What’s the future of US nuclear strategy? Top officials dissect the Biden administration’s plans.

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MATTHEW KROENIG: The Atlantic Council is delighted to partner with the United States Department of Defense to roll out the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, released last week alongside the National Defense Strategy and Missile Defense Review. I’d like to thank our distinguished panelists for participating in this event, and our audience for joining us in person here at the Council’s offices, and for tuning in virtually. I’m especially grateful to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Johnson and his office for selecting the Atlantic Council as a partner for publicizing this strategy.

Here at the Atlantic Council, our Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and its allies and partners. We seek to honor General Brent Scowcroft’s legacy of service and embody his ethos of nonpartisan commitment to the cause of security, support for US leadership in cooperation with allies and partners, and dedication to the mentorship of the next generation of leaders. The Scowcroft Center’s namesake, General Brent Scowcroft, was the chairman of the 1983 Scowcroft Commission that established the foundation for US nuclear deterrence and arms control policy through the present day.

As the United States enters a new era of strategic challenges, the Scowcroft Center is proud to play a role in crafting an effective and nonpartisan strategic forces policy for the twenty-first century. Consistent with that mission, the Center’s Forward Defense Practice Area is designed to shape the debate around the greatest military and defense challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Since the presidency of Bill Clinton, each new presidential administration has released a Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR. This document serves as an invaluable public articulation of US nuclear strategy, contains important statements of US declaratory policy regarding nuclear weapons, explains what nuclear capabilities the United States needs, and how they contribute to deterrence. And also sets forth priorities for arms control and nonproliferation.

The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review comes at a time when US nuclear deterrence is under more stress than in recent decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin is making explicit nuclear threats in his war of aggression in Ukraine, China’s dramatically expanding its nuclear force this decade, Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear weapons state, and North Korea continues tests of nuclear-capable missiles. In this context, the United States is carrying out a thoroughgoing modernization of its aging nuclear triad… I’d like to congratulate government officials for getting this important document across the finish line. I know it’s a difficult task, but they were successful in producing a fine document. And so with that, over to you, David, to begin our discussion.

DAVID SANGER: Well, thank you, Matt. And thank all of you for joining us. It’s great to be back at the Atlantic Council. It’s particularly great to be at the Scowcroft Center. When I first came to Washington in, oh, I guess nearly three decades ago, no one spent more time with me, educated me more than Brent Scowcroft. And so we’re all living with his fine legacy here. And at the Aspen Strategy Group each summer, we all feared Brent’s hike up the mountain, because in his eighties he was sprinting ahead of people who were half of his age, and sort of leaving us embarrassed and literally in his dust.

So the Nuclear Posture Review is a fascinating document. And it’s fascinating because if you go back and you compare it over many years, you begin to discover changes that are indicative of new administrations. But this one, as Matt suggested, comes at a particularly fraught moment. And I think for many generations of students—or, at least two generations of students—you could get through an entire high school and university courses without ever learning very much about nuclear strategy, the way some of us who are here old enough to have done this during the Cold War were imbued with it. I think we’re about at the moment right now where everyone’s going to get their dose again. And so the posture review is of particular interest.

Richard, let me start with you. You’ve been through this process a few times. And at DOD you had to go shepherd this one. If you had to sort of explain to somebody who was coming anew to nuclear policy what’s the difference between this posture review and the one that we saw in the Trump administration—or, even what you saw in the Obama-Biden administration—what would you—what would you say is different and notable here?

RICHARD JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. And first of all, thanks so much to you, David, and to the Atlantic Council for hosting us today. It’s a really important part of what we call raising the nuclear IQ, as you were referring to. So I’m glad to be doing that.

And as you point out, you know, there have been multiple Nuclear Posture Reviews over the years, going all the way back to 1994 with the Clinton administration issuing that first one. And if you look at those documents, you do see a lot of continuity, frankly, in some of the things that we talk about. Deterrence has not changed that much over the years. But we are at a specific moment now where I think we do see increases in concerns—whether it’s obviously Russian irresponsible threats. Not only their illegal invasion of Ukraine, but doing so under the nuclear shadow with very irresponsible nuclear rhetoric.

The document also notes that, as you said in the outset, the growth of the Chinese nuclear force, which is a new and important factor that we have to take into account that we haven’t had to think about in previous Nuclear Posture Reviews. The document makes very clear that we are now facing potentially the rise of two nuclear armed competitors that we’re going to have to take into account, whether it’s from a deterrence perspective or from an arms control perspective as well.

Now, that having been said, I think one of the most important aspects of this 2022 NPR is that we see it as comprehensive and we see it as balanced. We think that there is just as much discussion in this document about the importance of nuclear deterrence, about our modernization of our nuclear forces and the triad, but also about things like arms control, risk reduction, strategic stability—all things that this administration has said that they want to regain a leadership role in and that, frankly, are both parts of this broader effort that we have to undertake to reduce nuclear risks, avoid nuclear war, and reduce the global salience of nuclear weapons.

DAVID SANGER: So, Alex, let me turn to you. From what you’ve just heard from Richard, he’s got to worry about our defense posture for all this. you’ve got to worry about our set of treaties, restraints on nuclear buildup. At a moment that, quite frankly, we only have really one significant treaty left, New START. And as President Trump kept pointing out, and now the Biden administration itself has pointed out, if China is not a member of whatever follows New START—and it will expire in, what, 2026, right—then we’ve got a significant problem. Because by DOD’s own estimates, not in the Nuclear Posture Review but I think in last year’s China Defense Review, there’s an estimate that they could well have one thousand nuclear weapons by—deployed—by 2035. Of course, the United States and Russia are limited to 1,550 each deployed and have more than that. And then, of course, we’ve got a tactical nuclear force of two thousand or more that the Russians have. And that’s what we’ve reading and hearing so much about.

So as you look at this Nuclear Posture Review, what are the diplomatic challenges that you see coming out of this agenda for the remainder of the Biden administration?

ALEXANDRA BELL: Well, first, thank you for having me. And thank you to the Atlantic Council. I’m glad you mentioned that this is something that people hadn’t talked about for a while. And I’ve always had the feeling that at the end of the Cold War there was a kind of, ah, glad that’s done. And everybody just shifted their focus. And those of us who were continuing to labor on this space were like, no, the threats are still here. There’s still a huge problem to deal with. And it’s becoming more complex and there are more actors involved. So what I think is so important about this NPR is there is an acknowledgement that deterrence in arms control and nonproliferation are mutually reinforcing, and all a part of integrated deterrence, and how we provide the maximum amount of tools available in order to deal with the challenges that we’re seeing in this space.

You’re correct, New START is the last bilateral major treaty between the United States and Russia. There are important multilateral treaties, like the NPT, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which had its recent review conference this past August. Of course, the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention. But in terms of the bilateral space, New START is what we have left. And we’re working on right now making sure that we get back to inspections that were paused because of COVID, and then thinking about what does happen next. Because no matter what we do, in 2026 that treaty will expire and we’ll be facing a world in which there, you know, are potentially no constraints over the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world for the first time in over fifty years. It’s not a safer world, and we acknowledge that.

And we acknowledge the difficulty of getting to the next steps with Russia, because we have different priorities. As you said, tactical nuclear weapons is an issue that we’ve long wanted to discuss with the Russians. We’ve made it clear that we don’t think there is a discussion to be had where we just ignore huge parts of our arsenals, respectively. And there are concerns that the Russians have long wanted to discuss with us. We’ve said we’re happy to talk about those issues. They may not like our answers, but there’s work to be done in this space.

There is the complication added by China and its expanding forces. We’ve been doing a lot to push out sort of broadly to the global public the concerns that we have about this expanding arsenal. We don’t understand where China is going with this. It’s in contravention, this buildup, of their own stated posture and doctrine. And so as a first step, we’d really like to have a conversation with them about each other’s doctrines, about crisis communication, crisis management. We’ve been working this issue with the Russians for sixty years and, as everyone can see, it’s still quite difficult. We’re not in that space with Beijing yet. So there’s work to begin to begin the conversation, we think bilaterally.

There’s also work in the P5 space, among the nuclear weapon states recognized under the NPT. And that work, even though it is quite difficult at the moment due to the choices that Russia has made, we continue to try to keep expert-level lines of communication open so we can have a multilateral discussion about the future of arms control. So lots of work to be done, but this is a priority for the president. And it has long been a priority for him. I think he made this a campaign issue for his first Senate run, back in 1972. So this is something that he’s focused on. And I think you see that reflected in the NPR.

DAVID SANGER: I was going to ask you just to tease out for the audience two things you made brief reference to. One was the absence of inspections under New START. You mentioned COVID, but the Russians have claimed that because of sanctions on Russia—including air travel sanctions—they haven’t been able to come in to inspect. They’ve banned us from inspecting. So we’ve gone probably the longest time I can recall under the treaty without seeing each other’s. One of your colleagues in the State Department said to me recently that they thought this was on the verge of being solved. That was probably two or three weeks ago. What does the status of just resuming basic inspections look?

ALEXANDRA BELL: Yeah, so, first, I want to make clear that the data exchanges that happen under New START have continued apace. I get the notifications every day. And it has been helpful in these difficult times to get a real-time picture provided by those data exchanges of what the Russians are doing. And then every six months we do a mass data exchange. And so that has continued apace. But the—you know, the sort of backup that you get from actually getting boots on the ground in Russia is what we would like to continue as soon as possible.

There are logistical issues that even though we put things into the treaty—annexes about what happens if an inspector gets sick—we didn’t necessarily anticipate what happens if there’s a communicable disease where an entire inspection team can get sick at the same time in rapid succession. So those are the kinds of logistical issues that we need to work through with the Russians. Solvable problems, all of them.

DAVID SANGER: But you think this is logistical. It is not—it is not Ukraine-related—

ALEXANDRA BELL: It is logistical. There is nothing preventing Russia from actualizing their rights under the treaty right now. And they know that. And these problems that we need to work out in terms of the health and safety of our inspectors are important things. And there’s also broader implementation issues that we discuss, you know, over the history of the treaty, in the bilateral consultative commission. Those have to continue, but all the problems are logistical and solvable.

DAVID SANGER: And just to tease out something you referred to on China, just so it’s clear for our audience, China’s position so far has been: Thank you, we’re not interested in engaging in these arms control talks at all. Call when you have a different topic to discuss. Is that essentially a reasonable summation of their position at this point?

