Nuclear weapons and U.S. national security

The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed the use of the B-2 bomber as the USAF’s primary platform to deliver nuclear bombs. (US Air Force)

Several themes in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) demonstrate that Washington has an increased determination to make nuclear weapons more useful in pursuit of its national security interests. An unclassified version of the NPR, released in February 2018, emphasised a deterioration in the global security situation. It also provided more details about the possible use of nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks, and announced the intention to develop several new non-strategic nuclear weapons as part of the already well underway modernisation of the current nuclear arsenal.

Ever since Nixon, successive American Presidents have cut the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the U.S. military. This was usually done in conjunction with similar cuts by the Soviet Union (and later, Russia).

The Obama administration’s 2010 NPR had assessed that, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries,” which provided the justification to support the latest nuclear arms control agreement, the 2010 New START. Under this agreement Russia and the U.S. pledged to reduce the size of their nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 delivery systems (missiles, submarines, and aircraft) by 2018.

Despite this rhetoric, however, under President Obama the U.S. made the smallest ever cuts to its nuclear arsenal. New START itself was only agreed to by U.S. politicians in exchange for agreement by Obama to fund modernisation of the country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.

New START expires in 2021 and its renewal is not guaranteed, with President Trump reportedly criticising the treaty.

The 2018 NPR takes a pessimistic note of Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea as well as efforts underway by Moscow to upgrade and modernise its own nuclear forces. The document also assessed that Russia is looking to increase the usefulness of its nuclear weapons to achieve success in conflicts. Additionally, the NPR notes that nuclear weapon developments underway in China, North Korea and Iran have significantly changed the security environment since the 2010 NPR.

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