It's been eight years since U.S. nuclear posture was last reviewed, and in that time, U.S. adversaries have drastically ramped up their nuclear capabilites.
The Trump administration paints a dreary picture of the nuclear landscape in their Nuclear Posture Review, one in which Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, while North Korea and Iran continue to pose a newer threat. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been aiming to reduce nuclear stockpiles, according to administration officials, possibly putting the country and its allies in a risky position.
"Over the past decade, while the U.S. has led the world in these reductions, every one of our potential nuclear adversaries has been pursuing the exact opposite strategy," Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon Friday. "These powers are increasing the numbers and types of weapons in their nuclear arsenal. With some of them establishing doctrines of limited and coercive nuclear use."
The review focuses heavily on Russia and China's nuclear programs. For several years, Russia has transitioned from the old "bigger is better" Soviet nuclear policy to one which employs smaller tactical battlefield nukes. These weapons, while not nearly as potent as the bombs in previous generations, are just as concerning considering Russian leaders haven't ruled out using them in conventional fights. If Moscow took that step, it would put the U.S. in an extremely difficult position. Historically, the theory of "mutually assured destruction" (M.A.D.) has prevented either side from using nukes. That said, the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era were strategic in nature, meaning they carried extremely large and destructive payloads. Since tactical nukes are not as potent, M.A.D. doesn't necessarily apply.
"Moscow apparently believes that the United States is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic weapons," according to an executive summary of the review.
But the review makes it clear that the U.S. will continue to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and that it is committed to defending allies under its protective "nuclear umbrella."
Regarding China, the review emphasizes the need for engagement. The U.S. has treaties in existence with Russia which aim to decrease the nuclear threat overall. That historical cooperation doesn't exist with China.
"We continue to seek dialogue with China to enhance our understanding of our respective nuclear policies, doctrine, and capabilities," says the executive summary. "To improve transparency; and to help manage the risks of miscalculation and misperception."
In order to counter these threats, the review calls for a modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its command and control capabilities. U.S. nuclear weapons are dated, and the systems that control them are practically ancient. The review does not call for an increase in the nuclear arsenal, instead, it aims to make it more flexible. For example, it calls for lowering the explosive power of some submarine weapons. Additionally, it calls for bringing back nuclear sea based cruise missiles. Brouillette also noted the importance of modernizing nuclear facilities and laboratories.
Overall, the review seems to maintain the deterrent factor in the modern age.
"Maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent is much less expensive than fighting a war that we were unable to deter," said Secretary of Defense James Mattis.