ALEXANDRA BELL: It has been. And that’s—it’s sort of surprising, given that China signed up to the NPT and the same commitments that the United States has under it, and is to pursue in good faith conversations for the cession of arms race, to pursue this. There’s no asterisk that says, China doesn’t to participate until it feels like it. They have the same obligations. We’re pressing them to engage us bilaterally. But we’ve also made clear, we’ll use the multilateral fora available to use to press these issues too, particularly the risk reduction issue.

So they will not escape the US on these issues, and the need to actually have these conversations, so we’re not operating based on miscalculations and misperceptions, the kinds of situations that can lead to—you know, we’re now at the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We don’t need to repeat that to know that we need to be at the table having conversations with each other.

RICHARD JOHNSON: And I might just add, if I may, I mean, if they don’t want to have a discussion in a bilateral channel, there’s other ways that China can demonstrate to us that they’re not pursuing things that we think that they are. We’re extremely concerned to see, for example, the construction of two fast breeder reactors in China that could create quite a bit of plutonium for the use in nuclear weapons, as well as the reprocessing facilities that would go about in actually extracting that plutonium. There are ways to run fast breeder reactors for civilian purposes that don’t require the use of the kind of the fuel that they are using.

There’s also ways that they could—through whether it’s the International Atomic Energy Agency or through other means—to demonstrate some transparency. In years’ past, all of the P5 would declare their plutonium stocks for civilian purposes for some transparency. The Chinese have stopped doing that. And that’s a real concern. So you need plutonium, you need fissile material to make nuclear weapons. If they’re going to be making this much fissile material, it would be good for them to demonstrate that they’re not intending to divert it to military purposes. And right now, that doesn’t require any talks at all. It could be done through the IAEA or bilaterally. But we haven’t seen that out of Beijing.

DAVID SANGER: I don’t care what the diversion issue is. They’re fairly clear to me that we have 1,550 deployed. The Russians have 1,550 deployed. And they wouldn’t want to get into any discussion until they had a similar number, of which the thousand that is in the Pentagon estimate would still put them a little below the US and the Russian levels. So the way they put it to me is, well, if you guys want to cut down to three hundred, we can start talking right now. And I haven’t heard a Democratic or Republican president express any interest in doing so.

RICHARD JOHNSON: I think the point here is that—and you asked for questions in different approaches in the administrations. And this is not meant to be a critique, it’s just to point out. The previous administration did look at sort of trying to have kind of a trilateral set of talks between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. What we’re talking about in this NPR, and that DAS Bell has mentioned, is much more basic thing. Sort of the foundations of arms control—risk reduction, information exchanges, military deconfliction, channels for crisis communication. The foundations of which we had with Russians many, many decades ago.

So we’re not even asking to have a discussion about numbers right now. So if that’s the argument that Beijing is giving, we’re not asking to have a discussion about numbers. We’re saying, let’s talk about putting some guardrails into the relationship so that we don’t have unnecessary crises and the risk of miscalculation when things happen in the region. That’s really all we’re saying.

DAVID SANGER: Cindy, let me turn to you, because the Energy Department’s got a particular fascinating piece of this—a big piece of this—because so much of the Nuclear Posture Review refers to the modernization of the American force. It discusses retiring a couple of classes of older weapons, but it also describes a modernization process that if you’re the US government you’d say this is all about safety and reliability. And if you were a US adversary you say, no, this is all about building more precision weapons—getting rid of dumb bombs, putting in smart bombs—and that that alone is destabilizing; while it doesn’t change the numbers, it changes the defensive posture for an adversary to the US So will you talk us a little bit through the discussion in NPR about the distinctions between reliability and true modernization?

CINDY LERSTEN: Sure. First of all, I’d just echo, thank you to the Atlantic Council and to you also. We are very busy over at the National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Energy, working on modernization. And in fact, when we joined our colleagues in drafting the Nuclear Posture Review, we really worked hard to stress how we need to modernize not just the weapons but the infrastructure, and also give some time and attention to making sure that our labs, plants, and sites, and that their workforce are ready to go. Because we can’t do this without them. And so I just wanted to stress that you might hear a lot—a smidgeon a lot about modernization.

When we talk about the precision weapons, first of all, the warhead modernization activities, they ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile—we want to continue to meet Department of Defense requirements. And there are different components to modernization that I just wanted to hit on, because I think it’s important when talk about the B61-12 and the W93, there’s four specific types of modernization activities. One is the life extension program. And that’s what’s happening with the B61-12. That is a—the B61-12, it entered service in 1968. So that’s over fifty years ago. And when we look at how we want to make sure that it’s safe and secure—because that is our number-one priority, to make sure that our nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and effective.

The B61, we—so it’s in a life extension program. And we are refurbishing, we’re reusing, or we’re replacing all of the bomb’s nuclear and non-nuclear components. And this will help with its reliability. And that’s a significant point to mention. With these upgrades and the addition of the US Air Force-supplied tail-kit assembly, the B61-12 life extension program will balance greater accuracy, especially provided by that tail-kit. And that’s critical to sustaining the nation’s air-delivered nuclear deterrent capability. When you look at the W93, that’s a new program. And we are in the beginning phases. But again, these are important modernization efforts. The W93 falls under warhead acquisition. We also have alterations that we make under modernization and modifications.

So I would just stress that our approach is really to support the requirements that Department of Defense give us, and to ensure that we’ve got a modernized infrastructure and that we have everything that we can do to modernize the stockpile.

DAVID SANGER: So, Cindy, the critics of this approach say, yes, you’re extending the lifetime. We get that. But that—and in some cases, you’re lowering the yield of some of these weapons. But that by making them more precise and making them of lower yield, you are almost creating a greater incentive to employ them in a non-nuclear—what previously might be a non-nuclear conflict. Because it seems like it is more on par with a high-end conventional weapon. So in other words, it’s a little destabilizing, under the cover of the name of modernization. How do you answer that?

CINDY LERSTEN: Well, Richard, maybe we should talk about declaratory policy. Because we have a no first use policy—

RICHARD JOHNSON: We do not—we do not have a no first use—

CINDY LERSTEN: Sorry. Yeah, sorry.

DAVID SANGER: It’s something, but it’s not no first use.

CINDY LERSTEN: No, that’s right.

DAVID SANGER: What would you call it?

RICHARD JOHNSON: So our policy is that we would only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances threatening the vital interests of the United States, our allies and partners. And I think that gets to a really good point that Cindy is bringing up here, is we have a very different approach when it comes to modernization than some of our adversaries. For example, look at the Russian systems. Russians are looking at new novel, frankly rather, you know, destabilizing systems, including to your point, David, about low-yield systems. What we’re basically doing here—

DAVID SANGER: I’ve heard mostly about their tactical weapons.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Exactly. Tactical, so-called non-strategic, nuclear weapons. What we’re really doing here in our modernization program is looking to basically replace legacy systems. The basic mix of systems that we’re looking at in our modernization is not really changing over time. What we are doing is understanding that these systems—some of which, as Cindy pointed out, have been in their life for many decades—are coming to the end of their service life. And so we have to be able to prepare for this. And I think Cindy’s boss, Administrator Jill Hruby, has herself pointed out on multiple occasions that we are—kind of the end-of-life extension period has arrived for us. We are now looking at having to do some new systems because, frankly, technology just ages out.

So to the critiques that we’re somehow lowering the use, the declaratory policy is very clear. And the document says this explicitly, that we have a very high bar for nuclear employment. We think that the declaratory policy that we’ve selected is stable and sensible and, frankly, stabilizing. But it is true that, you know, there are for a narrow range of high-consequence strategic attacks that would have those sorts of strategic effects using non-nuclear means, that, you know, potentially there could be nuclear employment.

DAVID SANGER: So that’s a really fascinating difference, because that’s the difference between no first use and no first use unless we would have a high strategically damaging element to this. President Biden when he was candidate Biden famously wrote a Foreign Affairs article. It was part of the campaign. And he said he wanted to move forward a definition that the sole purpose of these weapons was deterrence. And there was an early move in the administration, which we reported on at the time, to insert that wording. Because, you know, once you’ve made a—once you’ve made a campaign promise, it’s pretty obvious if it doesn’t happen when you’ve taken office.

And we heard from some extremely unhappy allies, who were afraid that moving the sole purpose would get around exactly the conditions you just described, Richard. So tell us a little bit about how you folks moved from the president’s or then-candidate’s expressed desire to wording that was pretty much like what we saw in the last NPR under the Trump administration.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Sure. And Alex would be a—may want to jump in here as well, since we’re talking about allies and partners. As a former State Department employee, I can never succeed in being a better diplomat than the State Department. But you’re absolutely right that the president specifically asked us to look at a range of options for declaratory policy, including that option that had been laid out in that Foreign Affairs article. I think it’s important to read what’s in that entire sentence, or sentences, in that article. Because in addition to saying the president, or then-candidate, had a goal of seeking the sole purpose declaration, he also said he would only move in that direction upon the consultations of our allies and partners and with the United States military.

And that’s exactly what we did. And we spent many, many months talking to lots of allies in a process that I somewhat inappropriately called nuclear speed dating. Where we talked to many, many allies, both in our Euro-Atlantic region in NATO and in the Indo-Pacific, to get their perspective on this. And what the NPR ultimately did is we looked at the range of threats and the range of possible attacks that had strategic impact on the United States, our allies, and partners. And we went to see what sorts of attacks nuclear weapons were necessary to deter, and how that affected our allies and partners as well.

And frankly, what we did is we came up with a series of options. And those options—of course, every department kind of weighed in on what their preferred option was, but ultimately we always knew this would be a decision by the president, for exactly the reasons that you pointed out. Because he had made a statement about this. And so I know there were lots of articles in times past saying that the Pentagon had already made a decision, or the White House had already made a decision. No. None of that was the case. We forwarded our options to the president and the president decided. And this is the decision that he made, with this particular approach.

Now, that having been said, the document also makes very clear that we still have as a goal to move towards a sole purpose declaration, but that we’ll have to identify concrete steps to do that, and work with our allies and partners to get there. But because of some of these—sort of a narrow range of these high-consequence attacks that could have strategic effects using non-nuclear means, especially some that we see particularly affecting our allies and partners, we felt we couldn’t move in that direction at this time.

