Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security: A Need for New Weapons Programs?
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security:
A Need for New Weapons Programs?
Specialist i n N ational Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and T r ade Division
In the 2001 Nuclear Posture R eview, the Bush Administration outlined a n ew role
for U.S. nuclear weapons that go es beyond th e concept o f d eterrence from t he Cold W ar.
It al so identified a new t argeting s trat egy t hat would s eek to threat en speci fic capabilities
in adversary nations. Furthermore, t he Administration has pledged t o r es tore and
enhance t he U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, as part of the U.S. effort to deter t he
em ergence of new threat s i n t he future. In implementing t he NPR, the Administration
has requested funding for s tudies on new t yp es of nuclear weapons. The Administration
claims these p rojects, if they eventually produce n ew weapons, would enh a n ce
deterrence; critics claim they will make n u c l ear use m ore likely and undermine U.S.
nonproliferation goals. This report will be updated as n eeded.
The Bush Administration’s Nuclear Post ure R eview (NPR), completed at the end of
2001, sought to adjust the U.S. nuclear posture to reflect, o n t he one hand, the emergence
of a m ore cooperative relationship b e t w een the United S tates and Russia, and, on the
other h and, increasing t hreats from o ther stat es and non-state actors, particularly those
armed with nuclear, chemical and b iologi cal weapons (weapons of mass des t r u c tion o r
WMD). The Administration has highlighted thes e changes in the i nternational s ecurity
environment i n s everal documents, i ncluding the U.S. National S ecurity Strategy and t he
Strategy t o Combat W eapons of Mass Dest ruction. The Administration h as also
em phasized t hat t he United S tates will use any means necessary to deter or defeat the use
of W M D by rogue nations or terrorist groups. One of the i ssues highlighted in the
Nuclear Posture R eview i s t he role that nucl ear weapons might play in addressing these
em ergi ng t h reat s.1
1 T he potential use of nuclear weapons to deter or defeat the use of WMD during a conflict is
not the same t hing as the preemptive use of military force , i.e. the i nitiation of a conflict, against
a nation armed with WMD. While the United States does not rule out the possible use of nuclear
weapons at any point in a conflict, the r ecent war in Ir aq demonstrates that the preemptive use
of force can, and almost certainly will, consist of attacks with conventional weapons.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
W h en Congress reviewed the NPR in early 2002, much of the d ebate focused o n
proposed reductions in strategi c o ffensive nuclear weapons and t he eventual disposition
of warheads rem oved from deploym ent. This debate coinci ded with the negotiation of t he
Strategi c Offensive R eductions Treaty (Treat y o f M oscow), w hi ch codi fi ed t h e N P R ’s
recommendation t hat t he United S tates reduce its operationally deployed st rat egi c forces
to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads b y 2012. Bu t t he NPR’s recom m e ndations went
beyond reductions in deployed nuclear warheads. It outlined a new doctrine on t he role
of nuclear weapons in U.S. military and s ecurity strategy; i t i dentified a n e w t argeting
strategy that would guide decisions about the s iz e and structure o f U.S. nuclear forces, and
it revised p lans to rebuild and restore the U.S . nuclear weapons infrastructure s o t hat t he
Uni t ed S t at es coul d m ai nt a i n a nd enhance i t s nucl ear forces for t he foreseeabl e fut u re.
To implement these changes, t he Bu sh Administration h as requested funding for research
into new nuclear weapons concepts, relief fro m l egislation p assed i n 1993 that prohibited
research on low-yi eld nuclear weapons, and funding to enhance U.S. readiness t o conduct
ex plosive nuclear tests.
This report s ummariz es how changes i n U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine and strategy,
along with the renewed emphasis o n t he nuclear weapons infrastructure, contribute t o t he
Administration’s p lans for n ew nuclear wea pons programs. It also reviews several i ssues
raised during t he debate on these p rograms t hat m ay serve as t he foundation for a b roader
debate on the role o f nuclear weapons in U.S. national s ecurity. The report does not
provide a comprehensive review of the Nucl ear Posture R eview or a detailed description
of the n ew weapons research programs. 2 In stead, i t s eeks t o p rovide a contex t for debate
about these n ew weapons programs.
