The Role of Nuclear Weapons in National Security: The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review


The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—mandated by Section 1070 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (Public Law 110–181)—was a comprehensive review of the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy, deterrence strategy, and force structure out to 2015–2020, completed between 2009 and 2010 under the direction of the Obama administration.[1] The NPR was designed as a whole–of–government effort to set policy, strategy, force structure for five to ten years and set conditions for follow–on negotiations to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and align policies, strategies, and programmatics with current nuclear policy goals.[2] The Obama administration’s April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report is not a strategy—it made specific posture recommendations and one of its purposes was to guide nuclear weapons policy—it is a review of nuclear posture, but it may be seen as the closest thing to a national nuclear strategy.[3] How did the 2010 NPR inform U.S. nuclear strategy? As declaratory policy, the 2010 Obama administration NPR was significant in shaping nuclear weapons strategy, plans, and programs, but its successes should be understood against a backdrop of significant continuity in policy and posture since the last NPR.[4] This analysis will assess the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review key decisions and the primary public debates related to the role of nuclear weapons in national security.

Key Decisions—Role of Nuclear Weapons—Purpose

U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking at Prague Castle

The new Obama administration and the president’s April 2009 Prague speech reignited interest and refocused attention on nuclear strategic issues, according to Jeffery Larsen and Polly Holdorf of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, but the administration’s approach quickly revealed itself as “cautious.”[5] Called for by Congress, the NPR was executed by the Department of Defense with Department of State and Department of Energy over approximately a year. Public law directed a comprehensive review of the role of nuclear forces in U.S. military strategy, planning, and programming, and the relationship among U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, targeting strategy, and arms control objectives, focusing on key objectives of nuclear weapons polices and posture, and policy guidance “for implementing President Obama’s agenda for reducing nuclear dangers, while simultaneously advancing broader U.S. security interests.”[6] At a background briefing announcing the start of the NPR, a senior defense official described the broad framework of the NPR. The NPR would link the president’s Prague speech with specific policy steps to advance nonproliferation goals, seriously consider unilateral arms reductions, while maintaining a safe, secure, and effective strategic deterrent with respect to forces and infrastructure.[7] In his forward to the final NPR report, Secretary of Defense Gates suggested that counterterrorism and counterproliferation would be overriding goals, while the report also intended to describe how the United States would reduce force levels and the role of nuclear weapons.[8] Among the key decisions of the 2010 NPR, the report called for a major adjustment to the prioritization of ends (elevating terrorism above other more traditional deterrence goals), and a strong re–affirmation of the goals to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and pursue arms reductions. These two last goals were not essentially new, but the level of presidential emphasis was unusual. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report will be analyzed for its key decisions relating to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and strengthening Negative Security Assurances (NSAs). This is an analysis of the NPR report and the public debates it sparked—the emphasis here is on declaratory policy—what posture changes were actually made are a secondary focus.

Key Decisions—Role of Nuclear Weapons—Purpose

In a sweeping April 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, President Obama called for steps leading to a nuclear–weapons–free world, a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and Senate Approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Not unlike other presidents before him, Obama also called for vigorous efforts by the United States and other countries to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons–related materials. Obama remarked on release of the NPR report: “We are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people.”[9] Obama specified five objectives of the NPR, which were outlined in the NPR report: prevent nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation; reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security; maintain strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels; strengthen regional deterrence and reassure U.S. allies; and sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal.[10] In tandem with the NPR, the Obama administration redoubled its commitment to working with Russia to preserve strategic stability and dedication to reducing nuclear force levels through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). More than a year after release, the underlying goals of the NPR were reconfirmed in congressional testimony, including maintaining strategic stability, strengthening regional deterrence, and assuring allies, by James Miller, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. Department of Defense.[11] Although the issue of deterrence credibility may have receded somewhat in importance since the Bush administration’s 2001 NPR, the basic goals outlined by Miller were not revolutionary—they were longstanding policy. It is still early to say whether the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review fundamentally changed the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security, but subsequent official policy statements indicated that some changes did stick—the Senate ratified New START, for example. Also, President Obama’s new nuclear weapons employment guidance, issued in mid–2013, directed the Department of Defense to take “concrete steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”[12] The 2010 NPR report repeatedly used language indicating a reduced “role” for nuclear weapons in national security policy and strategy, but it is difficult to understand what role is supposed to mean beyond the level of declaratory policy if there were no corresponding changes in employment or force development policy.