DAVID SANGER: Those high-consequence attacks—and I want to come back to you, Alex, in just a second on the allies here—were described by General Mattis, then Defense Secretary Mattis, in his defense strategy in, I guess, 2018. Those seem to suggest that you might use a nuclear weapon in response to, say, a devastating cyberattack that took out infrastructure throughout the US, or some other conventional attack. So just to be clear, that remains the policy of the United States government?

RICHARD JOHNSON: So the Nuclear Posture Review does not make a definition or provide examples of what we mean by a narrow range of high-consequence strategic attacks. What we do say is that we think that they are a very narrow range, and we think that the bar for nuclear employment in such cases is very high. It is true that in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review there were some examples provided of so-called non-nuclear strategic attacks.

And my understanding, from folks—some of whom who still work at the department—is that in some ways that was intended to sort of provide a narrowing and a better explanation of what this means. But to be honest, perception is reality. And some people perceived that as lowering the bar for nuclear use. So we decided in this Nuclear Posture Review not to provide examples, but simply to say we think that there are a narrow range of these high-consequence attacks, and leave it at that.

DAVID SANGER: But the examples haven’t really changed. You didn’t look at those examples and say, nah, we wouldn’t do that.

RICHARD JOHNSON: We made a conscious decision not to include—not to include examples. I’ll just put it that way.

DAVID SANGER: Alex, when this debate was underway, I heard from some extremely unhappy allies who thought that you were on the way to using the wording that the president suggested in his Foreign Affairs article. Tell us, what were their objections? Why would—because some of them, like Japan, obviously have a, you know, high sensitivity on the use of nuclear weapons. Understandably so, given the history.

ALEXANDRA BELL: Well, yes. We had a range of positions from allies that, you know, we sort of purposefully didn’t share individually, X country said this. But it was clear from the beginning that as was laid out in the interim National Security Strategic Guidance, that we were going to use diplomacy as a tool of first resort. That we were going to have this very iterative and collaborative process with allies to go through this. And in a certain respect, yes, there is a difference between what candidate Biden said and where the NPR is.

But I sort of think that’s how policy works, in the sense of we went through the process, we reviewed all of the options—not really on the timeline that may have been reported in the press. We would often find ourselves in the room surprised to hear that we had been discussing things that we hadn’t even got to. A lot of those articles about declaratory policy came while we were still discussing the threat environment and hadn’t even started discussing policy options yet. So I think there—you know, a little bit of churn, you know—

DAVID SANGER: Can’t believe what you read in the press.


RICHARD JOHNSON: Who are those guys?

ALEXANDRA BELL: I think this was a focal point because the president had been very clear on it. But and by this engaging in this very iterative and collaborative nuclear speed-dating process, where we had meetings after meetings, created an environment where there was a lot of churn, and people trying to wonder what it was that we were doing. But we actually thought it was more important to have that process and understand that that would create articles that maybe, you know, were leading in one direction or the other, when we hadn’t really gotten there yet. You know, we would rather deal with that problem than deal with allies feeling they hadn’t been properly consulted and properly heard, as far as what they thought were the nuclear threats facing us in the twenty-first century.

So I think, you know, allies are sort of resoundingly happy about the engagement process. We heard that over and over again. Thanks for—you know, even if there were certain points in the NPR that some countries like a little bit more than others. You know, the overall effect was that people really appreciated the engagement. And I think we came up with a policy that’s reflective of where the president would like to go, but is, you know, also taking into account the security environment we’re currently in. And that, you know, the signal that we heard for the continuation of strategic ambiguity, you know, in our declaratory policy. And when the president was presented with those options, he went with, you know, what we had, which, you know, I think is fitting for the environment, but also aspirational in terms of where he would like to go.

DAVID SANGER: So, Cindy, we’ve made some references here to tactical nuclear weapons. We’ve said they’re not covered by treaty. We’ve said the Russians have two thousand of them. It seems to be what Putin every once in a while is referring to, although in recent days he made the claim that they are not thinking of using nuclear weapons, which we hope is true. But in your discussion before, you discussed upgrading the B61-12 and others. Has there ever been discussion that you’re aware of within the Energy Department, within NNSA, about a significant change in the way we use tactical weapons or the way we develop them?

We only have a couple of hundred left. We had vast numbers during the Cold War. They’re expensive to protect. I can’t find anybody who can describe to me a decent strategic use for them, other than the fact that they keep some allies happy because we store them in Belgium, and Italy, and Germany and, of course, famously in Turkey. Why do we—why are we keeping these now? And why are you still working on them?

CINDY LERSTEN: Well, Richard, maybe you can help out a bit. I just want to—so we have an entire—you know, the defense programs—who really gets to the heart of what you’re asking. So I don’t know if you’d want to address—

RICHARD JOHNSON: I’m happy to chime in, just to add, you know, NNSA ultimately, you know, in some ways is—

DAVID SANGER: They’re doing what they’re being asked to do?

RICHARD JOHNSON: Is they’re doing what they’re being asked to do, that’s right.



RICHARD JOHNSON: Yeah, but what I can say on this is, you know, you’re right that we have a different mix. You know, I can’t get into all the details, but we have a different mix in our stockpile in terms of these sort of so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons.

DAVID SANGER: We have—well, compared to the Cold War, we have tiny numbers.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Sure. Yes. And certainly things like the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives brought that down. But, you know—

DAVID SANGER: And widely reported as maybe a couple of hundred. Can you say—

RICHARD JOHNSON: I can’t get into any numbers and things like that. But what I can say—and maybe this is—not to change the topic too much—but we had a lot of discussion on this because there were questions about decisions we made. And I should say, one of the strength of the NPR, and the NDS on top of it, is we did this in parallel with the budget process. And so our budget matches up with what we need.

And to the point that you were asking Cindy about, it also matches up with what NNSA’s budget is. And we made some decisions about what we needed to do in terms of what kinds of low-yield—lower-yield weapons we needed to have. And there was a big debate about whether or not we needed to have the so-called sea-launched cruise missile. And that was a program that the previous administration put forward, along with a ballistic missile of lower yield that was also deployed onto our submarines. The so-called W76-2.

And I think what we did is this NPR validated, because—in large part—because of this threat that you’re raising from Russia, and to a certain extent we have concerns about what the PRC is doing, that part of our one of our goals as the United States is to deter limited nuclear use. Not just the so-called strategic exchange. We always thought about this. You know—

DAVID SANGER: But limited use, in the Ukraine kind of situation that we’re describing right now?

RICHARD JOHNSON: Any use of a nuclear weapon would have a strategic effect and would fundamentally change the nature of a conflict. And we say that in a document. And we think it’s important that we deter such use. And so what we determined was that we have an appropriate mix of things going forward. My boss, Secretary Austin, said it better than I could when we rolled out the NDS. Which was to say, in a very short sentence, “We have a lot of capabilities.”

And what those capabilities are include not only the B61-12, which by the way is also going to be deployed using new fifth-generation aircraft, things like the F-35. But we also have this W76-2 from a submarine. We have air-launched cruise missiles. And those are going to be upgraded. A lot of investment in NNSA on the so-called long-range standoff warhead, which will be a new weapon to replace those air-launched cruise missiles that has a certain standoff capability.

And so when you combine all of those sorts of things together, we feel like we have the capabilities we need to deter limited nuclear use, but not necessarily in the ways that the Russians have gone so much more in a destabilizing direction with these new and novel systems.

DAVID SANGER: But you announced you’re killing off two of these—the submarine launch—

RICHARD JOHNSON: So we’re not continuing the submarines launch because we has marginal utility when you add to all those other capabilities.

DAVID SANGER: Those were already deployed on a small number of submarines?

RICHARD JOHNSON: No. No. No, the sea-launched cruise missile was still in a developmental phase, so it never has gone anywhere. The system that we’re retaining is the one that is currently deployed on the submarines now, onto the boomers.

And we should also point out that that sea-launched cruise missile could very well have been placed onto attack submarines, which kind of changes the mission a little bit of our submarines. We have different kinds of submarines for different missions, and there was lots of discussion about whether that would, you know, impact the effectiveness of those attack submarines.

The other system that we are retiring is the B83 gravity bomb, which is not a low-yield weapon—in fact, it’s quite the opposite—which we think over time has had sort of a diminishment of usefulness. But that having been said, the report does point out that we do need to do more work to make sure we can get after some of what we call the hard and deeply buried targets—or so-called HDBT—because it’s the Department of Defense, and we have to have an acronym.

But we recognize that we’re going to have to get after those potential challenges with certain adversaries, and we’re going to be doing a major study looking at what capabilities we could bring to bear to that challenge, whether those are nuclear or non-nuclear.

DAVID SANGER: And the—just one more on the tacticals for both you and Alex. The basing that I hear the most concern about is in Turkey, where we keep these weapons at Incirlik Air Base, which is a Turkish base. You may remember during the coup attempt this was a big issue at the time.

We were concerned about losing access to the base. It turned out, in the end, we did not. But there was a significant movement and planning going on within the Obama administration at the time this was happening—where what would happen if you had to go get those out?

Can anybody give an explanation to us about why it is that we would want to keep weapons in Turkey, given the instability that we’ve seen there episodically and the relationship between the Turks and the Russians that has got everybody a little bit nervous?

RICHARD JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean—maybe start it, and then, turn it over to you.

ALEXANDRA BELL: Oh, yeah, I would just say the State Department supports the extended deterrence mission. That’s certainly something we got from the consultation process, that that was important to our allies.

You know, at the same time, the United States no matter where weapons are deployed in the world, we’re going to make sure they’re safe, secure, and effective. And so that’s something that’s a priority for, you know, all three of our departments and the broader interagency, you know, so. And we’ll continue to do so in consultation with NATO.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Yeah, I don’t think I could say it better than that. Just to say, you know, we have a lot of regular consultation within NATO on all of these issues, and that issue of safety, security, the surety of the weapons is something we talked a lot about.

And so, you know, I can’t get into a lot of the details about things like stationing and basing, but I will say that, you know, for now we feel like we have what we need in terms of that sort of extended deterrent within NATO. We will continue to have those discussions.

