMDs.

The New Triad’s effectiveness depends on “command and control, intelligence, and adaptive planning,” according to Rumsfeld. He proffers the term “exquisite” intelligence to describe where we are headed. Such advance knowledge of the capabilities and intentions of our potential adversaries will give us the ability to adjust the degree of force we will use and the precision of how we will use it. No longer will we stand with a huge nuclear hammer raised to obliterate a potential foe.

Instead, we will have the ability to strike where it will hurt the most, pulling the plug on an offender before he is able to carry out any threats. Having already demonstrated this ability to some degree in Afghanistan, we now can cast our anti-terrorist glance more effectively at other offending nations. It may even be that a glance alone will suffice to solve many extant problems.

The NPR raises a particularly interesting point. Can a modern “smart” conventional weapon outperform a nuke, and so obviate the need for that particular nuke?

In my submarine days, we carried several torpedoes. One was the Mark 45, a nuke with an underwater kill radius of about one cubic mile of ocean. In other words, if your submarine was anywhere within a half-mile of the burst – in any direction – you were dead meat. We also carried the Mark 37, which was a “smart” torpedo – not so smart as the torpedoes used today – but still plenty bright. These “fish” used sonar sensing and tracking abilities. They also had a kill radius of about a cubic mile. Because they were not nukes, however, they were much easier to handle, easier on the guys – including less paperwork! – and less dangerous for the sub, since we had more control over what and where it could strike, and so could stay within the kill zone and still be safe. The Mark 45 absolutely mandated that we be outside the kill zone.

In many cases, a modern smart weapon may very well be a better weapon than a tactical nuke. This is especially true for weapons utilized to wipe out specific units, vehicles, or complexes. Unless the complex is heavily reinforced or well fortified underground, a smart weapon probably will be a better choice than a nuke.

The NPR specifically recommends developing a better burrowing nuke for wiping out deeply fortified cave-like complexes. Other than this recommendation, the report is silent on what might be forthcoming. It just leaves the door open for future development.

One wonders, therefore, at what motivated The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to shout so loudly about a report that was released over two months ago. One wonders how they managed to distort the NPR into a warmongering document, when it actually paves the way towards a more peaceful world, less likely to become involved in a planetary nuclear war.

On the other hand, since these newspapers reported as straight news the recent Doomsday Clock movement by the left-wing Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, perhaps a hidden agenda is peaking out from under their self-righteous indignation.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.