A new administration in 2009 was seen by policy advocates as an opportunity to reassess the purpose of nuclear weapons in national security given what many commentators saw as the urgency of unfulfilled counterpoliferation goals and threats of nuclear terrorism. President Obama’s public remarks signaled that preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism had been moved to “the top” of America’s nuclear agenda: “We have aligned our policies and proposed major funding increases for programs to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.”[13]The NPR report specifically claimed that threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation were “pressing” and demanded immediate action.[14] Threat circumstances had changed since the monolithic threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. According to the NPR report, “The threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.”[15] The NPR focused on the increased risk of nuclear attack but in the context of terrorism. The threat of nuclear attack in the traditional inter–state context did not figure prominently in the 2010 NPR. By 2009, many policy observers had reached a general consensus that the possibility of nuclear war had dropped significantly since the end of the Cold War, but that the threat of nuclear attack (possibly from a terrorist group) was still present if not rising.

Nuclear weapons had been seen as critical to achieving strategic deterrence against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which tended to highlight their sole–purpose role: to deter nuclear attack from another nuclear–armed state. The NPR report accepted a continuing fundamental deterrence role against potential adversaries and in assuring allies and partners, but also recognized that current Cold War force structure was outdated and “poorly suited” for countering current threats like terrorism and “unfriendly regimes” pursuing nuclear weapons.[16] The NPR report pointed to a reduced—or “more circumscribed”—role, as evidenced by the 75 percent drop in the number of deployed strategic weapons since the end of the Cold War, and the substantial reduction in the number of stockpiled weapons.[17] The 2010 NPR report was analyzed by policy advocates for its position (or any indication of the Obama administration thinking) in the ongoing sole–use debate. A sole–use declaratory policy—that nuclear weapons would only be contemplated in response to nuclear use by an adversary—has been favored by many arms control and disarmament advocates, especially as an interim step toward complete disarmament. The NPR addressed the “sole purpose” issue but characterized it as an aspiration to be achieved once circumstances justify a sole–use policy, but specifically, the United States would continue to take steps in reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons to counter nonnuclear attacks.[18] The 2010 NPR did not conclude that circumstances warranted adoption of a sole–use policy. Indeed, the NPR report restated U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, deployed and stockpiled, as “essential” to deterrence and assurance.[19] The 2010 NPR did not recommend a sole–purpose policy for nuclear weapons but reaffirmed a fundamental role for nuclear weapons in national security.

U.S. declaratory policy statements on the overall purpose of nuclear weapons were received and assessed by policy advocates for their impact on other policies and strategies, such as deterrence credibility and nonproliferation. The primary rationale for nuclear weapons was explained in the Secretary of Defense’s 2012 Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense as the ability to inflict “unacceptable damage” against an adversary, but to the extent that deterrence objectives could be met with smaller forces, the United States would consider reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons in national security.[20] According to the 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report, which was made part of House Committee on the Armed Services testimony, obsolete Cold War conceptions of threats sustained unnecessarily high force levels.[21] To pursue President Obama’s goal of reduced force levels, the Department of Defense would probably have to reassess the nature of national security threats. The 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report concluded that a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia had become nearly inconceivable.[22] By 2012, it seemed policy makers were generally agreed that nuclear force policies and nuclear force structure needed to change to address the real threats of the twenty–first century, but there also did not seem to be consensus about what threats demanded attention (especially with regard to the use of nuclear weapons). The United States did not accept a “sole–use” policy with the 2010 NPR, but according to administration officials the report did substantially reformulate U.S. NSA policy.

