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What’s the Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy?

March 8, 2021 | Lindsay Morgan interviews Brad Roberts

Nuclear war may at times seem the stuff of a bygone era. But with Iran and North Korea growing their nuclear weapons programs, a rapid acceleration in China, and a flagging U.S. arsenal—nuclear weapons are back on policymakers’ radars. Here, Brad Roberts, director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and an affiliated researcher at IGCC, analyzes the challenges ahead for the Biden administration—both to contain growing threats and modernize the U.S. enterprise.


As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, you served as Policy Director of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). What can we expect from a Biden Nuclear Posture Review?

Every new administration conducts a review of national security strategy. An NPR looks at the security environment; it looks at declaratory policy, which are the things the president says about when he or she might or wouldn't ever use nuclear weapons; it looks at forces and capabilities and their long-term modernization; and it looks at strategies to reduce nuclear dangers—arms control, non-proliferation, disarmament.

It's important for every incoming administration to do its homework on this stuff, because you're not compelled to on the campaign trail, and if you're the out-of-power party, you're in a position to criticize but not really to make policy. It's also valuable for the American public because the review results in a report that can help us all to understand what policymakers are thinking and why. It's also good for informed civilian oversight of the military.

Each administration has approached this review task differently. Sometimes Congress has given a lot of direction about what it expects to see; sometimes none. Sometimes the incoming president has given a big speech, as President Obama did in Prague in April 2009, laying out his nuclear ambitions. 

This time around there’s no congressional guidance, and there is no clear indication from the president of the direction he intends to go.

How should the U.S. address the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs? Is it too late to contain their nuclear weapons programs, particularly in the case of North Korea?

It is too late to prevent. It's not too late to contain. Containment is a loaded term—it has a particular meaning from our Cold War history—but it's the right concept for dealing with North Korea today. We need to ensure that North Korea doesn't believe it can commit aggression now that it can threaten nuclear attack on anyone who might resist. Toward that end, we must continue to adapt and strengthen our deterrence posture in East Asia. Our allies—Japan and South Korea—are clamoring for more from the United States in this regard.

On Iran, I hope that diplomatic re-engagement will work. I'm skeptical, but then everybody's skeptical and you still need to try and work the problem as best you can. 

What about China? How should the U.S. deal with China's nuclear weapons development program and its refusal to take part in arms control discussions?

The first Nuclear Posture Review (1994) didn't mention Asia at all. Over time, Asia has become more and more significant to our nuclear thinking. We have multiple objectives for our nuclear strategy in Asia. We want to deter aggression by nuclear-armed states like North Korea; we want to assure our nuclear-capable allies that they’ll be safe without nuclear weapons of their own, and that we’re credible as a guarantor of their security despite the nuclear threat to us; and we want to dissuade China from trying to compete with us for nuclear advantage, while also trying to deter it from acts of aggression.

Since the Nuclear Posture Review I ran 11 years ago, there's been a rapid buildup by China. And nobody knows—or if they know they're not saying—how or when China will reach a point where it says “we have enough.”

What do we do about this Chinese build up? There's not a great deal to do. We're not going to build more nuclear weapons because China is building a few more. But we do need to hold China to the right standards of transparency and restraint. The best way to do that is to tackle it as a problem of the five permanent members of the Security Council—all of which are recognized as nuclear weapon states—and ask that China meet the standards of the other nuclear weapon states. That does not mean China will join arms control, but it could bring improved Chinese transparency and things that lend predictability to the thinking about China's nuclear future.

Last year, you published Taking Stock: U.S.-China Track 1.5 Nuclear Dialogue. What impact did these dialogues, which occurred between 2004 and 2019, have on U.S.-China engagement?

The unofficial dialogues with China, which included current and recently retired officials and military people, made a huge difference to our mutual understanding of the way the two expert communities think about the world, understand nuclear weapons, and understand nuclear strategy. When we started those dialogues roughly 15 years ago, we didn't have a common vocabulary. We didn't have common concepts. We didn't have a shared history of thinking about our nuclear relationship.

Moreover, the number of people engaged on China-U.S. nuclear questions was tiny. Our first meeting counted seven participants on the American side. Fifteen years later, there are 80 to 100 people at the table, and many of them younger experts who have found their voices in recent years and are trusted by their government to speak.

That said, it's difficult to see many ways in which what happened unofficially affected what happened officially. Three U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—all wanted high-level government dialogues with the Chinese on strategic stability, and China rebuffed all three. One possible explanation is that they were relying on the unofficial side to do the job of communicating to and from the United States. Another is that the unofficial dialogue was just a front to keep us busy while they went about their business. And frankly the U.S. side wasn't all that effective either at adapting its official policies based on lessons from the dialogue.

What are the prospects for maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex? If the Biden administration decides it can't afford the huge price tag to modernize the nuclear weapons enterprise, what are the long-term prospects for the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

I would distinguish modernization of the complex (the physical infrastructure, including facilities and people) from the modernization of the arsenal (the collection of warheads and bombs).

Let's talk about the stockpile first. The stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons has come down from approximately 30,000 in the mid-1980s to less than 5,000 today, and of those, a relatively small proportion are actually deployed. They were all designed on the understanding that they would be replaced in 10 or 20 years. The newest nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal dates to 1991. We've retired many of the different types, so that we have only very few types left. And the delivery systems are even older. The newest intercontinental ballistic missile went into service in 1971.  The newest B-52 bomber still assigned the nuclear mission went into service in 1962.

