2018 Nuclear Posture Review: A Critical Assessment Competition re-energized among the great powers

The Nuclear Posture Review is a process that determines the role of nuclear weapons in the US security strategy for the future arena. This review is basically to analyze and assess that the US nuclear policies are secure and its deterrence works effectively to counter the threats emanating in the 21st century. There were three review postures of the United States, a brief account of which is discussed below.

Function of the nuclear posture reviews

The focal and major role of the nuclear posture review is to assess the threat environment, outline nuclear deterrence policy and strategy for the next 5 to 10 years, simultaneously line up the country’s nuclear forces accordingly. Since the end of the Cold War, each US administration has introduced its own nuclear posture review; however, the course of action and the scale of the reviews were diverse in all three cases.

2002 nuclear posture review

The first nuclear posture review of 2002 was the second of these quadrennial reviews of United States nuclear forces undertaken by the United States Department of Defense. The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review also included components requiring the “Pentagon to draft contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries, naming not only Russia and the ‘axis of evil’—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea but also China, Libya and Syria.”

2010 nuclear posture review

Then, it was the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. This was conducted by the Then President Barack Obama. Since President Obama quite notably outlined a vision of a world without nuclear weapons in his speech at Prague, Czech Republic in 2009, expectations were quite high due to the stated fact. It showed a dominating shift from the previous nuclear posture review as it introduced the concept of ‘nuclear zero’. However, his nuclear posture review was hoped by observers to make concrete moves toward this goal. The finished 2010 policy abandoned development of any new nuclear weapons, for example, the bunker-busters that were proposed by the Bush administration. It also for the very first time rules out any sort of nuclear attack against the non-nuclear-weapon states (that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Ironically, this statute pointedly eliminates Iran and North Korea.

As part of the implementation of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the US Government reviewed its nuclear deterrence requirements and nuclear plans to ensure that they are aligned to address threats of that time. Likewise, Rose Gottemoeller, US Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said in June 2012 that “the United States was considering what forces the United States needed to maintain for strategic stability and deterrence, including extended deterrence and assurance to US allies and partners. Based on this analysis the United States would develop proposals for potential further reductions in its nuclear stockpile.” However, presently the case is quite opposite to that of 2010 nuclear posture review. Let us briefly examine the shifts of 2018 nuclear posture review in the light of previous nuclear posture review.

2018 nuclear posture review

However, paradoxically narrating, the very initial reactions on the recently released 2018 nuclear posture review were quite a mix by both the national and international academicians and policy makers. Rebecca Hersman, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for countering weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration and now ensconced at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, delves into some of the reactions, which suggests that the review opens the door to nuclear “war fighting,” or closes it; raises the nuclear threshold, yet lowers it; continues some Obama administration policies and programs, or departs from them dramatically; goes too far in portraying a confrontational approach to Russia and China, yet does not go far enough. It’s fundamentally different from the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, but it is also largely the same.

The US current administration has recently publicized its new nuclear policy. It has been released by the Pentagon in January 2018, as a hard-hitting, realistic assessment of foreign threats and the US capabilities. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, has in fact, suggested several tweaks to account for the emerging threats to the US, and likewise avowed the central elements of this nuclear posture. This recent posture review supposedly describes “the world as it is, not as we wish it to be” and calls for an expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal to confront the evolving capabilities of other nuclear powers.

Paradoxically, this document justifies its call for modernized nuclear weapons, by emphasizing more on its adversaries namely China, Russia, and North Korea, which the US considers, are designing and developing new nuclear weapons (more specifically, it was the Pentagon’s concern over Russia’s nuclear buildup in recent years). There is also a proposal to redeploy nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) by Secretary Mattis,’ which is a move to pressurizing Russia.

All the same, the major and prevalent capability shift in the 2018 nuclear posture review is the move to develop low-yield nuclear weapons in the form of a new SLCM. It has been justified by narrating that “the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options…. Expanding flexible US nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.”

However, it could be taken in terms that the US is intended to indulge in a nuclear war-fighting scenario. It does recognize that the deterrence is dynamic, so in order to ensure a credible and effective deterrence, the US has shifted to next steps of developing advance technologies.

Nuclear posture review on Hegemonic Design

The 2018 nuclear posture review reflects Washington’s intention to use US nuclear weapons as a hegemonic tool once again. This could be taken critically in terms of the President’s Trumps intellect, since it is a big policy shift of the century. The warning of Andrew C. Weber, an Assistant Defense Secretary, should be taken into account here, who is quoted as saying, “almost everything about this radical new policy will blur the line between nuclear and conventional.” If adopted, he said, the new policy “will make nuclear war a lot more likely.” It would be pertinent to mention here the experiences from the past, that the miscalculation has brought the precipice of war, as with the Cuban missile crisis, or actual war, as with the events that led up to World War I.

The hegemonic aspiration of the US is reflected and may perhaps be seen lucidly in the central conclusion of the broader National Defense Strategy that was released just a month back, in January 2018 stated: the US must recognize the reality of a return to great power competition and posture itself accordingly.


Analytically, main difference between the previous and the recent posture reviews is not of the alarming and more terrifying policies etched instead the difference is contextual, particularly in terms of the tone and emphasis from the two presidents. Ironically, the former 2010 nuclear posture review was a manifestation of President Obama’s broader vision that observes the world without nuclear weapons. At that time, the US was more of the view that peace and security of the world could be ensured without nuclear weapons. However, the notion that a world without nuclear weapons is possible, and safer than one with them, is a romanticized interpretation of international relations.

On the other hand, if critically viewed, the 2018 nuclear posture review, intentions of the Trump Administration is quite clear. His outlook actually guides the current US nuclear weapons posture, which modernize the US nuclear deterrence in a way that calls for the need of developing new nukes. It is a document that tried to build a consensus in the US on the needs for the 21st century nuclear arsenal. The perils of the Trump administration’s nuclear policy indicates that it can escort only to advanced and more sophisticated risks of nuclear calamities, with global instability and proliferation of even more weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the 2018 NPR arrives in the time of global tensions and rising strategic competitions, raising questions about how the policies will be interpreted by its allies and adversaries alike. Eventually, time will acquaint with the answers.

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