U.S. Department of Defense photo by Cherie Cullen

The Obama Nuclear Posture Review — and that’s what it is — is a major accomplishment. (I’ve written about it in a column to appear soon at the Bulletin. Stay tuned. Here it is.) Compared to previous efforts, it takes on more issues and makes more positive changes. It also bears the imprimatur* of an array of senior officials, starting with the President.

(*That’s Latin for “buy-in.”)

The Obama NPR also contains some grounds for dissatisfaction. From any point of view. Before you start grumbling too much about what it doesn’t achieve, though, I’d recommend comparing it to the last one.

The report works to reconcile certain tensions, and manages reasonably well. It reads like a tunnel dug from both ends: from this end, the nonproliferation agenda that stole the show last year in Prague, now picking up steam for the May 2010 NPT RevCon — and from that end, the traditional set of nuclear posture issues: force types, numbers, and alert status. The latter side of the tunnel emerges into a territory within the status quo comfort zone of past years.

Where these issue sets meet in the middle, the nonproliferation agenda largely, but not exclusively, prevails. There will be no “new” warheads or nuclear military capabilities. And there is a significantly clarified negative security assurance that breaks explicitly with the doctrine of calculated ambiguity, i.e., hinting that a chemical or biological attack might get a nuclear reply, or at least refusing to say one way or the other. That’s gone now.

What we don’t see is a blanket statement of the sort discussed at some length at this blog, either “no first use” or “sole purpose.” Instead, we are told that

The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.

Which is not bad, especially in combination with the new NSA statement that

the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Why Not Go All The Way?

The report gives us a reason:

In the case of countries not covered by this assurance – states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations – there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.

American conventional might, combined with the threat to hold leaders personally accountable for their actions, is deemed sufficient to deter non-nuclear weapon states in good standing within the NPT from using conventional, chemical, biological weapons, so why not also Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea? There may be logical reasons, but they aren’t spelled out.

There may also be another reason, one not raised directly, but hinted at elsewhere. This admirably frank discussion explains what will determine the size of the U.S. strategic arsenal for the foreseeable future:

Russia’s nuclear force will remain a significant factor in determining how much and how fast we are prepared to reduce U.S. forces. Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War. But large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced. Therefore, we will place importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels.

In other words, the U.S. arsenal is scaled to the Russian arsenal. This is a tradition going back to the end of massive U.S. numerical superiority, and many people set great store by it. Not maintaining parity would “raise concerns,” although the exact nature of the concerns is left unexplained.

For the moment, it matters not. The point is this: if we pledge never to go first against the Russians, it gets difficult to explain why our deployed strategic arsenal is the size that it is. (There’s not much satisfaction in retaliating against empty Russian launchers, is there?) So until it’s decided that numerical parity is no longer so important, we probably won’t see a “sole purpose” or “no first use” declaration, regardless of what might be said about chemical or biological weapons.