As you know, there are things like the so-called NATO Nuclear Planning Group and associated groups, and we meet very regularly on this issue and talk about these issues. And I can say that I think NATO has made great strides, even in the last few years, on some of these issues—not only on broader deterrence issues from kind of the higher level, but on things like safety and security. And so we’re going to continue to do that, and that’s kind of part of our mission.

DAVID SANGER: I feel like I’ve heard a perfectly good diplomatic and bureaucratic answer here, but I know you have colleagues who believe that it is crazy to keep those weapons in Turkey under these conditions or the conditions we saw in the past couple of years.

Because while you can talk about safety and security, if they are on a base that is controlled by a foreign power and the foreign power says we don’t want you here anymore, you’ve got a problem that can come up almost overnight. And that was exactly the fear during that time.

So just one more time, can anybody sort of defend this?

RICHARD JOHNSON: What I would say is this is a constant issue that we’re dealing with. We’re always looking at what does it look like? What does the overall picture look like of our NATO nuclear deterrent? And we work very closely with all of the allies that participate in that deterrent—not necessarily those always who may necessarily have weapons in their locations, but you know, across the entire alliance.

And so I don’t—you know, what I would say is, we are very cognizant about security—it is an incredibly important thing—because, frankly, it is important not only to us, but it is important to those allies and those partners that also rely on our deterrence, and they don’t—they have to answer to their domestic politics, to their neighbors, and they have to make sure that they can say that things are safe and secure in their region.

And so while I’m not going to get into the details about any specific country, what I will say is this is a live topic. We’re always looking at it to make sure that we have the level of security that we need, and we’ll continue to do that.

DAVID SANGER: OK. Cindy, you also have a mission within the energy department at NNSA about nonproliferation and being able to try to detect whether or not there is movement of weapons, whether we’ve moved on to actual weapons.

I remember during the Iran negotiations in 2015 some of your NNSA colleagues were along on the ride of those negotiations doing the calculations overnight. You know, if you agreed to this or that, what are the chances that we would see an Iranian move to actually build a weapon? Would we have the transparency?

Tell us a little bit about that and where all that stands, particularly in relation to Iran.

CINDY LERSTEN: OK. Well, yes, we have supported and been alongside our agency counterparts, especially as we’ve gone into the Iran negotiations in the past, and we have a very robust arms control and nonproliferation organization and also counterterrorism—you know, all areas that are mentioned in the NPR.

And you know, if you look at nonproliferation, as an organization where I started my career at the Department of Energy, we—when we first started, we were starting to work with Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and Belarus at that time, a long time ago. And it’s now really just expanded to working with many, many countries and looking to make sure that we can control and secure material as it’s moved around the world, or as some countries try to acquire it.

We also have, you know, robust export control programs where we’re working with international countries to make sure that, you know, the technologies associated with the weapons—maybe not just the weapon itself, but the dual-use technologies—are tightly controlled, and that we make sure that, you know, we’ve got the conditions in place so that any transfers don’t happen that should not be happening.

But you know, in the arms control area also that’s an important part of the NPR, where we talked about renewing our abilities in arms control. And so at NNSA we are working very seriously and investing—I think our FY 2023 request was thirty million [dollars]—to do more monitoring and verification, to think of novel approaches to arms control—especially in the monitoring and verification area—creating testbeds at some of our lab plants and sites.

And so if you look at the whole picture of what we’re doing—I think it gets to what Richard said in the beginning—you know, there is a very critical piece with the weapons, but the nonproliferation, the counterterrorism, and the arms control, this all really creates that comprehensive and balanced approach that we’re seeking to achieve as we implement the Nuclear Posture Review.

DAVID SANGER: Cindy, let me drill down just one more time on Iran.


DAVID SANGER: So we’ve seen Iran, since the last Nuclear Posture Review came out, move to 60 percent enrichment. Sixty percent enrichment is sort of like being on the 10-yard line.

You know, you don’t have to move the ball very far to get up to 90 percent, which is bomb-grade uranium. And in fact, with 60 percent some argue you could actually build a weapon.

The State Department has said—and I think Secretary Blinken has said—we are now within probably weeks of breakout, right. In other words, if the Iranians decided they wanted to go from 60 percent to 90 percent and produce weapons-grade, it would only take them a few weeks.

Based on everything that you know about the work you’ve been doing on nonproliferation, would we be able to detect a move from 60 percent to 90 percent in time to be able to do much about it?

CINDY LERSTEN: Well, I would say—and I’d like to see if Alex and Richard want to weigh in—you know, the atomic—International Atomic Energy Agency they are just, you know, our greatest partners, and you know, they have a very proactive relationship, you know, with many countries, and with us.

And so we really rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency to, you know, as it is allowed, provide us insight.

I don’t know if you wanted to answer.

ALEXANDRA BELL: Yeah, I—well, one, want to double down on the praise for the IAEA. Between what’s happening—their day-to-day duties—what’s happening in Iran and what’s happening in Ukraine—they are just performing at a level that, you know, I’m so grateful for, and particularly under Rafael Grossi’s leadership. We’re very lucky to have him there.


DAVID SANGER: He was just here last week.


ALEXANDRA BELL: Making the rounds. But I will defer to Richard who knows a little bit more about JCPOA than I do, as I’m over here in arms control land. That’s more of a non-pro issue.

RICHARD JOHNSON: I would just say—and I should say, you know, obviously, from the Department of Defense work on this a little bit less than I used to in previous jobs—but I think I can say with some confidence that, as Cindy alluded to, we really do rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency with the access that they have, and even in the situation we have now, where the Iranians have somewhat limited access under the so-called additional protocol.

But we do think that that comprehensive safeguards agreement is still in place, and I think we do think that we could detect, you know, a move to 90 percent.

And then the question is, just a reminder, is, you know, that is a key component, as you’ve said, to get to a weapon is having that bomb grade enrichment. But there are other components of the bomb that also would have to be created—you know, the nonnuclear components of this in weaponization.

And I should point out that the Nuclear Posture Review itself says that, you know, Iran has not made a decision to move towards a nuclear weapon. We’re very concerned about the activities that they’re undertaking that are relevant to that and particularly related to enrichment.

But we do think we have to remind ourselves that there are multiple elements to this piece and that we continue to press for Iran to, you know, return to the JCPOA, to have the kind of level of monitoring and verification that they have. But obviously, you know, the steps that they’ve taken are very concerning.

DAVID SANGER: That line—Iran has not made a decision—jumped out at me when I was reading the document, and I went back to our sources in the intelligence community and said, you know, this obviously had to be an approved line. You don’t just throw that out there on DOD’s—with all due respect to DOD.

And they came back and said, yes, we have no evidence that they have made a decision. But that is different from saying that we have no evidence that they are making all of the necessary steps under way so that if someone makes that decision, they could assemble that weapon in, you know, a very rapid viewpoint.

Is that your view? That they haven’t made a decision, but they are going ahead with the preparations for producing a weapon if the decision is made?

RICHARD JOHNSON: I think our concern is, again, on the fissile material side. I’m not aware of, you know—either in this setting or others—about particular efforts on other elements of a weapon.

But what I am aware of is, obviously, the advances that they’ve made in fissile material production. And you’re absolutely right that our concern would be that, you know, there would be a quick turn potentially if a decision were made.

We don’t think that they’ve made that decision. We don’t think it’s something that they are thinking about. But—and we point that out in the document, but we also say that that’s why we continue to be focused on finding a way to return to some level of oversight and limitations on Iran’s nuclear program.

DAVID SANGER: But if they did make that turn, it would still be a year or two before you got to an actual weapon?

RICHARD JOHNSON: I don’t remember what our exact public definition is right now of that, but it would be a significant amount of time.

DAVID SANGER: OK. A last question for you—and I think probably, Richard, this is more in your territory—early in the Obama administration there was discussion of did we need the third leg of the triad, right? The triad being—having the ground-based force, the force from the bombers, and then, of course, the submarine force. That discussion came up again in the Obama second Nuclear Posture Review.

In this Nuclear Posture Review, there was just sort of an assumption that we were going to retain all three elements of it. Was there any serious debate about eliminating one leg of the triad?

RICHARD JOHNSON: No, not really. I mean, there was a discussion, obviously, about the triad and whether it continued to be important, and this NPR validates that we think, you know, for a substantial time to come we need to continue to have those three legs of the triad—you know, the ground-based leg with the ICBMs, the sea-based leg with submarines, and certainly the air leg with bombers and the like. And so the—as well as the fighter aircraft.

And so, no, there wasn’t a big debate or discussion about this. I think there were good discussions about if you’re going to continue to have a ground leg, what should that look like? And this budget and this NPR moves forward fully on the development of the new ICBM, now called Sentinel, previously GBSD.

I think there was discussion about did you need to do that? Could you perhaps life-extend the Minuteman III one more time? We did look at that and we determined that basically enough time had gone by that because of things like changes in technology, the supply chain, and the like that it would actually cost us more money and give us more risk if we had tried to do one more extension.

So we looked at that, but at the end of the day the NPR validated that there’s value to the triad, each of which—each element of which comes with its own particular value to it. Obviously, the ground-based leg is extremely responsive; the sea leg, you know, is very survivable; and the air leg is visible and recallable. And so we thought that at least in this current moment, in the current security environment, and again validated all the way up to the president, that we needed to retain the triad for this time, and that’s what we’re doing.

DAVID SANGER: The argument for the other part of the ground-based, though, is that it’s a sitting duck. People know—you know, the Russians and the Chinese and everybody know exactly where it is and, therefore, might not be very survivable.

RICHARD JOHNSON: No. And so that’s why I say that’s why the importance of retaining the triad to make sure that we have a triad that has a good mix and that looks at all those different sorts of characteristics.

Again, the ground leg is particularly responsive and, frankly, our adversaries know that as well and we think that it has value there. But we wouldn’t want—

DAVID SANGER: By responsive you mean—

RICHARD JOHNSON: It’s the most responsive part of the triad if we needed to—

DAVID SANGER:—you could launch it fast?

RICHARD JOHNSON: If we needed to move quickly we could move quickly.


Well, I have many more questions for you but what we don’t have is more time.

So I want to thank you all for your participation—Cindy, Alex, Richard—for what’s been a really great conversation. I’ve learned a lot along the way, not only about the arsenal but about the way you’re thinking about the arsenal, which, I think, is vitally important in this moment.