Key Decisions—Role of Nuclear Weapons—NSA

On numerous occasions, Obama administration officials have highlighted the NPR’s reformulated NSA. An NSA—or negative security assurance—refers to official statements made by a nuclear–weapon state that it will not use nuclear weapons against a non–nuclear–weapon state that is also a Non–Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory. NSAs have been a feature of international nuclear policy since 1978 and, before the 2010 NPR, the United States reaffirmed adherence to the policy as recently as 1995.[23] It is important to note that the 1995 formulation of U.S. NSA included the exception of “an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non–nuclear–weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear–weapon State.”[24] This 1995 exception was not highlighted in the 2010 NPR report (though it may be implied). In public statements, President Obama clarified that the U.S. government declaration of an NSA included the important qualification about a potential target state being in compliance with nuclear nonproliferation “obligations.”[25] Although the Obama administration was committed to nonproliferation goals and to strengthening the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the NSA specifically did not apply to states not in compliance with nonproliferation norms. Secretary Clinton publically linked the NSA in the NPR to NPT nonproliferation obligations and the health of the international nuclear nonproliferation system.[26] In public statements, key Obama administration officials emphasized that the NSA included in the NPR report reinforced U.S. commitment to nonproliferation. At the same time, that the NSA excepted states not in compliance with nonproliferation obligations demonstrated that Obama administration policy was not a substantial break with earlier policy (it was not a complete NSA without any exceptions). The 2010 NSA was considered by officials and many observers as a stronger NSA than in the past.

As described in the 2010 NPR report, the role of nuclear weapons would be clearer (less ambiguous) if NSAs were strengthened in U.S. declaratory policy. The 2010 NPR made several, unambiguous references to a strengthened NSA. The use or purpose of issuing NSAs was explicitly connected to threats against vital interests, and the report made clear that the U.S. government’s readiness to accept the revised NSA policy was tied to increased conventional weapons capabilities, improved defenses (including missile defenses), and a corresponding reduction in the counter–WMD role for nuclear weapons.[27] Importantly, the NSA included a qualification relating to special cases of potential destructiveness, clarifying that the U.S. government reserved the right to adjust policy on assurances.[28] The testimony of William Perry, included in the congressional hearing on the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture, in 2009, recommended keeping past NSAs (i.e., stronger than what was finally accepted in the 2010 NPR).[29] Perry recommended reaffirming past NSAs but argued that declaratory policy should include use of nuclear weapons to deter attacks against U.S. interests—not just nuclear attacks. But, in reviewing NPR statements on the NSA, it is not clear the administration’s self–congratulatory fanfare is warranted. Despite obvious efforts to shape declaratory policy, it is not clear what has changed with respect to action policy (employment policy, in this case) since the United States reserved the right to adjust NSAs under certain circumstances. The strengthened NSA seemed to be well–received by some observers who saw it as strengthening U.S. nonproliferation commitments. Tension persists between strengthening NSAs for nonproliferation goals and softening NSAs to bolster deterrence credibility and extended deterrence guarantees.

The 2010 NSA has been interpreted by policy makers and commentators in the years since the NPR. The nuclear policy expert and lead author of the 2001 NPR, Keith Payne considered the Secretary Clinton biological weapons exception—that all response options would be considered in response to a biological weapon (BW) attack—a “useful elaboration,” in congressional testimony before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on Armed Services.[30] NPR policy direction was clarified in congressional testimony by Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, who stated that the NPR report strengthened “longstanding” policy.[31] In particular, the United States makes its own judgments for exercising and complying with its own NSA.[32] The revised NSA, as clarified in Tauscher’s testimony, applied to NPT member states that are in compliance with nonproliferation obligations, so would not have, for example, applied to states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the eve of the Persian Gulf War.[33] Importantly, the 2010 NPR’s NSA and subsequent official clarifications with respect to states deemed to be demonstrably outside NPT compliance were meant to make it clear that states like Iran and North Korea did not fall under the revised NSA.[34] The Obama administration claimed a new NSA policy formulation. But clear exceptions and qualifications to the NSA policy were established following the release of the NPR report. The administration at times suggested NSA policy was new but it was really a reaffirmation and clarification—an important clarification—of earlier policy.

Submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The 2010 NPR was an opportunity for Obama administration to permanently alter the course of nuclear policy and strategy. The 2010 NPR did not recommend a sole–purpose policy for nuclear weapons, but actually (and perhaps not surprisingly) reaffirmed a fundamental role for nuclear weapons in national security. Beginning with the 2009 Prague speech, President Obama set a general policy course for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, within the larger goal of moving toward complete elimination of nuclear weapons (at some indeterminate point in the future). The five overall objectives of the NPR were in line with presidential statements made about the role of nuclear weapons. Statements about the role of nuclear weapons in the NPR were essentially declaratory policy, but not unusual or unexpected. President Obama generally succeeded in steering the NPR in line with his earlier policy vision and direction, but actual statements on the purpose of nuclear weapons and NSAs were not revolutionary—they were evolutionary—they reaffirmed earlier policy formulations.