Throughout the C old W ar, t he Unite d S t a t es m aintained nuclear weapons to deter
nuclear and conventional attacks b y t h e S o v i et Union and its allies against the United
Stat es and its allies. At its ex trem e, such a conflict could have l ed to a global nuclear war.
But t he United S tates also did not rule out the possible u se of nuclear weapons in smaller
confl i ct s or t o achi eve go al s o t h er t h an det errence. However, because U.S . forces were
si z ed t o m eet t h e S ovi et t h reat , o t h er nat i ons and o t h e r t h r e a t s t o U .S . s ecuri t y were
vi ewed as “l esser i ncl uded cases.”
The Bush Administration has em phasized t hat, even with the demise of t he Soviet
Union, nuclear weapons “continue to be essential t o our security, and that of our friends
and allies.”3 Fu rthermore, it has i dentified a role for nuclear weapons that it ass e r t s i s
both m ore comprehensive than the C old W ar c oncept o f d et errence and m o re i n t egrat ed
with the rest of t he U.S. military establishment. T h e A d ministration has argued that
nuclear weapons, along with missile defens es and U.S. conventional forces, not only deter
2 For a detailed r evi e w o f U . S . nuclear posture see U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional
Research Service. U.S. Nuclear Weapons: Changes in Policy a nd Force Structure. CRS Report
RL31623, b y A my F . W oolf. October 28, 2002. For details on the nuclear weapons research,
CRS report RS20834, by J onathan Medalia and a more comprehensive r eport a nticipated for l ate
3 U.S. Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Statement of the Honorable Douglas J . Feith,
Undersecretary of Defense For Policy. February 14, 2002.
adversaries fro m attacking t he United S tates during a conflict or crisis by promising an
unacceptable amount of damage in response to an adversary’s attack, t hey can also assure
allies and friends of the U.S. commitment to thei r s ecurity, dissuade potential adversaries
f rom challenging t he United S tates during a crisis with nuclear weapons or other
“asym m et ri cal t h reat s,” and defeat enemies b y holding at risk those t argets that could not
be destroyed with other t yp es of weapons. 4 Many anal ys ts see little difference bet ween
these goals and t hose t h e U nited S tates pursued during t he Cold W ar. Nevertheless,
according t o t he Bush Administration, to support t his b roade r a r ray o f objectives, t he
United S tates m ay need nuclear weapons that are d ifferent, i n b o t h n u m b ers and
capabilities, from t he weapons remaining i n t he U.S. arsenal after the C old W ar.
Tar geti ng a nd Empl oyment Pl anni ng
During the C old W ar, t he United S tates m aintained t he numbers and t yp es of nuclear
weapons that it believed i t n eeded to threaten the full range of potential t arget s i n the
Soviet Union. The Bush Administration h as referred t o t his as “threat -bas ed ” t argeting
because i t i s l i nked t o t he “S ovi et t h reat .” The Adm i n i s t rat i o n h as st at ed t h at t h e Uni t ed
S t at es wi l l no l onger use t hi s m odel t o cal cul at e i t s nucl ear r e q u i r e m e n t s. In st ead, t he
United S tates would “look mo re at a b road range of capabilities and contingencies t hat
the United S tates m ay confront” and tailor U.S. military capabilities t o addres s t his wide
spectrum o f possible contingencies.5 Speci fically, t he United S tates would i dentify
potential conflicts, r ev i ew t he capabilities of its possible adversaries, identify t hose
nuclear capabilities t hat t he United S tates might need to attack or threat en the adversary,
and d evelop a force posture and nuclear wea pons employment strategy that would allow
it to at t ack t hose capabilities. For m ost possible contingencies, such as those against
North Korea or other rogue nations, t he numbers of required nuclear weapons is likely t o
be very small. But, according to the Administration, Russia presents a “potential
contingency” that could emerge i f t he re lationship b etween the t wo nations were to
change. M ost analysts believe that this “potential” is the s ource of the Administration’s
interest in retaining s everal thousan d nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
T h e Bu s h A d m i n i s t r at i o n h as n o t d e s c ri b e d t h e s p eci fi c capabilities it w i l l t a rget w i t h
this new s trat egy. During t h e C old W ar, t he United S tates s ought to target military,
industrial, and l eadership facilities i n t he former Soviet Union. Similar facilities are likely
to be included o n t he list o f “capabilities” that the United S tates would want t o t hreaten
in some contingencies with other n ations because, b y d estroying t hese cap abilities, the
United S tates could ex pect to achieve its war objectives . The Bush Administration has
specifically high lighted hardened and d eeply buried t argets and facilities housing nuclear,
chemical , or biologi ca l w eap ons as potential capabilities t hat i t might want to threat en.