I look forward to the commentary that our group of formers and other experts will do as we step off the stage, and they’ll be on in a few minutes to rip apart everything that we’ve all discussed.

RICHARD JOHNSON: That’s why we make the big bucks.

DAVID SANGER: That’s right. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.


Catch up on the highlights

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Welcome back to the Atlantic Council’s series of panels on the Nuclear Posture Review. My name is Demetri Sevastopulo. I’m the US-China correspondent at the Financial Times.

In the last panel, you heard from three administration officials who were involved in writing the review. Now we’re going to talk to four experts on nuclear policy, all of whom have been in previous administrations and know a lot about what’s going on. No pressure.

Brief introductions again for anyone who’s joining us at this panel. We have Leonor Tomero, who’s a former Pentagon deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy; Robert Soofer, who had the same position in the Trump administration; Walt Slocombe is a former undersecretary of policy at the Pentagon; and Matthew Kroenig, who is the director of studies here at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

We will also have fifteen minutes for questions at the end. So please have a think about what you want to ask. You can ask them online, or for the audience in the room there’ll be an iPad circulated into which you can add your question.

Matt, I’m going to start with you. Can you just explain for the layperson has the threshold for when the US would use a nuclear weapon changed with this Nuclear Posture Review?

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, first, Demetri, thanks for doing this, and I’d like to say, first, we are at the Scowcroft Center and I do think that there is kind of a bipartisan coalition in support of US nuclear strategy, really, an international consensus as well with our allies, and it was formed, to some degree, with the Scowcroft Commission in 1983, which is strong deterrence and strong arms control, and I think you see that continued in this NPR.

And, you know, I think Republican administrations tend to lean a little bit more on the deterrence side and Democratic administrations lean a little bit more heavily on the arms control side, and I think you see that here. But I think there’s a lot of continuity.

So to your question, I think there’s also a lot of continuity when you look at strategy. You know, the United States has never had a no-first-use policy. It’s always left open the option of using nuclear weapons first to deter conventional attacks on us or our allies. And so that is here in this document as well. Deterring strategic attack, whether nuclear or nonnuclear, it says is the first role of nuclear weapons.

There is some, you know, attention to the words used in the declaratory policy. There was discussion of going to a sole purpose. You know, the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to respond to a nuclear attack. But the—this new document doesn’t go there. It does have this language about fundamental purpose while leaving open the other roles.

And we have Rob here, who oversaw the last Nuclear Posture Review, but I believe there was even fundamental purpose language in the 2018 NPR.

So, again, I think, more continuity than change, and I don’t really see a lowering or raising of the threshold of when the United States might use nuclear weapons here.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Leonor, can I turn to you?

I mean, the administration, as the former panel of officials said, you know, they looked at no-first-use. They looked at sole purpose. They looked at a range of options. Ultimately, President Biden settled on this fundamental purpose declaratory policy.

Major US allies were lobbying against any significant change in the nuclear posture in the declaratory policy. They were very worried that Biden might shift to sole purpose. Do you think major allies, are they happy with the NPR as it’s come out?

LEONOR TOMERO: Well, let me just first say, you know, I really want to commend DASD Richard Johnson and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Bell and NNSA from the previous panel. This is—the Nuclear Posture Review is a tremendous undertaking led by the Department of Defense but it’s really an interagency effort, and so I think a lot of work went into getting to the document that they put out.

You know, I think as we heard in the previous panel, there was very significant consultation with allies. That started when I was at the Department of Defense. It started early on.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Speed dating, as one of you put it.

LEONOR TOMERO: Yeah. And so I think that consultation is very important. You know, between the time when we started the NPR, right, it’s about eight months, right—the classified Nuclear Posture Review came out in the spring—and so it doesn’t really give you much time. And so I think it actually—you know, to make big changes you need to have sustained consultation with allies, you know, that is broader than, you know, just the period of looking at what a review would do.

And so I think if you’re going to make a big change, you have to have that allied buy in. You have to make sure that allies are reassured. You have to explain why deterrence would be strengthened by any change, and that takes time.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Can you—I mean, for the lay people in the audience who may not be steeped in this as much as the experts, can you explain why the allies might have been concerned about a shift to sole purpose? What is it about that that made them nervous?

LEONOR TOMERO: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think just generally, you know, change is always difficult. You know, if a proposed change is happening without understanding the reasons for the change, you know, I think that’s difficult to understand.

You know, I think the administration got a range of views from different allies, and mostly allies want to be reassured. We want to make sure that we’ve got strong extended deterrence for the allies, and if we’re going to change a policy that’s been in place for decades it has to come with either an alternative of how you’re going to strengthen—this is not—that this is not zero sum, right. We’re not just weakening deterrence. And to explain why a change in policy, including declaratory policy, would strengthen the credibility and strength of US assurances.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Rob, one of the big changes between now and 2018 when we had the last Nuclear Posture Review during the Trump administration is that the Pentagon has said that China is expected or the Pentagon forecasts that China will have as many as a thousand nuclear warheads by the end of this decade, which is, you know, roughly, I think, four or five times what they’re estimated to have now.

The NPR and also the National Security Strategy, which came out recently, both say that by the 2030s the US will have to deter two major nuclear powers.

So I have two questions. One, does the US not need to do that already, given how much progress China has made? And second of all, does the NPR kind of lay out a strategy for dealing with how you deter two major nuclear powers with any specifics?

ROBERT SOOFER: Right. Thank you for the question. I think that is the central question of the next four, five years: How do we address the two nuclear peer problem, right? And so you’re right in the sense that we’ve always had to try to deter Russia and China. But I think the key phrase is major nuclear power.

So China is not considered today a major nuclear power. People can disagree over that. But, clearly, there’s a difference between a country with a hundred nuclear warheads and a thousand nuclear warheads, or whatever the number is.

And so by the time Russia—I mean, sorry, China—deploys its thousand nuclear weapons it won’t just be the numbers but the fact that they have a full triad and the fact that in addition to the strategic systems they’re also going to have regional systems.

So it’s a whole new framework for addressing it, and that’s why I think the administration rightly—and I got to tell you they nailed the threat environment. They nailed the strategic environment in this review and the National Security Strategy.

What they have said is, basically, an indication that we are moving beyond the post-Cold War period. I mean, this is something, yeah, the idea of great power competition was actually signaled by the Obama administration, right—the rise of China. We reaffirmed it in the Trump administration and they had now actually, you know, put it out there. It’s the two nuclear peer problem, right. So that’s a big deal.

So they’ve done us a great service by teeing up the issue but, unfortunately, they don’t answer the question. They don’t, and I understand that they spend a lot of energy—I’ve done these reviews before and just getting the fundamentals—reviewing the nuclear triad, addressing the no-first-use question—it takes up a lot of senior energy and attention, and it’s going to be hard for them to focus on that question. But they’ve teed it up and now we need to move out.

But I would say, if I could offer one item of criticism or just a question, is that, look, on the one hand, they’ve identified this problem but there seem to be actions in the review that preclude options for dealing with the problem. So, for instance, they point out that Russia and China are both increasing the resilience and the reliance of nuclear weapons in their policy and, yet, they continue to say that, you know, eventually we want to move to reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

But they also eliminate sort of hedging as a central focus point, which was in the Trump review. Of course, this administration, they’re going to continue to hedge. They’re going to continue to build a resilient nuclear enterprise so that we can, you know, hedge against the future.

But by eliminating things like the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, I think, they’re taking away an option to deal with this two nuclear peer problem, and I think it would have been advisable to leave it in there. Maybe slow it down, further study it. But, clearly, eliminating that option is probably, for me, the greatest criticism of this document.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, I want to come back to that in a little while and also, more broadly, ask the rest of you whether you have views on the same question.

But just specifically, Walt, staying on China for a second, how do you see the implications for US nuclear strategy or US nuclear posture if China moves to having a thousand warheads? And then, secondly, given how opaque the Chinese leadership is, how much do we know about what China is doing and why it’s doing this now?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I think, in some ways, the least of our problems with China is the possibility that they’ll go from two hundred to a thousand.

There’s a very flat return on numbers after a certain point, and I would say the numbers is about two hundred, maybe a little bit more. It’s much more important that they’re moving toward a, in effect, a triad that will increase survivability, and once you get to those kind of numbers, yeah, makes some difference. And, of course, the Chinese also have a lot of short-range stuff.

I think the more serious threats—and I think this is true of Russia, too—is the use of the possibility of nuclear weapons for coercion. That is, to deter the United States and our allies from doing whatever the Russians or the Chinese don’t want done.

This is the famous story about the Chinese general who said, we know that you wouldn’t trade Los Angeles for Taipei. We’re seeing it with Putin now. And I think dealing with that problem is perhaps the most serious one we have, as we’ve had a whole series of administrations that have basically said, yeah, we need to secure a second-strike capability—and oh, by the way, we need some other things, too, because that’s a—that’s got lots of problems.

I think the place where we have not got a good answer and, yet, it’s the one thing we have to face, literally, today is how do you deal with the potential of a threat of using nuclear weapons as a way of, for example, restricting aid—restricting aid to Ukraine, or, in the case of China, responding to a Taiwan scenario.

Now, I have views on what the answer might be. But I think that’s definitely the question.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Leonor or Matt, do you want to weigh in on whether the NPR should have said more about how do you deter two major nuclear powers?

LEONOR TOMERO: Sure. I can start.

Yeah, I agree. I don’t think we should get into a numbers game and that’s my concern, right. There’s a sentence in the Nuclear Posture Review that says, right, the—facing two major nuclear powers might require force structure changes.

You know, I think it’s very dangerous to look at, you know, how many missiles, how many holes in the ground do we need. I think very quickly you get into a dangerous and expensive arms race, and it’s very important that we not do that.

It’s not our advantage and, again, you know, adding a certain number, you know, when—we have 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons deployed, right. If that doesn’t deter, you know, will two thousand do the trick, right. At a certain number, the arithmetic is irrelevant. So I think it’s—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But just to slightly play devil’s advocate, the Chinese, clearly, don’t agree because if that was the case they wouldn’t be developing more. So why do you think they’re doing what they’re doing and how should the US counter that?

