One of President Joe Biden’s leading allies in his decadeslong attempt to reduce nuclear weapons has lost a battle with the Pentagon’s hawks.
The ouster of Leonor Tomero, who questioned the status quo on nuclear weapons, signals the Biden administration’s ambitious agenda to overhaul America's nuclear policy might be in trouble.
Early in his administration, Biden installed national security officials intent on negotiating new arms control treaties and curtailing nuclear weapons spending. One of them was Tomero, a leading voice for nuclear restraint on Capitol Hill and in the think tank community, who was appointed to oversee the Nuclear Posture Review that will set the administration’s atomic weapons policy and strategy.
But officials with more traditional views on nuclear weapons, who promote a status quo agenda to include modernizing the land, sea and airborne legs of America’s nuclear arsenal, did not take kindly to Tomero’s progressive ideology, according to 11 current and former defense officials, as well as others with insight into the debate.
One current U.S. official who works on nuclear issues, when asked about Tomero, said he considers some of her positions dangerous in the face of Russian and Chinese nuclear advancements.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, described her as among "the arms controllers who used to seem naive but now seem irrational given what China and Russia are doing.”
“Her appointment was something that people were immediately resistant to,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor and nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and host of the podcast Arms Control Wonk. “People with very traditional views of nuclear weapons policy did not want someone in charge of the Nuclear Posture Review who might think differently about those issues.”
That clash spilled into public this month when Tomero, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, was unceremoniously edged out in what the Pentagon is officially calling a “reorganization” after just nine months on the job.
The Pentagon’s new assistant secretary for space, a position Congress recently created, will absorb the responsibility for nuclear and missile defense, POLITICO first reported this week. Tomero’s position was eliminated as part of the reorganization.
Tomero did not respond to a request for comment.
“It's natural with any new administration, this one's not excepted, that we would want to reevaluate the organizational structure and make changes where we think is appropriate to support the secretary's priorities. And I think, again, without speaking to individuals, we're certainly doing that,” chief Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Tomero’s ouster.
“We're going to continue to consider and include a wide range of viewpoints in the Nuclear Posture Review, including those from administration officials, military leaders, academics and all others,” he added.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council said the departure of one person won't affect the review.
"The nuclear policy review is being handled by a large group of experts from across the department. Overall, USD(P) owns it. The nuclear posture review isn’t reliant on one individual; to imply the review would somehow be skewed because of an individual’s departure is just incorrect," the spokesperson said.
But people familiar with the internal debate believe the move reflects a rebellion against her unorthodox views.
“Department of Defense insiders wanted nothing to do with anyone who wanted to carry forth Joe Biden’s views on nuclear modernization,” said former Rep. John Tierney, executive director of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, where Tomero was once a researcher before serving in government.
Tomero did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the White House.
Experts now worry that her removal signals the Nuclear Posture Review will not fully consider alternative options for maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent that might be less costly or evaluate new ways to carry out nuclear strategy.
“The decision to fire Leonor suggests to me that the first draft of NPR is going to be a continuation of the line of thinking we saw in the Trump administration’s NPR,” Lewis said. “They have put themselves on the course that is a first draft that is 180 degrees to what Biden said on the campaign trail.”
Congressional staffers from both parties who are tracking the Nuclear Posture Review say they are still unclear why Tomero was pushed out, citing a lack of communication from the Pentagon.
The nuclear review completed in 2018 under former President Donald Trump backed several new weapons, including a new “low yield” warhead that has been introduced on submarines and development of a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. It also expanded the role of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats.
The U.S. is planning to upgrade the nuclear force to the tune of $634 billion over the next decade, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s views on reducing the nuclear arsenal and seeking more international treaties to prevent their spread dates back decades.
One of his first decisions as president was to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia that limits deployed strategic arms on both sides to 1,550.
And during the 2020 presidential campaign, he also doubled down on a number of his positions. He restated his opposition to the new low yield warhead, saying “the United States does not need new nuclear weapons,” according to a candidate questionnaire that he filled out at the request of a disarmament group.
He also agreed that the United States should review the current ambiguity over whether it would use nuclear weapons first.
But Tomero’s departure signals the Pentagon’s review may not reflect Biden’s more ambitious agenda.
A former U.S. official who is privy to some of the internal debates said Tomero’s departure means there will be fewer officials inside the military establishment open to considering such alternative approaches to nuclear modernization and strategy.
“She was running a process that would have included alternative nuclear policy options and that’s not tolerable,” the former official complained, adding that her “openness to policy change overall” was causing friction.
Tomero has been open about her intent to re-examine the costly modernization of the nuclear arsenal — particularly replacements for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the long-range standoff weapon — as well as America’s declaratory policy.
“Certainly that’s the objective of the president, is to find ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and so we look forward to examining those issues, as part of our Nuclear Posture Review,” Tomero said in a May interview.
One of those potential policy changes is declaring a “no first use” policy that Biden has expressed openness to as a way to reduce the chances of miscalculation with potential nuclear adversaries.
Leading arms control advocates in Congress have been pushing legislation on no first use, including House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Tomero’s former boss when she was chief counsel of the panel.
Smith is also a leading proponent of reconsidering the nuclear modernization effort. He called on Biden in August to “take a hard look at whether every ongoing and planned effort is necessary.”
Tomero clearly shares some of those views. In May she insisted in testimony before Smith’s panel that the United States needs an upgraded nuclear arsenal to deter Russia and China, but also pledged that the Pentagon would seek ways to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”
“Our upcoming strategic reviews will play a critical role in laying the groundwork for this effort by allowing us to examine areas where we can make progress toward this goal,” she testified.
Tomero’s supporters said they hope that she finds another perch in the Biden administration when she departs the Pentagon next month, possibly at the National Security Council.
“My fear is it was an inside move to squeeze her out,” added Tierney, who said he has spoken to a number of her allies. “My concern is they don’t want to look at this in a reasonable way.”
Others are a bit more optimistic about the outcome of the nuclear review.
Jon Wolfsthal, who was Biden's special adviser for nuclear policy when he was vice president, said he thinks it’s possible that more senior Biden administration officials, including the president himself, will end up shaping the final product.
“It’s clear that Trump never saw or understood his own Nuclear Posture Review,” said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to Global Zero, a disarmament group. “When you have a president who doesn’t care or understand, the staff sets the NPR. Biden has a long history [on nuclear issues]. In that situation the personnel and the process is a little less important, The question is will he have time to put to this issue. That’s an open question and not one we’ll know for a few months.”
Paul McLeary and Alexander Ward contributed to this report.
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