Congress must not let Biden bungle nuclear posture review

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This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on November 22, 2021. Click here to view the original article.

The Biden Administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is extraordinarily consequential.  Unlike previous NPRs, which assessed a bipolar Moscow-Washington contest, the 2021 edition must establish nuclear doctrine to confront Beijing’s rising threat and increasingly dangerous Iranian and North Korean capabilities. Moreover, this convoluted scenario is continually evolving, as external threat levels and sources multiply rapidly.

Instead of tackling the challenge of a tripolar-plus nuclear world, however, the White House is reportedly veering toward ideological sloganeering.  Internal debate is concentrated on whether America should adopt a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons, or its cousin, declaring that the “sole purpose” for such arms is responding to nuclear attacks.

Such decisions would dramatically reverse decades-long American strategy, upending both our own deterrence structures and our “nuclear umbrella,” the extended deterrence that assures our allies, limits nuclear proliferation, and advances global stability.  Given the enormous complexities posed by China’s amped-up nuclear threat alone, “no first use” and “sole purpose” are not only inherently dangerous, but embracing them now is inconceivably bad timing.

“First use,” while no one’s preference, is an option circumstances can justify.  The initial occasion was President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The order was agonizing and complex, but clearly correct.  World War II came to a nearly-immediate halt, avoiding Winston Churchill’s feared “unlimited effusions of American blood,” not to mention Japanese casualties, had we needed to invade Japan’s home islands.

During the Cold War, the Soviet threat of invading Western Europe was deterred not just by the U.S. troop presence in Europe, but by the prospect of “massive retaliation” with atomic arms, first articulated by Secretary of State Dulles in 1954.  It was hardly controversial politically.  In 1961, President Kennedy said, “Of course, in some circumstances we must be prepared to use nuclear weapons at the start, come what may  —  a clear attack on Western Europe, for example.”

Beyond the Soviet menace in Europe, the global risks from chemical and biological weapons were readily deemed sufficient to warrant nuclear first use in response, hopefully thereby serving as an effective deterrent.  After retiring as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell said publicly that if North Korea used chemical or biological assets, the United States would turn the North into a “charcoal briquette.”

George Robertson, former NATO Secretary-General and Tony Blair’s Defence Secretary, wrote recently that, if adopted, “no first use” and “sole purpose” would “undermine deterrence, divide NATO and increase the risk of conflict.”  That’s for starters.  Last week, the Republican ranking members of the House and Senate armed services, foreign relations and intelligence committees sent the White House a sharp message, warning against “the distractions of ideologues,” and insisting the NPR “focus on a dispassionate, objective assessment of the facts.”

Those facts, and the 2021 NPR’s real burden, require careful planning for China’s ever-growing nuclear threat, and the risk of rogue-state nuclear capabilities increasingly close to accurately targeting America.  Developing a “Single Integrated Operational Plan” was hard enough during the Cold War’s bipolar nuclear standoff.   The tripolar-plus nuclear world the Pentagon now confronts is immeasurably more complicated.  Deterring possible Chinese threats is not new, but never before so problematic, given the nuclear assets Beijing will soon possess.

Instead of conceptualizing escalation ladders and contingency plans solely against a Moscow attack, the Pentagon must now consider three paradigms:  (1) a one-on-one confrontation with either Russia or China;  (2)  sequential confrontations, first with Russia or China, then the other;  or (3) contemporaneous confrontation with Russia and China acting together.  Our planners must consider multiple, overlapping targeting options;  make judgments about U.S. requirements, globally and in separate theaters like Europe or the Indo-Pacific, and new classes of weapons like hypersonic cruise missiles;  and recommend what missile defenses are necessary and feasible.

This effort will make prior, exhaustive conceptual efforts  —  justly praised as instrumental in helping Washington avoid a real-world exchange of nuclear salvoes  —  look like child’s play.  With this crushing burden in mind, and with nuclear threats as real as they were in the Cold War, this is no time for fatuous ideological distractions.  If the Biden Administration bungles its NPR, Congress must move swiftly to launch a national debate so our citizens know exactly what the stakes are.

John Bolton served as national security adviser to former President Donald Trump between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2006, he served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.