These t yp es of t arget s are not new t o U.S . war pl ans b ecause t h e S ovi et Uni o n h ad m any
hardened and deeply buried t argets, s uch as missile silos and command posts, and it had
4 U.S. Departme nt of Defense. Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review. News
T r anscript. J anuary 9, 2002. See [ http://defenselink.mil/cgi -bin/dlprint.cgi ]. T hese are the same
four defense policy goals outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review f or the whole of t he U.S.
military. See U.S. Department of Defense. Quadrennial Defense Review Report. September 30,
5 U.S. Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Statement of the Honorable Douglas J . Feith,
Undersecretary of Defense For Policy. February 14, 2002.
storage d epots t hat housed chemical weapons . The United S tates p resumably p lanned t o
attack and des troy thes e facilities i n a conflict with the S oviet Union.
According t o t he Administration, however, t he United S tates cannot be certain where
these t hreats will appear in the future. Therefore, it must plan for known, potential, and
unex p ected contingencies. 6 Fu rther, to deter potential and unex p ected contingencies, the
United S tates would need the capability to credibly threat en target s i n nations that it may
not be able to identify ahead of time. It also m ust have t he intelligence to identify t hese
targets and the rapid targeting and response capabilities t o address t hese contingencies as
t h ey come up. Hence, the difficulties with this approach stem from m ore t han j ust a
requi rem ent t o at t ack hardened and d eepl y buri ed t arget s .
Nucl ear Weapons I nfr astr uctur e
The Bush Administration i s attempting t o i ntegrate the nuclear weapons
infrastruct ure i nto its new concep t o f d eterrence. According t o t he Administration, an
infrastruct ure t hat allows the United S t a t e s t o s ustain its forces and adapt them to meet
emergi ng needs would “provide the U n i t e d S t a t es with the m eans t o respond to new,
unex pect ed, or emerging t h r eat s i n a timely manner.” Furthermore, t he “ability to
innovate and p roduce s mall builds o f s pecial purpose weapons would con v i n c e an
ad v e r s ary t hat i t could not ex pect to negate U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities.”7 The
Administration h as also linked t he moderniz ation o f t he nuclear weapons complex t o its
plans t o reduce t he siz e of the U.S. nuclear ar senal. The p lanned reductions will occur i n
parallel with improvements i n t he weapons complex t o ensure t hat t he reductions did not
get ahead of the U.S. ability to maintain and m odernize its remaining weapons.
The Administration has identified s everal speci fic t as ks that the i nfrastruct ure m ust
accom p l i s h over t he nex t decade. Many are associ at ed wi t h t h e effort s t o m ai nt ai n and
refurbish ex i sting nuclear weapons. B u t th e Administration h as also outlined plans t o
establish small “advanced warhead concepts t eam s ” to eval uate evolving military
requirements and assess options for n ew or m odi fi ed warheads. 8 T h e Administration
n o t e s t h a t this effort will not only p repare the United S tates t o respond to emergi ng
threats, but will als o h e l p train t he nex t generation o f weapons scientists. The
A d m i n istration h as also requested funding for a study on the conversion o f an ex i s t i n g
nuclear weapon into a “robust nuclear earth-pen etrator” and for a s tudy that will ex plore
options for t he design of a n ew low-yi eld nucl ear weapon. The Administration argues t hat
this research will not inevitably l ead to the design, development, and p roduction o f n ew
weapons. Nevertheless, many analys ts fear that the United S tates will eventually produce
new weapons to support an enhanced warfi gh ting role for nuclear weapons.
