The U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Gaps and Opportunities

The U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Gaps and Opportunities

by Paige Gasser

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)was released by the Trump administration on February 2, 2018. This 100-page nuclear policy document is a legislative-mandated review, which is undertaken by the Department of Defense and outlines the U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities, and force posture for the next five to 10 years. In the 2018 NPR, the U.S. proposes diversifying its nuclear arsenal and developing new, smaller nuclear weapons to counter Russia and China, as well as proposing the use of nuclear weapons to respond to cyber attacks. However, there are four key areas of concern within this new nuclear strategy.

1.      The Development of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The new nuclear strategy places a renewed emphasis on expanding the number of low-yield nuclear weapons in the U.S. force. With a primary focus on Russia, the NPR calls for the development of low-yield weapons within treaty limits. This policy is a departure from the previous four administrations. Unlike George W. Bush, who cut the U.S. nuclear stockpile down to 5,000 weapons, and Barack Obama, who expressed hope for a world without nuclear weapons, President Trump has vowed to modernize the U.S.’ arsenal.

This is alarming for three specific reasons. First, the NPR does not refer to the U.S.’ commitment to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI of the NPT articulates that each of the Parties to the Treaty are to pursue and complete nuclear disarmament under “strict and effective international control,” however, the U.S. commitment to disarmament is unclear, especially due to the proposed increase in the number of low-yield nuclear weapons, when the U.S. already has over 1,000 such weapons in its possession.

Second, while some experts say the new low-yield weapons would deter Russia and make nuclear war less likely, others believe the development of low-yield weapons has the potential to increase the risk of their use. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) President Joan Rohlfing stated, “[The NPR] increases our reliance on nuclear weapons, expands their role in our security, and makes nuclear weapons use more likely.” The reliance on low-yield nuclear weapons has the potential to create an unstable international security environment.

Third, an adversary will not know the difference between a low-yield or high-yield nuclear weapon. Low-yield weapons are not all that low—they include 20-kiloton nuclear weapons,  the same as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the NPR does not state the exact kilotons of the proposed new weapons, it is critical to note that low-yield weapons under 20-kilotons still have the capability to destroy cities and cause devastating destruction.

2.      Cyber Attacks and Nuclear Response

The NPR also indicated a shift in U.S. policy, justifying the countering of cyber attacks with a nuclear response. This is the first time that a U.S. administration has articulated this strategy, which is alarming because there is a lack of international norms surrounding cyber attacks and it is unclear what an appropriate nuclear response would look like. Since it is often unknown who conducted a cyber attack, there is the issue of attribution. Typically, cyber attacks do not occur in one geographic area that could be targeted by a low-yield nuclear weapon. Not only does the NPR not define what constitutes a cyber attack, it is also fails to detail how the U.S. could attribute an attack and respond with an accurate nuclear response.

3.      Nuclear Terrorism

The NPR also describes how under “extreme circumstances” the U.S. may attack a terrorist organization using nuclear weapons. Mentioning “extreme circumstances” adds to the ambiguity of the U.S. nuclear strategy. With the erosion of the ISIS caliphate and the increase in lone wolf attacks, it is unclear how the U.S. would conduct nuclear targeting of global terrorist organizations. Unlike previous reviews, there is also no discussion of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative or language supporting the efforts to reduce vulnerable fissile material that terrorist organizations could potentially acquire.

4.      China’s Nuclear Modernization

Lastly, one of the concerns detailed in the NPR is China’s expanding nuclear modernization program. Not only does the Pentagon mistakenly label Taiwan as part of China, the new nuclear policy overstates China’s modernization plans. The U.S. nuclear arsenal of 4,480 active and reserve warheads is 10 times the size of the Chinese arsenal. In addition, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons are assuming a more prominent role in China’s military strategy or that China has changed its long-standing no-first use doctrine.

Ways Forward

While the criticisms stated above are far from the only criticisms of the NPR, there are three critical ways forward for the Trump administration.

Negotiate Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty: If the Trump administration is committed to limiting the size and capability of Chinese and Russian nuclear forces, then the U.S. should increase its efforts to negotiate a fissile material control treaty, which both Russia and China support. This would prohibit the production of the two main components of nuclear weapons—plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Prioritize Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: The Trump administration must prioritize nuclear terrorism. Specifically, the U.S. cannot ignore the vulnerability of loose fissile material and the current administration should focus on international efforts like the International Nuclear Material Protection Program or the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

Strengthen U.S. Cyber Capabilities and Efforts to Prevent a Cyber-Infiltrated Attack on Nuclear Facilities: Instead of vertically escalating to a nuclear attack, the U.S. should respond to cyber attacks proportionally and within cyber space or with conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons and any response with them, even if limited, would be detrimental. Therefore, the U.S. should continue to strengthen its cyber capabilities through U.S. Cyber Command.  The U.S. should also prioritize the security of nuclear facilities by institutionalizing and implementing robust processes and procedures that protect nuclear facilities.

Image "Bomb" Courtesy _Gaspard_/CC BY 2.0

About the Author


Paige Gasser is a second-year MALD candidate concentrating in international security studies and international negotiation and conflict resolution. Prior to The Fletcher School, she created and managed a legal clinic for survivors of intimate partner violence. Paige was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bulgaria, and holds a B.S. in Social Sciences and Global Politics from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.


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