Russia, in contrast, has replaced 80 percent of its delivery systems and every single warhead over the last decade. Now, we're not in an arms race with Russia. But we can't produce anything on that scale.  China is also building up and at an accelerating rate. Both are growing the size of their forces and fielding new types of weapons.

The U.S. is headed in the other direction. Unless the current arsenal is extended and replaced, what we have is going to become unserviceable over the coming decade or two. The best illustration of this is the ballistic missile submarines. They were all built in the 1980s. They came into service 15 months apart. They're going to go out of service 15 months apart. That process of de-commissioning will start in about five years. And about a decade later, we’ll be out of the submarine business unless they're replaced. Same thing with the intercontinental ballistic missiles.  

Modernize or disarm. There’s no third option. If we're going to disarm, we should do it because we've made the choice to do so and not simply by default.

During the Cold War, we had the ability to produce thousands of weapons the way the Soviets did. But the main production plant was closed in the 1990s. The U.S. nuclear enterprise, as it is called, is constrained by heavy oversight and a set of rules that oblige the complex to refurbish warheads with exactly the same materials, technologies, and techniques that were used to produce them in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Some of those materials don't exist anymore. Refurbishing warheads could be done more cheaply and much more quickly if there were some relief from those constraints. But what elected official is going to say “Let's loosen the constraints on America's nuclear weapons complex?”

I don’t think most Americans realize that the United States faces such a stark choice between modernization and unilateral disarmament. In fact, I don’t think Americans are particularly worried about nuclear weapons and nuclear war anymore.

We no longer face the Cold War problem of being toe-to-toe with an enemy who has the ability to annihilate us in 30 minutes. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia and the United States agreed to accelerate the elimination of nuclear weapons, the problem simply went away for most Americans. And if it hadn't gone away by 9/11, it went away on 9/11. Our focus shifted to a new problem.

What we didn't appreciate was that for Russia and China and North Korea and Iran, 9/11 didn't have the same effect. They worried about our assertiveness, our power, our values, our willingness to use force to advance our interests. So they put increased emphasis on nuclear weapons.

Not until Russia's military move against Crimea did anyone in the U.S. defense community think there was a possibility of war with Russia again. Few took seriously the prospect of war with China until it built up its military so substantially and began to be assertive in the maritime environment. North Korea’s defiance of the international community and steady progress in developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles also drew attention back to the nuclear problem. Now, it is creeping back into our consciousness.

What are the implications of the recent entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons for the Biden administration?

The Ban Treaty, as it's called, declares the possession of nuclear weapons illegal. It is the result of a combination of forces between a particular group of states and a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who joined in an effort to “leapfrog” reluctant states and proceed to criminalize the possession of nuclear weapons. The states are non-nuclear weapon states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that are impatient with the progress shown by the nuclear-armed states in moving towards disarmament. The NGOs are led by ICAN, the group that won the Nobel Prize a couple of years ago for its anti-nuclear advocacy.

ICAN’s basic philosophy is that you can work around reluctant states to create norms and laws and then pressure the outliers to join in. It's not a bad strategy, but I question its advisability for an issue like this. The Ban Treaty says the nuclear weapon states will disarm according to rules that they'll figure out later, and that they'll be accountable to an international organization whose authorities we haven't figured out. No nuclear-armed state is going to sign up to that. I think it's counterproductive. By demonstrating that international law is weak and ineffective against this problem, it's going to further weaken the law.

What is the most urgent nuclear weapons policy issue that the Biden administration will need to address? And what's the most important issue, whether it's urgent or long-term? 

Probably the most important issue for the president is declaratory policy. Every president has declared that the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States or our allies. But no president has been willing to say that this is their sole purpose. This is because we can imagine a range of scenarios in which non-nuclear means could be used to present a threat to the United States that would jeopardize their vital interests, their integrity, and sovereignty—or to our allies. Thus, no president has completely ruled out the possible employment of nuclear weapons when those extreme circumstances exist.

As vice president and then presidential candidate, Mr. Biden has said he wants to take that step. Will he do so as President Biden? This will be a very important issue, particularly for our allies, and for adversaries who carefully watch where America draws red lines and then walks right up to them.

I would also rate the preservation of some measure of bipartisanship as highly important. Nuclear policy on modernization and arms control has been mostly bipartisan for most of its history, but that's eroding. The nuclear modernization project to replace the delivery systems and the warheads and modernize the infrastructure, is a 30-year project that has gone through 15 different congresses, four, five, or six different administrations. You can't accomplish these long-term objectives in the absence of bipartisanship.

President Biden might want to declare sole purpose, but it would run directly counter to the tradition of bipartisanship, and would very likely be reversed by the next president. Bipartisanship is worth purchasing, with some narrowing of the ambitions for change in policy.

Learn more about U.S. nuclear weapons policy: visit the Center for Global Security Research.

Learn more about the Postdoctoral Fellowship in Technology and International Security, jointly supported by IGCC, the Center for Global Security Research at the Livermore National Laboratory, and the National Security and International Studies Office at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.