Public Debates—Role of Nuclear Weapons—NSA

During the NPR, according to Christopher Chyba and J.D. Crouch, the Obama administration faced challenges of “navigating and choosing among sharp disagreements” in nuclear weapons, doctrine, and infrastructure policy.[35] Writing in 2008, Janne Nolan and James Holmes observed that the future nuclear strategic landscape was more uncertain than it was in 1993 and 1994, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, when it proved very difficult for policy makers to actually change aspects of the nuclear posture.[36] Andrew Grotto and Joseph Cirincione assessed that the 2010 NPR faced a “vastly more complex policy environment” than the ones faced by the Clinton and Bush administrations before in 1994 and 2001 respectively.[37] The Obama administration entered the review with the aim of balancing the call for a reduced role for nuclear weapons and the need to assure allies and partners of the effectiveness of U.S. extended deterrence, but the NPR’s results disappointed some who believed it did not go far enough to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and alarmed others who believed it “undercut” U.S. deterrence credibility.[38] The aim of Obama nuclear policy changes was to update nuclear posture for post–Cold War, twenty–first century threats. Though challenged, the administration has labored successfully, according to Cirincione, to keep policy attention on aligning posture to current perceived threats.[39] The 2010 NPR emboldened policy advocates from all of the policy camps that were involved in the earlier NPRs, including abolitionists and traditionalists. This analysis will review the primary public debates concerning the NPR’s conception of the role of nuclear weapons in national security.

Aderito Vicente concluded that the Obama administration faced an intensely adversarial international environment, a vestige of the Bush foreign and nuclear policies which were seen by some foreign observers as overly unilateral and dismissive of the Non–Proliferation Treaty.[40] As it was, the Obama administration pushed for a more restrictive declaratory policy—closer to no–first–use than some policy observers considered prudent—against some intense internal government policy opposition.[41] The issues of if and how the role of nuclear weapons should be changed, especially given different kinds of threats identified since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, have been debated since the end of the Cold War, carried forward with renewed vigor by policy commentators and advocates following release of the 2010 NPR report. This analysis will consider the role of nuclear weapons in public writings about the NPR, including academic, policy advocacy, and institutional publications, focusing on the NSA because of the administration’s claims about major changes in this area, and the overall purpose of nuclear weapons in national security.

Some policy experts focused on the reformulated NSA as representing a significant change in U.S. policy. But ambiguity has been an enduring characteristic of nuclear deterrent policy (and posture) since the Cold War. The Clinton and Bush administrations issued counter–WMD threats without specifying that nuclear weapons would not be used.[42] The security interests in maintaining ambiguity has conflicted with the advantages of maintaining an unambiguous NSA policy. When aspects of the Bush administration’s NPR became public in January 2002, some commentators criticized the impact of the NPR on NSAs because of the states named as potential targets of U.S. nuclear war planning. For some critics of Bush foreign policy, the 2001 NPR represented a violation of U.S. NSAs, even though the Bush administration publically adhered to established NSA policy with its ambiguity regarding massive attacks against the United States or armed forces.[43] The setting for the NSA issue before the Obama NPR included claims by some commentators that the United States had turned its back on longstanding NPT agreements with the 2001 NPR.[44] The Obama administration was considering changes to the NSA against the backdrop of an acrimonious Bush NPR, leaked portions which indicated planning for nuclear use against NPT member states. The attention the Obama administration gave to the 2010 NSA policy can be seen as an attempt to counter some lingering, unfavorable perceptions regarding the 2001 NPR. It is less clear that the changed NSA has affected employment policy at all.

The inconsistency between the U.S. NSA and calculated ambiguity with respect to U.S. nuclear forces and posture, recognized by commentators well before the 2010 NPR, also touched on the older debate over a no–first–use (NFU) policy. Positive security assurances date to 1968 and UN Security Council Resolution 255, but nonnuclear weapon states continued to express a need for negative security assurances.[45] Scott Sagan renewed the call for the United States to adopt a NFU policy ahead of the 2010 NPT Review Conference to satisfy nonnuclear weapon states’ desire to see the nuclear weapons states honor the NPT Article VI obligation, and he recommended the 2010 NPR assess the feasibility of a NFU policy.[46] Michael Gerson argued that the United States should adopt a NFU policy to enhance crisis stability, another explicit goal of the NPR report.[47] The NPR apparently pursued the contradictory aims of strengthening NSAs, and so U.S. nonproliferation commitments, but maintaining the central role of extended deterrence. Advocates of NSAs were mostly heartened by what they saw as the Obama administration’s unambiguous statements supporting negative security assurances—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 nuclear non–proliferation obligations. The questions remain whether this represents significant change in policy and whether it effectively matters in how the United States behaves and prepares for military action against certain potential adversary states such as Iran and North Korea.