6 T he f ollowing summarizes t he discu s s i o n i n the Secretary of Defense’s Annual Report. See
U.S. Departme n t o f D e f e nse. Annual Repor t t o t he President a nd Congress. Donald H.
Rums feld, Secretary of Defense. Washington, 2002. p. 88.
7 U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Statement of J ohn A. Gordon, Undersecretary of
Energy for Nuclear Security and Administrator , National Nuclear Security Admi nist r a t i on.
February 14, 2002.
8 U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Statement of J ohn A. Gordon, Undersecretary of
En e r gy for Nuclear Security and Administrator , National Nuclear Security Admi nistration.
February 14, 2002.
I ssues for Congr ess
Battlefield Nuclear W eapons. During the C old W ar, t he U.S. nuclear arsenal
contained m any t yp e s o f d elivery v ehicles for nuclear weapons, i ncluding short-range
missiles and artillery for use on the battlefiel d, medium-range l and-based and sea-based
missiles and ai rcraft, l ong-ran ge m i s s iles bas ed on U.S. territory and s ubmarines , and
heavy bombers that could t hreate n S o v i et ta rget s from t heir bases i n t he United S tates.
In the early 1990s, t he United S tates withdrew from d eploym ent and eliminated almost
all o f its shorter- and m edium-range nuclear weapons, l eaving a force consisting o f m ostly
longer-range s trategic weapons. The United S tates c o n c l u d e d t hat t he shorter range
system s had little utility after t he demise of t he Soviet Union and the virtual elimination
of the t hreat of a ground war i n Europe or Asia. Under t hese circumstances, t he United
States no longer needed to threaten target s, such as troop concentrations or support and
logi stics facilities, on the battlefiel d.
If it deploys t he new t yp es of nuclear weapons under consideration b y t he Bu sh
Admin i s tration, the United S tates could ret urn t o a nuclear posture that incl udes
battlefield nuclear weapons. Unlike durin g t he Cold War, when battlefield weapons were
deployed near thei r t argets, t he United S tates might use l ong-range o r i nterc o n t inental
missiles o r a i r c r a ft t o d eliver these wea pons. But they would, like t he shorter-range
weapons of the C old W ar era, seek to achiev e p r eci se objectives on the battlefield,
assuming, of course, t hat t he United S tates had the i ntelligence and t argeting capabilities
to identif y t h e s e targets. Many analys ts consider these weapons more useful for war-
fighting t han det errence, and m any have questioned whether the Bush Administration, in
pursuing t hese weapons, might be moving the United S tates t owards a posture where i t
would b e m ore likely t o u se nuclear weapons in a conflict.
Credible Deterrence vs. Likelihood of Use. The d ebat e over w het h er t h e n ew
nuclear weapons concepts are b etter s ui ted to warfigh ting o r d eterrence follows from a
more fundamental debate over how to make deterrence credible. This debate surfaced
frequently during t he Cold W ar, when the United S tates s ought to deter not only a Soviet
nuclear attack on the United S tates but also a conventional attack by the S oviet Union o r
its allies against U.S. allies. Many anal ysts consider this issue t o be even m ore rel evant
now, when t he United S tates might seek to use its nuclear deterrent in contingencies with
more speci fic and limited goals agai nst an adversary who possess es few o r no nuclear
weapons. The Bush Administration plans to develop a more focused nuclear war-figh ting
capability for t he United S tates, one that incl udes an improved ability to destroy hardened
and deeply buried t argets and other capabilities i n a number of nations that might threat en
the United S tates. It has stated t hat t hese plans and capabilities would m ake nuclear use9
less likel y because it would m ake t he U.S . deterrent more credible and robust.
