Since the 1990s, each president has established an overarching vision for the role nuclear weapons should play in U.S. national security. Known as the Nuclear Posture Review (or NPR), this public document answers the following key questions: How many and what kinds of nuclear weapons should the United States have in its arsenal? What is their purpose and under what conditions would they be used?
The NPR will be a test of whether Biden can turn statements and pledges into official U.S. policy.
President Joe Biden is expected to release his new NPR in late January or early February 2022. FCNL has been working with the nuclear disarmament and arms control community to try to influence the document. We urge the administration to include three key commitments:
- Declare that the United States will never again use nuclear weapons first.
- Cancel dangerous and unnecessary new weapons, such as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), low-yield nuclear warheads, and sea-launched cruise missiles.
- Reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by at least one-third, as almost 700 scientists and engineers—including 21 Nobel laureates—have recently recommended.
Here are five more things you should know about the NPR:
1. It’s an Opportunity for Biden to Fulfill His Nuclear Reform Promises
Unlike his predecessors, President Biden has a decades-long history of advocating for nuclear reform. As vice president, he said it would be “hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden stated, “The United States does not need new nuclear weapons. Our current arsenal of weapons…is sufficient to meet our deterrence and alliance requirements.” And he reiterated his belief that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring – and if necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack.” The NPR will be a test of whether Biden can turn any of these statements and pledges into official U.S. policy.
2. It Will Set the Tone for the Next Several Pentagon Budgets
The Pentagon policy bill for FY2022 included almost $28 billion for modernizing and upgrading nuclear weapons systems. Once a new nuclear program is started, it can be very difficult to stop—and will require more spending for decades. Thus the NPR can either rubberstamp an expensive and dangerous arms race, or it can lay the groundwork for sensible reductions.
3. It Can Help or Hinder Congressional Efforts to Rein in Nuclear Weapons
If the NPR calls for the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons programs, it will provide a strong boost to those in Congress who are seeking to cut these systems—though not a guarantee that Congress will go along.
However, if the NPR endorses continued modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, it will be exceptionally difficult for our allies in Congress to make the case for halting it.
4. The War Hawks Are Gearing Up to Oppose Change
War hawks and the nuclear weapons lobby have sounded the alarms and are doing everything they can to ensure the NPR continues to promote their interests. Early in the NPR process, the Biden-appointed official leading the review at the Pentagon was abruptly relieved of her position after pro-nuclear elements charged that she was soft on defense.
The Pentagon, which leads the NPR meetings, has reportedly adopted the underhanded strategy of simply not presenting the president with options that do not match its agenda.
5. The Administration Must Match Rhetoric with Action
Disarmament allies expect that the coming NPR will be an improvement from Trump’s version, though not a wholesale repudiation of it. It is rumored that President Biden will re-affirm President Obama’s statement that U.S. nuclear weapons are fundamentally intended to deal with nuclear, not conventional threats—but this would fall far short of Biden’s campaign rhetoric.
The NPR must not only bring U.S. nuclear policy in line with Biden’s admission that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, but also be paired with a budget that reduces funds for nuclear weapons and concrete actions that reduce the chances nuclear weapons will ever be used.