Some policy commentators have argued that a strong and unequivocal NSA issued by the United States would tamp down incentives for nuclear proliferation. To the extent that the Bush NPR was seen as pursuing active nuclear use plans against nonnuclear states (Syria and Libya, for example), critics claimed U.S. nuclear policy was eroding the effectiveness of NSAs by undermining the disincentive for such states to pursue nuclear capabilities.[48] U.S. declaratory policy has evolved during the post–Cold War period to reflect a diminishing risk of major nuclear war, but at the same time the United States continues to face challengers who possess nuclear and other WMD which pushes continuing needs for extended deterrence.[49] According to Charles Moxley, a critic of U.S. nuclear policy, there is no evidence that other nuclear policies and war plans have been correlated to the NSA stated in the NPR, and the NSA has questionable legal standing.[50] There is still tension between NSA advocates who would like to see the NSA strengthened more (possibly with legal formalization) and the NSA as declaratory policy only (with no direct connection to employment policy).

Public debates over the purpose of nuclear weapons in the 2010 NPR involved ideas about the enduring and changing roles of nuclear weapons. Leaked portions of the 2001 NPR prompted especially fierce debates over the purpose of nuclear weapons. The Obama NPR report was made public and was closely reviewed by nuclear policy commentators for statements about official thinking on the role and purpose of nuclear weapons. Hew Strachan observed that states still pursue interests with resort to war.[51] For some commentators, despite the sometimes laudable desires of some policy advocates to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, the political–force rationale for possessing nuclear weapons has not disappeared, just as the role of force in international politics and nuclear weapons as the ultimate symbol of potential force (force capability) persists.[52] The Obama administration’s conceptualizations of nuclear weapons appear contradictory. Seyom Brown wrote in 2013 that Obama’s efforts to transfer strategic counterforce missions to nonnuclear weapon systems is to be commended, but no serious work has been done to construct a “more rational peace–and–security system,” and other states that possess WMD or which desire them are not likely to change without U.S. leadership.[53] Simon Lunn observed that the NPR recommended increasing reliance on nonnuclear defense means, including missile defenses as parts of regional security agreements, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.[54] Despite the continuing need for a credible and effective nuclear deterrent, advocated by various defense policy makers and analysts including Michele Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, the Obama administration and the 2010 NPR have raised the profile of what steps may be taken to reduce reliance on nuclear deterrence and reduce nuclear force levels.[55] There have been numerous continuities in nuclear weapons policy since end of Cold War, described very well by Kurt Guthe, including the United States should limit its reliance on nuclear weapons to the greatest extent possible without undervaluing deterrence, U.S. nuclear weapons protect allies as well, and nuclear weapons deter all kinds of large–scale attacks.[56] These continuities in nuclear weapons policy have been largely accepted by administrations over time with very little (primarily rhetorical) adjustment.

Through public statements and congressional testimony, the Obama administration overtly aimed to reassess the fundamental role and purpose of nuclear weapons in national security. In the view of Stefanie Hlatky and Michel Fortmann, Obama called for a full “normative shift” and a full break with Cold War nuclear planning assumptions and posture.[57] It is important to note that the Bush administration also called for discarding Cold War postures in its 2001 NPR. Therese Delpech observed that putting countering nuclear terrorism and proliferation on the top of priorities and putting maintaining strategic deterrence third was “weird.”[58] Joseph Pilat wrote in 2009 that the political rationales for nuclear weapons, including the traditional roles of deterrence, assurance, and alliance management, were already transforming; he made the argument that some made before that nuclear weapons are fitting a more and more narrow range of missions.[59] Graham Allison wrote that the nuclear order was in disarray.[60] For observers like Baker Spring, the 2010 NPR prudently avoided rendering the U.S. strategic deterrent an empty threat by adopting a sole–use policy.[61] There appears to be no general agreement among policy experts and commentators about there being a nuclear order that justifies a substantially changed role for nuclear weapons. Still, adjusting the role of nuclear weapons in national security has been a goal pursued by each administration since the end of the Cold War.

