Nuclear Guidance – Options & Leaks

By: Alicia Godsberg, Executive Director

On February 14, 2012 the Associated Press ran a story that was “leaked” to the press about options President Obama is considering for the future size of America’s nuclear force. One of these options apparently was for a force of between 300-400 deployed nuclear warheads, which would be approximately an 80% decrease from our currently deployed numbers. This of course says nothing about the thousands of nuclear warheads that could remain in storage, but deploying 300-400 nuclear weapons would nevertheless represent a major shift in U.S. policy. Other options supposedly under consideration are for maintaining the status quo, 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads, and 700-800 deployed warheads. In reality, the review is still underway and no new options have been sent yet to the president. So why have some Senators taken to the floor of the Senate to decry that President Obama is unilaterally disarming?

The panic comes from anxiety over the current targeting review that will likely change how our nuclear weapons are used – in theory and through policy. But every new administration in the nuclear age has conducted a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which broadly lays out the goals that administration has for the purpose and basic structure of the nation’s nuclear arsenal (warheads and delivery systems) and the supporting infrastructure at the National Laboratories. When President Obama took office (and even prior to that, during his campaign) he promised to put an end to Cold War thinking and then made his famous speech in Prague in 2009 during which he said that the United States would seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. When his NPR was released in May 2010, this policy direction was hinted at with some important departures from the previous NPR, but unfortunately many Cold War elements remained.

The military requires a certain number of nuclear weapons in large part because they are tasked with holding a large number of targets at risk; it is likely that the number of targets held at risk will change in the current targeting review, and therefore the military will be tasked with deploying a smaller number of nuclear weapons to achieve their objectives. The Department of Defense began the review in the summer of 2011 and will provide options to the president when it is complete. The president will choose an option (or ask for modifications and then choose an option) and issue that decision as a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD), describing the president’s new nuclear weapons employment policy priorities.[1]

The guidance issued in the PDD is then used as the basis for the Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF). The GEF lists specific strike options and target objectives against specific adversaries; these options range from a single strike to the use of hundreds of nuclear weapons. The Joint Chiefs of Staff produce the next step in the nuclear guidance puzzle, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP). The Nuclear Supplement to the JSCP assigns planning tasks and nuclear strike forces to those commanders responsible for nuclear operations. Following the JSCP the commander of the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) issues the Command Guidance, which provides instruction on modifying the nuclear war plan to meet the new nuclear guidance. This instruction is directed at the Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike (JFCC-GS) at STRATCOM; the JFCC-GS is responsible for designing, maintaining, and if necessary executing the strategic war plan. The last step is the strategic war plan itself, or the Operations Plan (OPLAN), which is sent to the military services that maintain nuclear forces for use by STRATCOM.[2]

It is obvious that changing nuclear guidance, targeting policy, and employment policy is a dense and complex process. The most important thing in all of this is to focus on the question of what nuclear weapons are actually for, because if we need nuclear weapons only to deter the use of nuclear weapons, then the only nuclear weapons that are a threat to the U.S. are in Russia. Conversely, the only nuclear weapons that threaten Russia are those of the United States. If the U.S. and Russia continue to target their nuclear weapons against each other, there is no way out of the game. Such is the position we are currently in, and it is foolish to think that our luck will extend indefinitely and that no accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons will occur. Other presidents – Republican presidents especially – have presided over major cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the unilateral elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons just after the end of the Cold War. If nuclear weapons are for nuclear deterrence then we don’t need them anymore; we certainly don’t need the thousands that we have during a transition to zero. Let’s hope President Obama uses this opportunity to make some overdue changes in how our country thinks about using and maintaining our nuclear weapons at the cost of billions of dollars in these tough economic times. An 80% reduction in deployed nuclear weapons sounds like a good start to me, on the way to irreversible, internationally verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear abolition, which PANYS believes can be achieved in President Obama’s lifetime.

[1] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris. “Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama’s Words Into Action.” Arms Control Today. November 2011. Available at

[2] Ibid.

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