WASHINGTON – With the new nuclear arms strategy he unveiled on Tuesday, President Barack Obama aims to prod the world toward disarmament and stronger anti-terrorism efforts by rallying disparate interests – arms controllers, U.S. allies, nuclear and non-nuclear nations, and Republicans and other military hawks back home.
Experts across the spectrum agreed that the Nuclear Posture Review represents a significant retreat by the U.S. from its traditional posture of reserving the right to use nuclear force against other nations, even as it maintains a robust arsenal to check Russia and retains Iran and North Korea as potential targets.
Still, as is characteristic of many of Obama’s major policy initiatives, the new strategy isn’t as far-reaching as liberals had hoped or conservatives had feared. It contains initiatives sought by both sides, including Republican senators whose votes he needs to ratify the new arms-reduction treaty that he’s to sign Thursday with Russia.
“It’s not a radical document, not at all,” said Sharon Squassoni, the director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right Washington research group. “It reduces the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. And it doesn’t shy away from uncertainty.”
While the review says that the U.S. won’t develop or test new nuclear weapons, it allows what some experts see as a back door for expanding warhead production capacity if circumstances change or if a future president wants to shift course.
The strategy also calls for a major program to modernize the country’s aging nuclear weapons facilities, some of which date back to World War II, at a cost of about $5 billion over the next five years, acknowledging but not entirely satisfying a key Republican demand.
It also raises the prospect of billions in new spending on long-range conventional weapons, improved missile defenses to protect U.S. allies, and advanced radars and sensors intended to give the president more time to decide whether to launch a nuclear strike.
While it says that the U.S. would no longer threaten nuclear force against non-nuclear powers that launched biological or chemical attacks, they would have to be in compliance with their obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, the administration reserved the right to change that policy in response to advances by U.S. foes in biological warfare technology.
Two senior Republican senators criticized Obama’s plan.
Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain said in a joint statement that Americans expect that no option, including nuclear retaliation, would be excluded if the country or its allies were attacked with chemical or biological weapons.
“The Obama administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies,” they said.
On the other hand, the Nuclear Posture Review didn’t go as far as many arms control advocates had sought, as it declined to state explicitly that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S., its forces overseas and its allies.
“The continued belief that there is value in nuclear deterrence we think is not justified,” said Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Russia expressed concern with the new policy even before its official release.
Speaking in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the U.S. that moving ahead with plans to replace nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on long-range missiles would jeopardize Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world.
Lavrov also reiterated an earlier warning that Russia could withdraw from the new arms reduction treaty if it felt that its strategic nuclear forces were threatened by advances in U.S. missile defenses.
The Nuclear Posture Review maintains a U.S. force of hundreds of deployed warheads whose core mission remains to deter a nuclear attack by Russia, the only nuclear-armed nation whose arsenal represents an existential threat to the U.S.
The strategy also maintains an estimated 150 to 200 U.S. tactical – or short-range – nuclear weapons in Europe, leaving it up to the 28-nation NATO alliance to decide whether they should be withdrawn.