The 2010 NPR revived competing conceptions about the long–term risks of changing the role of nuclear weapons, and about whether the change that was outlined in the NPR report had been correctly formulated. Looking at U.S. nuclear force posture since the end of the Cold War, and the force reductions that have already been made, it seems apparent that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking in significance. But Paul Schulte observed that there has not necessarily been a significant devaluation of nuclear weapons in the United States, though Russia has reasserted a commitment to nuclear deterrence, reinstated nuclear doctrine, and reemphasized the role of theater weapons in balancing conventional weaknesses.[62] It was predicted that the 2010 NPR would be very closely reviewed and scrutinized by allies and partners in East Asia for what the future of U.S. extended deterrence might be.[63] Paul Meyer argued that the 2010 NPR, conducted in a transparent manner and resulting in a public final report, was meant to signal to allies and partners that U.S. extended deterrence is robust, and it was meant to complement the administration’s progressive take on foreign policy.[64] Aiden Warren concluded that, despite the rhetoric that the 2010 NPR had moved U.S. nuclear posture away from Cold War thinking, the Obama administration actually found it very difficult to advance policies in line with nonproliferation and disarmament goals, and that the role of nuclear weapons has been reduced very little.[65] David Lonsdale criticized the Obama administration for shirking the responsibility to prepare for nuclear weapons use, noted that an apparent unwillingness to use nuclear weapons had deflated U.S. nuclear threats, and charged that the 2010 NPR portrayed the United States as a “reluctant nuclear power.”[66] Public debates over the purpose of nuclear weapons in the 2010 NPR have questioned U.S. willingness to use nuclear weapons and doubted that serious changes in the rationale for nuclear weapons have even taken place. Rhetorical advancements by Obama administration seem more real than real policy changes.

In light of President Obama’s historic April 2009 Prague speech, it was perhaps reasonable that many policy advocates and observers were looking for a reduced role for nuclear weapons to be translated into a smaller number of actual warheads. Reacting in part to the Bush administration’s 2001 NPR, which was unpopular with nuclear disarmament advocates and some arms control observers, the Obama administration’s strengthened NSA was generally well–received by policy commentators. But how significant a stronger NSA is must be viewed against the broader continuity in nuclear weapons policy and the tendency of administrations to claim policy changes through primarily rhetoric and not substantial material changes. Public debates since the NPR have highlighted that there are still important disagreements over whether the role of nuclear weapons should change and if so, in what ways. While the Obama administration has been committed to reducing U.S. force levels ahead of the 2002 Moscow Treaty deadlines, some observers have noted that the administration has been especially long on rhetoric, short on action.


Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the contentious 2001 NPR which disappointed nuclear arms control and disarmament advocates, and created some international friction over the NPT regime, policy analysts and commentators turned more attention to how nuclear weapons may be employed effectively given the threats of the twenty–first century. Public attention to nuclear posture issues more generally has fallen far short of the levels seen during the 1980s Cold War period. But starting in 2009, with the start of the Obama administration NPR, given policy statements that seemed to echo the global zero movement, it was inevitable that old nuclear weapons policy and posture issues would resurface. Analysts continued to debate whether rogue states alter deterrence calculations or conflict with concepts of deterrence credibility. Can Cold War concepts relating to holding targets at risk be applied to non–state actors and terrorist groups? Have changes in the post–Cold War security environment made the development of new weapons capabilities necessary?[67] In certain respects, if only in rhetoric (which may in fact impact domestic and foreign audiences in substantial ways), the Obama administration NPR did upset some traditional nuclear weapons thinking, and the final report clearly emphasized the need to reduce force levels. The 2010 NPR report mostly emphasized the need to reassess the role of nuclear weapons in national security. Such emphasis, while in no way novel, served to fuel academic and policy debates, especially over the impact of the changed NSA.

The Obama administration’s 2010 NPR shaped U.S. nuclear strategy by elevating nuclear terrorism and proliferation as threats, emphasizing advancements in conventional weapon capabilities which suggest a shrinking role for nuclear weapons, and by laying out clear, future paths for force reductions. It is also true that the NPR is only a few years old. The NPR report was generally well–received by the media but less well in professional, policy, and academic circles. Obama administration may have pursued a conservative approach to changing nuclear posture, but with time that may prove to have been the most prudent approach. While it may prove to be the most influential and successful of the three post–Cold War NPRs, its policy impact has also highlighted the difficulties in permanently changing nuclear weapons posture.