LEONOR TOMERO: Well, they are—you know, they had about a tenth of what the US had, right, and so they are significantly increasing that. They’re still going to be at a fraction of what the United States has, and we should—and I agree, we need to engage China. This is causing concern, rightly so. This is a significant increase in their nuclear arsenal and we need to be talking to China about that and they need to understand that this is—might cause significant reaction.

But I think, more broadly, we need to also understand that they’re making very significant increases in cyber and space capabilities and those will increase the risk of miscalculation in a crisis that could lead to rapid escalation leading to nuclear use.

And so we do need to be talking to China. It needs to be more than just about—we do need to talk about, of course, their nuclear modernization but it needs to be broader. We need to talk about their expanding military capability, including capability in space.

Again, that could lead to miscalculation. We don’t have—we have no history of having talked to China. We’ve had a lot of near misses during the Cold War with Russia. We have decades of history sitting down and talking to Russia not only about numbers, right, but about doctrine, about their strategy, making sure that we understand what they mean, that they understand what we intend, and we don’t have that with China. We do need it.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Has there been any kind of serious talks with China at all, historically?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: If I could—go ahead.

LEONOR TOMERO: No. No. Go ahead.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I’m afraid I am a skeptic about dialogue as the answer to all these problems. We talk to China. This document talks to China. The Chinese talk to us by what they say.

Yes, there’s, certainly, the practical problems. So security, that sort of thing, and where there were crisis communications. That’s fine.

The problem is—let’s turn it around. What are we going to say? What are people like Johnson going to say when asked what American doctrine is? They’re going to faithfully reproduce what it says in the Nuclear Policy Review. That’s why they wrote it.

I think the problem is that our—we and China face a very different situation. The reason that the two hundred is important is that with two hundred comes a very high degree of Chinese assurance of a second-strike capability, that I think our biggest task with China is to deter an attack on Taiwan, obviously.

Mostly that’s not about nuclear weapons. That’s about cyber. It’s about space. It’s about navies. It’s about what the Taiwanese need to do to protect—present their own effective defense. It’s about dealing with more complicated problems like a blockade, not a Normandy invasion.

And, in some ways, the dialogue takes place. Yes, you know, if we had a Henry Kissinger who could go out to talk to the Chinese, although I’d actually rather he went to Moscow right now, that would be important and useful.

But dialogue in the sense of sitting in the same room seems to me much less important than communicating effectively, mostly through public statements.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Even though the US puts out a Nuclear Posture Review, you know, roughly, every five years, but China hasn’t put out a big public document that I’m aware of that lays out why it’s going from two hundred to, potentially, a thousand or more?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: They’ve said an awful lot. I mean, we don’t like it. We often don’t believe it. You know, that’s one of the other problems. You hear—it is often the case that countries, like people, say what they would like someone to believe about what they think.

I’m not saying the Chinese are lying any more than we’re lying. But I think that the—as I said, I think the central problem is the use for coercion, and one of the ways we deal with that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. It has to do with conventional capabilities, the role—what the Taiwanese are prepared to do, building up alliances in Asia to join with us in confronting the Chinese.

A dialogue is fine but it’s not really going to move the ball very far.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: So, Matt, what do you think the NPR should have said in terms of deterring two major nuclear powers and simultaneously, potentially?

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, I did want to come back to that because I do think this is a fundamental issue.

Admiral Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, says this is the biggest challenge he faces and says it’s the first time in United States history that we’ve had to deal with two near peer nuclear rivals, and I think that’s right and I think sometimes people think that the basics of nuclear deterrence theory and nuclear strategy have already been solved.

But I think this is a new challenge that nobody really has the answer for now, and I know it’s something we’re working on here at the Scowcroft Center. I think Rob is doing some work on this. I know our colleague, Brad Roberts, a former DASD out at Livermore, is working on this. So I think a lot of people are trying to get their heads around this.

But I do think it, potentially, does mean there could be major changes coming in US strategic forces policy. You know, essentially, the way the United States has sized its force in the past is to count up the strategic targets in the adversary. How many targets do we need to hold at risk? That’s the number of warheads that we need.

So as the number of Chinese warheads go up, you know, if we’re not going to rethink US, you know, deterrence policy then the answer would be, well, we need more warheads to hold those targets at risk.

So I think this is a debate we’re going to have over the coming years. Do we do strategy the way we’ve always done? There’s a good argument for that. It seems to have worked pretty well over the past seventy years. Or do we need to change to a kind of a minimum deterrent or do we size for Russia and do a minimum deterrent against China, or vice versa?

And so I think I agree with Rob on that, that this NPR teed up the question but didn’t really answer it, and I suspect that will be the job for, you know, strategists outside of government and maybe for the next NPR.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: So if we come back a year from today and have an event here we’ll have all the answers?

MATTHEW KROENIG: We’ll have it figured out by—come back on, you know, Thursday.

ROBERT SOOFER: Demetri, if I could just add, what makes this debate so interesting and potentially volatile is the uncertainty, right, because you have the contours of the debate already. You’ve got the—sort of the arms controllers who are afraid that if you believe—well, they’re afraid of sort of an open-ended requirement for more nuclear weapons or maybe even nuclear testing to respond to the threat, right. So they’re afraid of too much.

Others—I call them the deterrence realists—they’re afraid that we’re not going to do enough to address the Chinese threat, and it’s this band of uncertainty that’s creating a lot of tension, right.

But I think, in fact, the answer is—there is a compromise answer that doesn’t require a lot more nuclear weapons that can be, you know, wrapped up in an arms control framework. But the quicker we come up with an answer, I think, the quicker we can try to build a consensus over the ultimate solution, which includes things other than nuclear, of course.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: And I think there are many practical problems, like, how you allocate weapons. Do you say you have to have a completely separate force for China and for Russia? Do you need to rethink what it is you need to hit?

I mean, at various times, there’s been a tendency to generate as many targets as we can use. If you got a—this is just an example—if you’ve got 2,500 nuclear weapons you got to find 2,500 targets for them. That’s not quite right but sometimes we get dangerously close to that.

We need a much better sense for both China and Russia of what it is we actually need to hit. Part of the problem in this field is that the answer, if you’re talking about a secure second-strike capability, is relatively simple.

You need to be able to—and blunt and grim, but you need to be able to have a capability, no matter what the adversary does, to essentially end them as an organized government. Awful we should think about it, but the answer is relatively straightforward. For everything else the answer is pretty complicated.

We’re now talking, for example, about what we would do if Putin uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, only one or two. We’ve got the same problem with China, and I think those are the problems which are not, broadly, going to be covered by changing numbers.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Leonor, can I ask you, you know, one of the things the review says—and this is to get back to a discussion in the earlier panel about the balance between deterrence and then, you know, reducing the reliance on weapons in the future arms control, et cetera—putting aside Russia for a second, you know, with China there was some discussion after President Biden and President Xi spoke—I think it was either September or November—and Jake Sullivan came out and said the Chinese had shown a willingness to talk about strategic stability.

But it’s, you know, that, roughly, a year has passed and it doesn’t seem that there’s been any real discussion, and the Chinese may have said it or Xi Jinping may have said it but it doesn’t appear that he was serious.

So how will the administration kind of achieve this balanced approach if the Chinese aren’t even willing to come to the table, you know, for arms control talks and then even for the kind of crisis control mechanisms that the Pentagon is having so much difficulty doing even in, you know, other areas that don’t involve nuclear weapons?

Easy question.


No, and I think the Nuclear Posture Review does a very good job of laying out the importance of strategic stability, the importance of arms control, the importance of risk reduction.

But, of course, you’re dependent for a lot of that on, you know, having an adversary that’s willing to engage on these issues, and so China has not so far been willing to engage and then, of course, the strategic stability dialogue with Russia has stopped as well.

And so you have New START expiring in 2026. It doesn’t give us a lot of time, and I’m very concerned that we might—now, you know, the debate is, are we going to be facing a world without any verifiable arms control in 2026. We’re just running out of time.

And so I don’t think you can just rely on talking to adversaries to solve the risk of—risk reduction, to solve strategic stability. What we need to be doing as we look at future deterrence is increasing resilience. It’s making ourselves less vulnerable to attack if we are attacked; for example, if our strategic assets—nuclear command-and-control assets—are attacked in space, that we are able to fight through, that we’ve got layers of redundancy, that we can absorb an attack without forcing a quick decision by the president or going up the escalation ladder to using nuclear weapons.

And I think—so to answer your question, we need to focus on the things that the United States can be doing, which is increasing resilience, which is looking at innovation. We’ve got—our tremendous capability and strength vis-à-vis China and Russia is our technological innovation and creativity, and we need to be applying that to nuclear deterrence.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Maybe if I could just probe on that a little bit more, yourself or anyone on the panel.

When the Pentagon China power report came out, roughly, a year ago, most of the attention or the top line attention was on the projection for warheads.

But one of the most interesting things in the report, from my perspective, was the number of satellites that are being put into space that the PLA will be able to use for their weapon systems.

How concerned are you that actually the US is becoming relatively much less resilient when it comes to the ability of Chinese satellites to complicate American nuclear policy?

LEONOR TOMERO: Yeah. That is—that should be a key focus of our nuclear posture, frankly, and I think there should have been more emphasis on resilience. It does mention resilience and innovation, and I think that’s a very good first step forward. But I think that needs to be fleshed out a lot more.

And so given that, you know, we have—you know, our legacy space satellites have become, you know, what General Hyten, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has called fat, juicy targets, we need to move away from that model and build much more resilient—not only resilient systems, but resilient architectures that will make it harder for our adversary to attack, and I think introduce more strategic stability into the system.

MATTHEW KROENIG: Some people say we shouldn’t weaponized space; I would say it’s too late. Space is already weaponized. The United States depends on space a lot for its military operations, and the Russians and the Chinese understand that, and so they are developing a lot of counterspace weapons so it is a challenge. It’s part of the reason the Trump administration developed—or established the Space Force, Space Command, and so I agree with Leonor. We need to figure out a way to make our space architecture more resilient against those kind of attacks.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Can I ask you—one of the things that wasn’t in the report at all is looking at the role of hypersonic weapons and, you know, we wrote a year ago that China, for the first time, had flown a hypersonic weapon around the world, nuclear capable.

