Biden’s Armageddon: US 2022 nuclear posture review raises spectre

The fifth review, the most dangerous since the first in 1994, is ambiguous and a pretext to increase the US nuke stockpile

A month after Vladimir Putin asserted in September that the possibility of using his massive arsenal of nuclear weapons against Ukraine wasn’t a bluff and he will “use all available means to protect Russia”, Joe Biden raised the spectre of “Armageddon” if the Russian President used a tactical nuke to reverse his battlefield losses.“

I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” the US President said at a democratic fundraiser in New York in October a few days later.

Ironically, Biden’s warning of Armageddon and Putin’s reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki point to the American hypocrisy about using nukes—it is the only country to have used the nuclear bomb not once but twice.

The fifth US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) takes this hypocrisy to a new level and is the most dangerous since the first one under Bill Clinton in 1994. It is ambiguous and has double standards, a pretext to increase its stockpile and calls for using nukes in non-nuclear conflicts.

Despite mentioning the joint statement of P5 (five permanent members of UN security council) of  that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the NPR states that “nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrence effects that no other element of US military power can replace.”

America’s “most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades” – China, the “Russian aggression” and the security of allies & partners form the centrepiece of strengthening US nuclear deterrence.

Ambiguity and double standards

The NPR’s first striking anomaly is the twin objectives of reducing a “costly arms race” and the “desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons” while acquiring modern weapons for an “effective deterrent”.

If the US goal, as per the document, is to extend the “record of non-use (in last 75 years) and reduce the risk of a nuclear war,” it defies logic to modernise its nuclear forces.

There are more inconsistencies. While the NPR mentions the P5’s commitment to its disarmament obligation under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it says, “The United States is committed to the modernisation of its nuclear forces, nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) system, and production and support infrastructure.”

The Russian invasion and “rhetoric”, according to the NPR, are “inconsistent with and undermine” the P5 commitment. The purported relationship between the Russian invasion and the NPT objectives and the P5 statement is baffling.

The US doesn’t elaborate on how the commitment to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in US strategy can be fulfilled while also ensuring the safety, security and effectiveness of its “strategic deterrent”?

In strengthening regional nuclear deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, the NPR categorically mentions that “extended nuclear deterrence will remain a pillar of regional security architectures” as long as allies and partners face nuclear threats.

Matthew Harries of Foreign Policy magazine wrote: “One day, a Nuclear Posture Review might mark a moment when a president decides that the long-term risks of relying on nuclear deterrence are too much to bear. But not this review and not this president [Biden].”

According to the NPR, the nuclear arsenal is an “essential political and military link” between Europe and North America. In the Indo-Pacific, America will continue deploying strategic bombers, dual-capable fighter aircraft (DCA) and nukes to maintain a “strong and credible” nuclear-deterrence due to the “growing concerns about nuclear and missile developments” in Russia, China and North Korea.

More nukes and a modern nuclear force

The 2010 US-Russia New START Treaty was extended till 4 February, 2026, in 2021. Despite the State Department admitting that the treaty “enhances US national security” by limiting all Russian deployed intercontinental-range nukes, the US now aims for a “modern, adaptive nuclear security enterprise based on production-based resilience and science and technology”.

The US focus is on the “timely replacement of legacy fielded systems”—the B83-1 gravity nuke and nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile programme—while its main competitors are “expanding their nuclear capabilities.”

The National Interest magazine tweeted: “The [Biden] administration appears to have used the prospect of ‘great power competition’ as cover for a status quo-oriented Nuclear Posture Review.”

“The [Biden] administration appears to have used the prospect of ‘great power competition’ as cover for a status quo-oriented Nuclear Posture Review,” writes Michael Clarke. 

Biden’s NPR repudiates former President Obama’s April 5, 2009, commitment that the US “will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”. He also rejects Obama’s 2010 NPR’s aim of gradually adopting the “sole purpose” policy of having nukes only to deter their use against itself and its allies and partners.

Ironically, in a 2020 column in the Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden wrote: “The sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring.”

Biden’s volte-face now calls for modernising the N-stockpile since refurbishing it partially no “longer serves” the US nuclear strategy considering the “rising nuclear risks”.

“A safe, secure and effective deterrent requires modern weapons and a modern infrastructure … We must develop and field a balanced, flexible stockpile capable of pacing threats, responding to uncertainty and maintaining effectiveness.” The US must have “appropriate capabilities and sufficient capacity to build and maintain modern nuclear weapons in a timely manner”.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has been tasked with forming a production-based resilience programme (PRP), which will “establish the capabilities and infrastructure that can efficiently produce weapons required in the near-term and beyond”.

What’s more alarming is the full-scope replacement of the nuclear Triad—ICBMs, SLBMs and strategic bombers. To ensure that Russia does not “miscalculate” regarding the  consequences of nuclear use, the F-35A DCA, equipped with the B61-12 bomb; the W76-2 warhead; and the Long-Range Standoff weapon will further “strengthen” the Triad. “We will continue to deploy a nuclear triad.”

According to American physicist and nuclear disarmament expert Lisbeth Dagmar Gronlund, the NPR ignores the “logical and inevitable” response of the two countries.

“By building new military capabilities to try to increase US security, Russia and China will likely feel threatened and respond by taking steps that will undermine US security,” Gronlund wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

China termed the NPR as proof of Cold War “mentality”.

The Chinese foreign ministry tweeted that the NPR “smacks heavily of Cold War & zero-sum mentality”.

Besides, the US withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, meaning both America and Russia can build more such missiles.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook 2022of the total inventory of an estimated 12,705 warheads at the start of 2022, about 9,440 were in military stockpiles for potential use. Of those, an estimated 3,732 warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft and around 2,000—nearly all of which belonged to the US or Russia—were kept in a state of high operational alert.

SIPRI director Dan Smiths said that “the risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War”.

Use of nuclear weapons

Despite US being the first and the only nation to have used nukes so far, the NPR states that “unlike some of its competitors”, America will not use nuclear weapons to intimidate others and “this policy of restraint” will continue.

The document repeats the declaration in Obama’s and Trump’s 2018 NPR that “the US will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT”. However, America reserves the nuke option against a nun-nuclear attack by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea “in extreme circumstances”.

In repeating another declaration made in the last two NPRs that the US will “not intentionally threaten civilian populations or objects in violation of the Law of Armed Conflict”, the document retains the possibility of an unintentional attack.

“Should we find ourselves in a large-scale military confrontation with a major power or regional adversary, the Joint Force will need to be postured with military capabilities—including nuclear weapons,” the document says.

Therefore, nukes are “necessary”, the NPR adds, to “deter not only nuclear attack but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks [non-nuclear]”.

In fact, North Korea is threatened with “dire consequences” if it uses nukes. “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime.”

The NPR’s conclusion is most worrying and alarming: the polices of no-first-use and sole purpose “would result in an unacceptable level of risk in light of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by competitors that could inflict strategic-level damage to the  United States and its allies and partners”.

Ultimately, the NPR maintains the 60-year-old status quo: the US will continue to maintain its massive nuke arsenal.

The writer is a freelance journalist with two decades of experience and comments primarily on foreign affairs. Views expressed are personal.

This article originally appeared on and was reproduced here with permission


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