The Trump Administration has commenced a top-to-bottom review of American nuclear policy, a process that will include reexamining President Obama’s commitment to pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. This undertaking, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), will be the bureaucratic means by which Trump’s nuclear tweets — such as the declaration that the United States must “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” — are turned into official policy (or not).
This review comes at a critical time in America’s history as an atomic power. The United States retains about 4,000 nuclear warheads in service, with another 2,800 awaiting dismantlement. Decades of deferred modernization have allowed the nuclear enterprise to age: some long-range bombers are more than 60 years old, certain command-and-control systems still run on floppy disks, and some intercontinental ballistic missile silos have fallen into disrepair. While upgrades are clearly necessary, experts debate the proper scope of modernization, especially given estimates that it could cost a trillion dollars, crowding out other budgetary priorities. These tough strategic and financial decisions come as the United States and its allies also face growing nuclear threats, with China and Russia modernizing their own nuclear forces, and North Korea racing toward the capability to launch a nuclear strike against the American homeland.
The American people thus deserve a comprehensive review of nuclear weapons policy because, when it comes to national security decision-making, process determines substance. Unfortunately, the process emerging from the Trump Administration — which is still working to establish a regular order for national-security decision-making — appears to be restricted to a small group within the Defense Department, potentially diminishing critical voices from other government agencies. Given the magnitude of the decisions that hinge on the integrity of the NPR and the need for a truly strategic nuclear weapons vision, the administration must reach beyond the Pentagon’s walls, particularly to the State and Energy Departments.
Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton all conducted NPRs to establish their administration’s approach to the world’s most deadly weapons. Such reviews cover a wide range of issues, from the risks of nuclear proliferation and the security of nuclear materials from theft by non-state actors, to the size of the American arsenal and the deterrence umbrella it extends over allies. Past reviews have produced major policy changes, such as Obama’s mandate for a diminution of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, Bush’s selective repudiation of arms control agreements, and Clinton’s endorsement of dramatic post-Cold War nuclear reductions. These reviews are closely watched overseas, as American allies and adversaries seek to understand how they will be affected by a new administration’s plans.
Given the far-reaching implications of nuclear policy changes for U.S. grand strategy, especially the credibility of alliance commitments, the State Department has a vital role to play in any NPR. It is U.S. diplomats who will bear responsibility for explaining the Trump Administration’s view of extended deterrence to allies overseas — like Japan, South Korea, and the member-states of NATO — whose national security is backstopped by American nuclear security guarantees. The State Department also plays a leading role in nonproliferation policy, including by representing American interests at the United Nations Security Council, and oversees arms control negotiations as well as the verification and compliance of existing agreements. The primary organ of U.S. foreign policy certainly merits a significant voice in the NPR.
The Department of Energy also has a vital role in the U.S. nuclear enterprise, and participates alongside the Defense Department in the Nuclear Weapons Council. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency within the Department, is charged with ensuring the health of nuclear warheads, supporting nonproliferation efforts overseas, and countering nuclear terrorism. In service of that mission, NNSA manages the United States’ eight nuclear labs and sites, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex. When an administration certifies to Congress that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and effective, both the Defense and Energy secretaries must sign off.
Pentagon leaders may argue that the lack of sub-Cabinet political appointees at the Departments of State and Energy prevent those agencies from meaningfully participating in the NPR. This contention does not stand up to scrutiny. Both agencies have secretaries in place and highly experienced career officials capable of supporting their principals’ contributions to the process. In the case of the Energy Department, Obama appointee Frank Klotz retains his job as Undersecretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator. While Defense is historically charged with leading the review, it does not have a monopoly on nuclear expertise.
With the range of strategic and budgetary challenges affecting American nuclear policy, President Trump was correct to prioritize an NPR in one of his early executive orders. But especially since this administration’s review represents one of the last opportunities to shape the coming multi-decade nuclear modernization program, the American people deserve an inclusive and exhaustive process that reaches beyond the Pentagon. The Congressional armed services committees should press Secretary Mattis on the details of the emerging process and demand a thorough and inclusive review. Moreover, members should insist that they, as well as the relevant appropriators, are consulted as the NPR proceeds. Congress must act quickly, while the process is still in its early stages, as the Pentagon intends to sprint through the review in the next six months.
When the Obama administration debuted its review in 2010, Secretary of State Clinton, Energy Secretary Chu, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mullen all joined Defense Secretary Gates on the podium. Even if the Trump Administration’s review reaches different conclusions, it would do well to broadly emulate the collaborative standard set by its predecessor.