Marco J. Lyons is an Army strategist. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Release No: 269–09, “DoD Begins QDR, NPR Processes,” April 23, 2009, http[:]//

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, “NPR Terms of Reference Fact Sheet,” June 2, 2009, http[:]//

[3] While not strategy, the NPR is connected to grand strategy—the process helps to clarify policy ends—and to the policies and strategies that govern nuclear weapons development, deployment, and employment including the National Defense Strategy, Quadrennial Defense Review, and relevant Operation Plans (OPLANs).

[4] In a larger context, it can be said that there has been significant continuity in U.S. nuclear policy and strategy since the early 1980s and the height of the Cold War. See Kurt Guthe, Ten Continuities in U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, Strategy, Plans, and Forces (Fairfax, VA: National Institute for Public Policy, 2008).

[5] Jeffery Larsen and Polly Holdorf, Strategic Stability at Low Numbers of Nuclear Weapons, No. ASCO 2010 032 (Colorado Springs, CO: Air Force Academy, 2010), 5.

[6] H.A.S.C. No. 112–12, The Status of United States Strategic Forces, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 112th Cong., 1st Sess., Hearing Held March 2, 2011 (2011), 124.

[7] U.S. Department of Defense, Background Briefing on the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review, April 23, 2009.

[8] U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review Report (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, April 2010), i.

[9] Office of the White House Press Secretary, Statement by President Barack Obama on the Release of Nuclear Posture Review, April 6, 2010, https[:]//

[10] Nuclear Posture Review Report, iii.

[11] H.A.S.C. No. 112–88, The Current Status and Future Direction for U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy and Posture, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 112th Cong., 1st Sess., Hearing Held November 2, 2011 (2012), 161.

[12] Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States Specified in Section 491 of 10 U.S.C., 5.

[13] Statement by President Barack Obama on the Release of Nuclear Posture Review.

[14] Nuclear Posture Review Report, 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., v.

[17] Ibid., 45.

[18] Ibid., 16–17.

[19] Ibid., 6.

[20] U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: Secretary of Defense, 2012), 5.

[21] U.S. Nuclear Deterrent: What Are the Requirements for a Strong Deterrent in an Era of Defense Sequester? Hearing Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Armed Services, 113th Cong., 1st Sess. (2013), 20.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See “Security Assurances,” http[:]//

[24] Ibid.

[25] Barack H. Obama, Statement on the Release of the Nuclear Posture Review, Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents (April 6, 2010): 1–2.

[26] DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates, Navy Adm. Mullen, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Chu from the Pentagon, Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, April 6, 2010.

[27] Nuclear Posture Review Report, 15–16.

[28] Ibid., 16.

[29] S. Hrg. 111–218, The Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Committee on Armed Services, 111th Cong., 1st Sess., Hearing Held May 7, 2009 (2010), 9.

[30] H.A.S.C. 112–12, The Status of the United States Strategic Forces, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 112th Cong., 1st Sess. (2011), 32.

[31] S. Hrg. 111–824, Nuclear Posture Review, Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd Sess., April 22, 2010 (2011), 61.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 58.

[34] Ibid., 37.

[35] Christopher F. Chyba and J.D. Crouch, “Understanding the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy Debate,” Washington Quarterly 32, no. 3 (2009): 21.

[36] Janne E. Nolan and James R. Holmes, “The Bureaucracy of Deterrence,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64, no. 1 (2008): 56.

[37] Andrew Grotto and Joseph Cirincione, Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review: A Roadmap (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2008), 12.

[38] Steven Pifer, Richard C. Bush, Vanda Felbab–Brown, Martin S. Indyk, Michael O’Hanlon, and Kenneth M. Pollack, U.S. Nuclear and Extended Deterrence: Considerations and Challenges, Arms Control Series, no. 3 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2010), 54.

[39] See Joseph Cirincione, “Taking the Field: Obama’s Nuclear Reforms,” Survival 52, no. 2 (2010): 117–128.

[40] Aderito H.R. Vicente, “Rethinking U.S. Nuclear Strategy: Differences between Obama and Bush Policies,” Research Center, University of Murcia, September 8, 2011, 24.