How to those kind of weapon systems factor into the way the US should be thinking about nuclear policy? Is that a fundamental change? Or is that just one more weapon and it’s really the same issue?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: Yes, it’s—I think the hypersonic threat is actually much more serious with conventional forces to give a very quick capability to go after niche targets. My favorite is to try to take out the ground part of our surveillance system in the first hours of the war.

Yes, the hypersonics give some greater flexibility. They’re maneuverable. We can’t defend against them; of course, we can’t defend against thousands of nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, either.

I also think one of the things that we need to do think much more seriously about what it actually is that deters these countries; what it is that we can credibly threaten, credibly incentivize, and that’s how you—we don’t have to deter the RAND Corporation. We have to deter China or Russia.

To go back to very old history, in PD-59 in the Carter administration, we at least made a serious effort to say, what is it that the Russians—the Soviets—value? And broadly, the interesting part of the answer was the survival of the Communist Party, the survival of the regime. Is that true of China? Is it true of Putin? What are the things that we need to do, including how we structure our diplomacy, our programs, so as to impress on the Chinese and the Russians that there is no way they can gain an advantage by using nuclear weapons, and indeed, that there is no way they can gain an advantage by massive conventional attack. We are unfortunately seeing that in Ukraine. I’ve always believed that if there is ever again use of nuclear weapons, it will be because of a conventional fight that has gone out of control or that people on one side or the other think they need to use nuclear weapons as a way of dealing with that problem.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But can I ask you this? This is going back to a question from earlier to a certain extent.

In order to work out what the Chinese think, you need to talk to them. I mean, General Hyten has an interesting story. When he was writing his master’s thesis on what China would do with its nuclear arsenal, he asked the Chinese students in his class, what are you going to do? And he says that if you read what they said then, it actually matched quite well with what has happened.

But there is very little—relatively little communication between the government here and the government in China. US-China relations are in a really, really difficult place right now. So how can the US work out what China is thinking? You’ve got a reluctant partner on the other side of the table even when they come to the table. Does anyone have a clever way around that?

ROBERT SOOFER: I think you’ve identified a good problem. But I always thought it would be neat to write an article: How to think about nuclear strategy when you don’t know what the other guy is thinking.

So there are some basic, fundamental things that you can do, and one is assuring the survivability of your second-strike capability, right? And this gets back to your hypersonics example. The big fear of hypersonics is that they will be able to, you know, disarm us, take out our command and control so we can’t respond.

We had a similar fear during the Cold War, right—the cruise missiles fired off of a submarine off our coast. We’ve always had that problem, and we know we’ve had that problem. We know we’re going to have the problem with hypersonics, and we deal with it through improvements in survivability.

And Admiral Richard has already said publicly that he is thinking differently about the way he thinks about warning—nuclear warning, warning of attack. And there are things that we can do today to mitigate the threat posed by these hypersonics.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I think our biggest vulnerability is and always has been the command and control system.

Secretary Brown had an interesting answer. He said, what we have to—we were always worried about a so-called decapitating strike. And what Secretary Brown said, if I were in Russia, I would wonder whether it was really a good idea to change the decision maker on whether the United States would use nuclear weapons from the president of the United States to some two-star in an airplane; that the more effective the decapitation was, the greater the likelihood of an overwhelming response. Well, that’s—in some ways, that’s not a bad way to think about it.

But we now know that we’re in this middle ground where we’re not talking—mostly—about a massive attempt at a first-strike to disarm. It’s much more complicated uses of nuclear weapons as a way essentially to manipulate a conventional situation. And that’s what we’re seeing from the Russians today in Ukraine.

MATTHEW KROENIG: If I could jump in that at, I think that was another strong point of the NPR. It does talk about the risk of limited nuclear use in a convention conflict, or using that threat to coerce the United States. And I think that’s right.

But just—then transitioning to a criticism, then I think the question is, you know, if Russia uses a nuclear weapon or two in, say, Ukraine, or against a NATO ally, if the United States wants to rely more on nuclear deterrence to deter China from invading Taiwan, how would we do that. And I think the answer is with more of these non-strategic nuclear capabilities.

And so one of the questions I’ve been thinking about is, you know, what are the capabilities we need for that. I’m not sure the B-61 gravity bombs that we have currently are the right answer. It requires getting an airplane basically directly over the target, and so I know Rob, in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, was working on what are the additional flexible options we need, and came up with this low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile and this nuclear SLCM. And so I think it was good to have those options, and so—you know, this NPR decides to cut the nuclear SLCM. I mean, it will be interesting to see—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Which is a submarine-launched cruise missile for—

MATTHEW KROENIG: That’s right, that’s right.

And then, you know, but it seemed that bipartisan majorities in Congress have restored funding for that missile in the defense bill, so it will be interesting to see what happens there. And maybe Leonor or Rob, who have worked on the Hill, can let us know what happens when there is an executive-legislative dispute over a system like that.

But I—yeah, I think—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, maybe we can just first step back and—what was the logic for getting rid of—what was the logic for introducing that system in the first place, and then what was the logic for deciding to abandon it?

ROBERT SOOFER: Right. So what kept us awake at night when we conducted the Nuclear Posture Review was the Russian tactical nuclear weapons, right—two thousand, a ten-to-one advantage over us, and the fact that they seem to be integrating this into their strategy and then practicing to it. And we need to do something to disabuse them of the notion that they could use these weapons and get any advantage, right?

And so there are a number of things that you can do. You can say that, well, if you use, you know a low-yield nuclear weapon, a tactical nuclear weapon, we’re going to respond. But there’s a difference between saying it and demonstrating it. The wonderful line by former—or it’s the existing NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who said, deterrence starts with resolve. You can’t just feel it; you have to show it, right?

And so we needed—we needed a deed to show, to convince Russia that they could not get away with this strategy, and China actually was also thinking along these lines as well in developing these capabilities. So that’s why we say we have to do something.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But were there not other things in the U.S arsenal that could have achieved the same results?

ROBERT SOOFER: Right, right. So there are things, as DASD Johnson pointed out. We had the B-61, but you pointed out a potential vulnerability there. There’s the air-launched cruise missile that you can launch from a bomber, but again, that requires time.

But in the Asian context, you don’t actually have a presence of nuclear weapons, right? We do have weapons, as you indicated, deployed in Europe, but not in Asia. And we realized—again, politics is really important when you do these reviews. We realized that actually asking our allies to host nuclear weapons would be a heavy lift. So the next best thing to have that presence there, to have that promptness and presence would be a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile which would be based on an attack submarine, and our attack submarines are constantly plying the waters in that region, right?

So the SLCM provided a demonstration with deed that we were taking Russian and Chinese limited nuclear use scenarios seriously. It provide presence, which the other capabilities do not provide, right?

But here’s another reason that we didn’t articulate directly in the Nuclear Posture Review, and this is related to the two nuclear peer problem, right? So as Russia and China start to build up their capabilities—especially China—you worry about the survivability of US nuclear forces, right? The worst case scenario is that they can devise a way of disarming us in a first strike.

And so, again, job number one is survivability. If you deploy sea-launched cruise missiles on, say, forty or fifty attack submarines—and you wouldn’t put a lot of them on there; you would just have some—you have now made the attack problem impossible for Russia and China. And so you’ve improved the survivability of our sea-based leg as well as the rest of their triad.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: So can I just quickly ask Leonor? So if it’s such a good solution, why was it taken out?

LEONOR TOMERO: Well, I’ll give you the opposite view. I think the administration made the right choice in cancelling the program. The program actually hadn’t even started development in earnest, right; there had been a lot of studies, very low-level funding while the administration—right, in the Trump administration was, again, a study by the Navy, and the Biden administration had low-level funding to keep it alive while they decided what to do.

So it’s cancelling the program, but the program had barely even started. So this really wasn’t a real capability yet. And what we’re talking about is do we want to develop a new capability that we would have, you know, seven years, ten years from now? And I think, given the nuclear modernization that we are pursuing, including stealthy B-21s, the long-range standoff weapon that will be also available in the 2030s, that we will have new, modern capabilities. And I don’t see this deterrence gap that the Trump administration was talking about.

Sorry—we do have—you know, we do have low-yield or lower-yield capabilities in our arsenal. You know, we’ve never said those are just for NATO or Europe, right? It’s a range of capabilities that we reserve in our nuclear forces. And so, you know, I don’t think there was that deterrence gap. We did have existing capabilities, and again, adding a new program on top of an already stressed and important nuclear modernization program would have been very difficult and I think endangered the other higher-priority programs.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: OK. Sorry, Walt, you wanted to add something?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I also think we need to remember that one of the main functions of our declaratory nuclear policy is not just deterrence of the adversary, but reassurance of our friends. I think the military case for sea-launched cruise missile with a nuclear warhead is at best marginal. As other people have said, there are lot of things that are—we can reach the target if we need to.

I think it’s much more important that, for better or for worse, the Japanese in particular think that they would really like to have something they can point to and say, this is for you. And that aspect—and I must say, right now the idea of cancelling a program which is important to our Asian allies is not the right signal to be sending. I don’t think it’s as much military case for it, but not least because it wouldn’t come in—we get the benefit of saying we’re going to do it long before it becomes available.

And I think there is a failure sometimes to recognize that nuclear weapons are at least as much about perception and politics as they are about actual hard military capability.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Leonor, did you want come back?

LEONOR TOMERO: That’s a communication problem with our allies, right? That’s not necessarily a military capability problem. And so, again, I think that comes back to we need thick engagement with our allies. That’s the crux of extended deterrence, and they need to understand that our capability to threaten and use nuclear weapons in their defense is credible and will happen.

And so I think, again, that’s comes to alliance management, to, you know, having a close relationship with our allies, and I don’t think, you know, we need to spend tens of billions of dollars necessarily to say, here’s one nuclear weapons capability that’s just really for your shores.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: So I want to come back to something that was asked in the previous panel, and not just because some of the officials are still in the room.

