TWQ: Understanding the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy Debate - Summer 2009
January 1, 2009
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 requires the U.S. secretary of defense to conduct a nuclear posture review (NPR) in consultation with the secretaries of energy and state, and to report the results to Congress before the end of 2009. The NPR, therefore, will be the Obama administration’s forum for reviewing U.S. nuclear weapons policy, posture, and related programmatic and technical issues. Navigating and choosing among sharp disagreements in each of these areas, in order to map the wisest path forward for national and international security, is a difficult task. President Barack Obama has already made decisions on a number of important nuclear issues, but the NPR will need to relate these to the overall nuclear weapons posture. How will his desire to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) relate to the size and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex? Should the United States arm some Trident submarines with conventionally-tipped ballistic missiles? Should it pursue new arms control agreements with Russia beyond negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)? What should medium-term U.S. objectives for strategic and non-strategic warhead numbers and types be? What about ballistic missile defense? The list of important questions is long and, unless integrated into a broader strategic vision, presents a disparate jumble of choices.
These choices will be better made if they are informed by carefully analyzing the nature of the divergent views that underlie major disagreements, and identifying those areas where, to the contrary, there is a broad consensus across the policy spectrum. To this end, this essay attempts to identify eight key divergent views on U.S. nuclear weapons policy, posture, and programs, and explain the most important areas of disagreement. What ideas are at the root of these differences? And where could further work clarify or even help to resolve some of these differences?