[41] Joanna Spear, “More Business as Usual? The Obama Administration and the Nuclear Posture Review,” Contemporary Security Policy 32, no. 1 (2011): 259.

[42] Linton F. Brooks, “Taking Disarmament Seriously: Prospects for Changing Strategic Doctrines,” in Nuclear Challenges and Policy Options for the Next U.S. Administration, ed. Jean Du Preez, Occasional Paper, no. 14 (Monterey, CA: Monterey Institute of International Studies, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2008), 74.

[43] James A. Russell and James J. Wirtz, “Negative Security Assurances and the Nuclear Posture Review,” Strategic Insights 1, no. 5 (2002): 2.

[44] Charles P. Blair and Jean P. Du Preez, “Visions of Fission: The Demise of Nuclear Negative Security Assurances on the Bush Administration’s Pentomic Battlefield,” Nonproliferation Review 12, no. 1 (2005): 54, 56.

[45] Harold A. Feiveson and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, “No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Review 10, no. 2 (2003): 91.

[46] Scott D. Sagan, “The Case for No First Use,” Survival 51, no. 3 (2009): 173.

[47] Michael S. Gerson, “No First Use: The Next Step for U.S. Nuclear Policy,” International Security 35, no. 2 (2010): 19.

[48] Theo Farrell, “Nuclear Non–Use: Constructing a Cold War History,” Review of International Studies 36, no. 4 (2010): 826–827.

[49] Justin V. Anderson and Jeffrey A. Larsen, Extended Deterrence and Allied Assurance: Key Concepts and Current Challenges for U.S. Policy, INSS Occasional Paper (U.S. Air Force Academy, CO: Institute for National Security Studies, 2013), 15.

[50] Charles J. Moxley Jr., “Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review: An Ambitious Program for Nuclear Arms Control but a Retreat from the Objective of Nuclear Disarmament,” Fordham International Law Journal 34, no. 4 (2010): 752–753.

[51] Hew Strachan, “The Strategic Gap in British Defence Policy,” Survival 51, no. 4 (2009): 57–58.

[52] James Wood Forsyth Jr., B. Chance Saltzman, and Gary Schaub Jr., “Remembrance of Things Past: The Enduring Value of Nuclear Weapons,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 4, no. 1 (2010): 85.

[53] Seyom Brown, “Beyond MAD: Obama’s Realistic—but Risky—Effort to Reduce the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” Survival 55, no. 6 (2013): 144.

[54] Simon Lunn, “Reducing the Role of NATO’s Nuclear Weapons: Where Do We Stand After Tallinn?” Briefing Note, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 2010, 6.

[55] Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, “The Defense Inheritance: Challenges and Choices for the Next Pentagon Team,” Washington Quarterly 31, no. 4 (2008): 69.

[56] Guthe, Ten Continuities, 37.

[57] Stefanie von Hlatky and Michel Fortmann, “The Nuclear Question and the Obama Presidency,” International Journal 64, no. 1 (2008–2009): 179.

[58] Therese Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), 139.

[59] Joseph F. Pilat, “Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament, and Extended Deterrence in the New Security Environment,” Strategic Insights 8, no. 4 (2009): 1.

[60] See Graham T. Allison, “Nuclear Disorder: Surveying Atomic Threats,” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 1 (2010): 74–85.

[61] Baker Spring, “The Nuclear Posture Review’s Missing Objective: Defending the U.S. and Its Allies Against Strategic Attack,” Backgrounder (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, November 2010), 3.

[62] Paul Schulte, “The Strategic Risks of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons,” Contemporary Security Policy 34, no. 1 (2013): 216.

[63] Pifer et al, U.S. Nuclear and Extended Deterrence, 30.

[64] Paul Meyer, “Policy or Posturing: The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review in an International Context,” International Journal 66, no. 3 (2011): 664.

[65] Aiden Warren, “The Promises of Prague Versus Nuclear Realities: From Bush to Obama,” Contemporary Security Policy 32, no. 2 (2011): 452.

[66] David Lonsdale, “Obama’s Second Term: Time for a New Discourse on Nuclear Strategy,” Comparative Strategy 32, no. 5 (2013): 469.

[67] See Josiane Gabel, “The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons after September 11,” Washington Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2004–2005): 181–195.