David Sanger, the moderator in the first panel, said, should the US have tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey, and should the administration be thinking about ways to somehow get those weapons out of Turkey without insulting a NATO ally?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: The DCA—dual capable aircraft—is exactly an example of what I am talking about in the Asian—let’s be honest: The reason we have the dual capable aircraft is because the Europeans want them.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: You’re talking about the F-35s or the—

WALTER SLOCOMBE: The F-35s, yes. The systems—I think we do not officially acknowledge that there are any in Turkey. We do officially acknowledge that there are some somewhere in Europe.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But let’s—I mean, yes, well, we know they are there, so let’s speak about the reality and not kind of—in Washington we like to paper over things.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: No, and I think—I think the reason that we have them there is they are very important—rightly or wrongly, they are very important to our friends and allies in Europe. And that’s a legitimate reason to have some military capabilities. They are not useless. It’s just that the principal case for them is their political effect, and to some degree their political—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But I think—I think David’s question was more some allies are more reliable than others. Is it OK to have these kind of weapons in Turkey?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: Well, it’s interesting. We did take them out of one country on security grounds. You know, I think that’s a question of can you actually make them secure. It’s all very well to say they’re at Incirlik and that it’s—Turkey-controlled Incirlik.

I think if you really think there’s a danger that they could be misappropriated in a coup, you need to think about that. The problems of the security has always been a problem. I don’t know any more today about what the situation is.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: OK. We’re going to go to Q&A.

The first question is from Lauri Nurmi, who is a NATO correspondent at Iltalehti from Finland. I hope I’m pronouncing that right.

The question is, NATO is expanding in the Arctic and northern regions as Sweden and Finland join the defensive alliance. There is now a lot of talk in these countries about NATO nuclear weapons. What’s the role of the US nuclear deterrent in the defense of NATO’s northern member nations and its planning?

Who would like to take that? Matt.

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, I would say that the US nuclear umbrella is for all treaty allies, including the new members of NATO, Finland and—or soon-to-be new members, Finland and Sweden. And so, you know, they’ve been partner countries for some time, and I talk to officials from those countries, and they’d say, well, we’re not allies, but really, your nuclear umbrella kind of protects us, too, right? And I was like, well, not really, you know. Article 5 is for NATO members, and so I think that is one of the benefits of them joining the alliance, is that they are now formally covered by US nuclear weapons.

There’s also been some news recently because some Swedes and the Finnish were asked, you know, would they maybe host US nuclear weapons, how do they feel about nuclear weapons, and they basically said—I think rightly—that, hey, we’re just now joining the club; we’re not—we’re keeping our options open, we’re not—and some people I think said, oh, they’re wanting to host nuclear weapons. And I think that’s not the case. I mean, look, let’s give them some space. They are new members to the club. I think they are not making, you know, firm commitments on anything at this point.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: OK. Another interesting question from Tom Karako at CSIS.

How do you believe—excuse me—how do you perceive the deliberate decision on the part of our British allies to increase the number of nuclear weapons it fields? Are they responding to an increased salience of nuclear deterrence that we are perhaps trying to avoid?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I guess you should ask the British.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: In the absence of any British nationals on the stage, I’m Irish; I can’t answer that one, sorry.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: The British are determined to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent that is, to a very considerable degree at an operational level, independent of the United States. It’s not independent, fully, in terms of weapons development, and to a slightly lesser extent, submarine technology.

And I mean that seriously. If the British feel that they are more confident that they have an independent deterrent with larger numbers, that’s probably the reason. And seriously, they must have said things—that is a place where dialogue is useful.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Just a short story: a former British defence secretary asked me during the Trump administration, would it be possible for President Trump to launch a nuclear weapon without anyone stopping him, and how did the process work. And I said, there are lots of theories; I don’t know the exact answer. How did it work in the U.K? He said, I don’t know. They never briefed me on what I would have to do. True story.

A question from Sangmin Lee of Radio Free Asia. The Nuclear Posture Review has called any nuclear attack by North Korea on the US and its allies the end of the North Korean regime. In response, the North Korean foreign ministry has said that the US is the only country that has set Pyongyang as a target as the government of a sovereign state. What do you think about North Korea’s reaction?

WALTER SLOCOMBE: I think one of the most interesting—at least one of the most specific and novel parts of the new NPR is the paragraph about North Korea, which is absolutely bloodthirsty—you know, that we will destroy you as a regime—a regime, not as a country—if you use nuclear weapons.

I think that’s probably a good message to send to the North Koreans. Unsurprisingly, the North Koreans say, it doesn’t bother us; you’re just troublemakers.

LEONOR TOMERO: I think that was a good—I think that’s a good area of continuity, too, with the Trump administration Nuclear Posture Review which, for the first time, made a similar statement. I think reiterating that I think was important.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: Interestingly enough, also, the contrast with the next paragraph, which is about Iran, is sort of much—very low key, very let’s try to keep from—this from being a problem. We still want to have Iran in the—it’s no doubt partly because we are trying to negotiate a follow-on to the JCPOA.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: That language might change if Iran does have the weapon, as North Korea does.


LEONOR TOMERO: And I think, just on the North Korea piece, obviously, we’re here to talk about the Nuclear Posture Review but I think the Missile Defense Review, I think, is also—was very well-crafted. I think it was a very good, broad approach to missile defense, and I think an important element in our response to North Korea.

WALTER SLOCOMBE: Also an area of remarkable continuity. For a Democratic administration to begin the statement on missile defense is—that a limited defense is essential—is pretty much of a breakthrough.

MATTHEW KROENIG: Just a quick comment on North Korea, if I could. I think this is another element of continuity and goes to US nuclear strategy for years, which is we don’t have a one-size-fits-all deterrence policy. The way we deter Russia is different from the way we deter North Korea. That was true in the Trump NPR and also true in this NPR. If you’ll notice, it doesn’t say, you know, if Russia uses nuclear weapons, it’s the last thing you will ever do. We will come to downtown Moscow. But we do say that to Pyongyang.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Yeah. Easier to say when they have a much smaller arsenal, as well,


DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: So on missile defense, how does technology—and this is from Johannes Bonnelycke—how does technology meant to defend from missile attacks such as the glide phase interceptor fit into this conversation? How could it change the course of deterrence strategy?

ROBERT SOOFER: Well, you know, the current missile defense policy—and this, again, reflects continuity again over three administrations. We actually have two missile defense policies: one to protect the homeland and one to protect regional forces and allies, right?

So with respect to the homeland, again, we bifurcate this with respect to Russia and China. We continue to rely on nuclear deterrence to try to hedge—you know, to deter those attacks. But with respect to North Korea and other rogues, our policy is to stay ahead, right? And so to the extent technology can help us stay ahead of that threat, that’s good.

But again, Demetri, to get back to the two nuclear peer problem, as that becomes more of a forcing function, as we become more worried about China and Russia’s collusion or limited attack options, there might actually be a role for limited defense against Russia and China. That is a big policy debate to be had, but I think that that resurfaces the debate.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: We’re just a couple of minutes away from ending. Can I ask you just to close out, ask each of you, what was the thing about the NPR—in thirty seconds—that surprised you the most, either in a positive or a negative way?


WALTER SLOCOMBE: How similar—this is one of the few areas where if you change a little bit of the rhetoric, you could have issued the Trump administration’s NPR or the Trump administration could have issued the Clinton administration’s and—or the Obama administration’s.


WALTER SLOCOMBE: There is a high degree of continuity. One of the main things that we have an advantage is that there is a remarkably broad agreement on some pretty basic and pretty difficult principles about nuclear deterrence, that it’s one of the few areas where—at least not yet—we have a partisan polarization.


LEONOR TOMERO: Yeah, I mean, I agree. I think the amount of continuity. I mean, it essentially continues with the same capabilities, right—deploying the W76-2 that was introduced in the Trump administration—so, you know, strong—coming out strong in favor of the nuclear modernization program record; you know, very similar language on strategy of damage limitation.

So I think—and then, you know, even though the president had tasked his administration with reducing the role of nuclear weapons, you know, that has stayed the same. You even have certain sentences within the Nuclear Posture Review that say, actually, our nuclear deterrent underpins all our national defense priorities, which I thought was surprising, and I think should raise some questions, especially in the context of, you know, if the president’s goal was to reduce the role, it looks like we’re actually expanding the role of nuclear weapons, you know, in certain instances.

But I think, again, it could have done a lot more with looking at emerging capabilities, innovation, resilience, and those were key principles that were laid out in the National Defense Strategy that I think could have been applied a lot more broadly to the Nuclear Posture Review.


ROBERT SOOFER: Yeah, I was surprised that there were no pictures in here like there were in the Obama and Trump—no, I’m just kidding, no.

In fact, there are—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: The Atlantic Council has made up for that.

ROBERT SOOFER: No, there are actually very, very few surprises here because if you have been tracking what they’ve been saying in the administration and congressional testimony, in the budgets, this is more or less true to that, right?

But again, maybe if there is a surprise—and I’m gratified to see—is that threat—the understanding of the threat, especially the two nuclear peer problem. That is a big deal. That is historic, I think.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Matt, the final word.

MATTHEW KROENIG: Yeah, so just two points, you know. I know there were healthy debates within the administration about some of these things, and people view these issues differently. And sometimes you can almost see that debate and tension coming through in the document; you know, we’re not going to a no or to a sole-purpose policy, but we hope to—

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: But we might next year, yeah.

MATTHEW KROENIG:—create the conditions to do that in the future. There are some other example like that where you can almost see the administration debating with itself in the document.

And then, just tying my colleagues’ points together, I think that Walt and Leonor are right that there is a lot of continuity. And on balance I think that’s a good thing. You know, if you look at our nuclear modernization program, it’s going to be in place for decades, so you do need bipartisan consensus to keep that in place. But then tying that to Rob’s point, the threat environment is changing. China’s buildup is really changing things, and so I think the big challenge going forward is can we adapt this kind of bipartisan consensus in this new, more threatening security environment through the 2020s and into the 2030s.

So we’ll have to invite everyone back to talk about that in the coming years.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Sounds good. Well, on that note, I’d just like to thank everyone for a very interesting discussion, and to the Atlantic Council, thank you. Thanks to the audience.

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Image: This image shows the launch of Iskander cruise missile. Vladimir Putin oversaw major air, sea and land-based hypersonic and other missile drills on Saturday amid escalating tensions and conflict in eastern Ukraine and fears that Russia will launch full-scale invasion of the country. The footage showed nuclear submarines, jet-powered bombers and land-based forces firing intercontinental ballistic missiles in an apparent show of strength to NATO members. It came as shelling in eastern Ukraine killed two Ukrainian soldiers, and pro-Russian separatist leaders ordered a full military mobilisation. Where: Russian Federation When: 19 Feb 2022 Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Cover Images