Critics of t he Administrati on’s policy question t his contention. Many analys ts doubt
that leaders o f s maller, non-nuclear countri es will view any U.S. t hreat to use n u clear
weapons as credible, regardless o f t he yi el d o r capability of U.S. nuclear weapons. If t hey
do not believe the United S tates will strike with nuclear weapons, t hen t hey would not be
deterred by t he threat . Others argue that the United S tates can credibly threat en any
9 McManus, Doyle. Nuclear Use a s “ Option” Clouds Issue. Los Angeles T i me s. Ma r c h 1 2,
nation, and t herefore deter o r d efeat that nati o n , w i t h i t s conventional forces. They
believe this eliminates any requirement fo r n ew and improved n u clear weapons. And
som e anal ys t s quest i o n whet h er nucl ear t h reat s agai n s t speci fi c, and possi bl y rem ot e
facilities, will deter l eaders i n s maller, rogue nations. These leaders m ay believe they can
absorb a s mall nuclear strike from t he United S tates and still achieve thei r war aims.
Critics of t he Administ r at i o n ’s policy, therefore, fear that by developing nuclear
weapons for b attlefield u ses, the United S tates m ay be more likely t o u se these s ys tems
in a conflict. They worry that this would be particularly true if the ad v e rs ary could not
strike back against t he Uni t ed States with nuclear weapons, as t he Soviet Union could.
Thes e analysts fear that , as time passes, as the m em ories of t he horrors of nuclear use fade
and a s c o n cerns about the horrors of chemical and b iologi cal weapons increase, U.S.
officials m ay begi n t o b elieve that the un ilateral u se of nuclear weapons by t h e U nited
Stat es repres ents the l es s horrible outcome for t he United S tates t han t he alternative where
an adversary u ses chemical or biologi cal weapons against U.S. i nterests.
U. S. Nucl ear Postur e a nd Nonpr ol i f er ati on P ol i c y
The Bush Administration h as s t a t e d t h a t nuclear weapons will play a role i n U.S.
security policy for the foreseeable future. But, under t he1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation
Treaty, the United S tates h as pledged t o r e d u c e t h e role of nuclear weapons in U.S.
security policy. The Administration claims that thes e t wo goal s do not conflict; nuclear
weapons will play a s maller, al beit important role in U.S. policy t han t hey d id during t he
Cold War era. C ritics, however, argue that th e U.S. approach may undermine U.S. efforts
to discourage nuclear proliferation. Some believe that it would be difficult for t he United
States to urge restraint o n n at i o n s that may b e close to acquiring nuclear weapons if it
demonstrates, with its own nuclear posture, that nuclear weapons are critical to national
securi t y. S om e anal yst s h ave al s o not ed t h a t , i f p o t ent i al adversari es were t o acqui re
nuclear wea p ons, t he threat they pose t o U .S. s ecurity could grow dramatically.
Consequently, t hese critics argue, t he United S tates s hould s eek to “margi nalize as m uch
as possible t he role that nuclear weapons pl ay in U.S. defense and foreign policy. ”10
Others, however, argue that U . S . nuclear policy i s not likely t o affect U.S.
nonproliferation policy b ecause c o untries seeking nuclear weapons do so because they
have concerns about their relationships with regi onal adversaries, not because the United
States has nuclear weapons. In addition, the Bus h Administration h as argu ed that the U.S.
development o f nuclear weapons that can def eat hardened and d eeply buried t argets or can
destroy s tocks o f chemical and b iologi cal weapons are a p art o f t he U.S. effort to
discourage o ther nations from acquiring and t hreatening t o u se W M D.
Regardless of t he implications, t he United S tates has cl early begun t o pursue
research, and possibly t he development, of new nuclear weapons. Although i t i s unlikely
to resolve t he theoretical controversies, Congress may review and debate the m erits and
particulars o f t hese programs – and thei r broader implications – i n t he coming m onths.
10 Nations can only negate t he overwhelmi ng U. S. c o n ve n t i onal s uperiority with nuclear
weapons, s o “it is in U.S. interest to keep the f irewall between nuclear and c onventional high a nd
strong.” Daalder, Ivo a nd J a me s M . Lindsay. A New Age nda fo r N u c l e a r Weapons. T he
Br ookings Institution. Policy Brief No. 94. February 2002. p. 6.