Pentagon bearing down on Biden to shelve nuclear reforms

President Joe Biden’s pledge to limit the role of nuclear weapons is facing growing resistance from Pentagon officials and their hawkish allies, who are arguing to keep the status quo in the face of Chinese and Russian arms buildups.

Biden’s top national security advisers will soon review the conditions under which the United States might resort to using nuclear weapons. Among the options are adopting a “no first use” policy, or declaring that the “sole purpose” of the arsenal is to deter a nuclear conflict and not use them in response to a conventional war or other strategic assault like a cyber attack.

Both would mark major departures from the current posture, which has been purposely ambiguous throughout the nuclear age about whether the United States might strike first, and holds that atomic weapons are for “deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack.”

Biden’s National Security Council plans to convene a high-level meeting on nuclear declaratory policy this month, according to a White House official who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

But China’s surprising nuclear expansion in recent months alongside Russia’s modernization of its arsenal has strengthened the hand of military leaders who oppose any policy changes or significant cuts to a new generation of missiles, bombers and other atomic weapons, according to a half a dozen current and former government officials privy to the discussions.

Multiple administration officials maintain that Biden, drawing on his decades of experience, will ultimately put his own stamp on the nuclear strategy. But what he chooses will also depend on what’s presented to him.

As of now, it doesn’t appear the Pentagon wants to give him much of a choice. “It’s not likely that sole purpose or no first use will be presented as options,” a DoD official familiar with the nuclear review told POLITICO.

John Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesperson, responded to the assertion: “That account offered to you by the official is inaccurate,” he said. DoD is participating in “an inclusive, comprehensive process.”

"Ultimately, of course, this policy is a presidential-level decision," Kirby added.

But others agreed with the unnamed DoD official. “This thing is lost,” said a former government official who is in direct contact with officials undertaking a Nuclear Posture Review and supports considering both a no first use and a sole purpose policy.

“There’s no points of debate,” said the former official, contending that officials who support considering such alternatives, particularly at the State Department, have struggled to get traction in meetings steered by the Pentagon.

“Who in the White House would make this thing happen?” complained the former official. “The document is being generated by DoD.”

The review is slated to be completed in January.

Biden’s ambitions

Biden made clear early in his presidency that he wanted to follow through on his long-held view that it is possible to limit the role of nuclear weapons and the chances of a conflict.

“We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible,” Biden stated in his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in March.

His internal guidance setting the parameters for the nuclear review also said he wanted to be presented with a range of options, including those that were not the consensus of national security agencies, said the former government official, who requested anonymity to share private conversations.

Biden has argued publicly in the past for considering a no first use policy. “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats — it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary,” he said in 2017. “Or make sense.”

Proponents contend that declaring the United States would never strike first would reduce nuclear tensions and perhaps dial down an arms race, arguing that the current ambiguity could sow confusion in the event of a false warning and spark an accidental nuclear war.

Opponents counter that removing the ambiguity would severely undermine America’s ability to deter nuclear adversaries and that there is no evidence Russia or China would change their own destabilizing behavior. They make a similar argument against outlining the specific threats that might require a nuclear response.

‘Lack of answers’

Biden’s allies in Congress are also beginning to complain about the lack of details from the administration on the nuclear review process, who is advising it, and what it might mean for the president’s goals.

“The Nuclear Posture Review must reflect the President’s guidance to ‘reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national strategy,’” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and co-chair of the Nuclear Weapons Working Group, told POLITICO.

Markey penned a letter to Biden in September seeking further explanation on why the Pentagon removed Leonor Tomero from her position running the nuclear review. Tomero, a longtime nuclear policy official, previously worked for Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who has promised legislation to adopt a no first use policy.

The Pentagon-led review, which also includes input from the State and Energy Departments, is now headed by Richard Johnson, a specialist in weapons of mass destruction who helped negotiate the nuclear pact with Iran but is not widely considered an expert on nuclear deterrence or weapons strategy.

He is relying on a host of career military and civilian nuclear experts, many of whom were involved in the 2018 review during the Trump administration, which also recommended the development of several new types of nuclear weapons, several current and former officials said.

“He's a brilliant guy. And if you want to know something about the Iran deal, or if you want to know something about talking to North Koreans about their program, Richard is one thousand percent your guy,” the ex-official said. “But he’s just not a U.S. nuclear forces guy.”

Markey also asked Biden “how will you ensure that your guidance is reflected in the options the Department of Defense puts forth?”

His letter came after dozens of other congressional Democrats, concerned that the Pentagon budget was funding all the nuclear programs backed by the Trump administration, appealed to the president to follow through on his pledge to reduce the role of nuclear arms.

Markey’s office has not yet received a response. And he is concerned that it spells trouble for the president’s agenda.

The “Pentagon’s lack of answers to date about the Nuclear Posture Review leave me concerned the policy review will prioritize the old assumptions of the military industrial complex at the expense of diverse voices seeking to reduce nuclear risks,” Markey told POLITICO in a statement.

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Uriah Orland responded that the department is “committed to keeping Congress fully informed of our ongoing reviews and will provide briefings as the reviews move toward completion.” And the Pentagon has insisted in recent months that it is conducting an inclusive process that is relying on a variety of viewpoints.

The State Department, in a statement, also expressed confidence that “the President will be provided with options informed by allied and partner views and supported by a rigorous and dynamic interagency analytical process.”

“We have and will continue to consult with our allies and partners throughout the review process,” the statement added.

But the Defense Department official familiar with the review believes advocates for the status quo are in the driver’s seat.

The official said adopting no first use or sole purpose is “not good policy and takes teeth out of our nuclear deterrent, and our allies don’t want us to take either of those stands. Almost everyone [at DoD] thinks both are bad ideas and not good for the U.S.”

The China and Russia factors

China’s dramatic nuclear advances might also complicate arguments to change America’s nuclear posture. The Pentagon warned in a new report on Wednesday that China is on a path to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal five-fold over the next decade to as many as 1,000 warheads.

The report cited the development of a triad similar to the U.S. and Russia that can deliver nuclear weapons launched from land, sea and air.

The Pentagon maintains that Beijing’s nuclear doctrine also appears to be going in the opposite direction by adopting a more aggressive “launch on warning” posture that would place their forces on heightened alert.

Another enduring concern has been Russia’s ambitious nuclear modernization and a more aggressive public stance in recent years on the centrality of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal in its war planning.

In January, Biden agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits both sides’ arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. But initial talks to seek new limits on other classes — such as lower yield weapons designed for battlefield use — have made little progress.

Moscow also inserted itself into the U.S. nuclear debate this week, calling on the U.S. to be less ambiguous about when it might use strategic weapons.

But nuclear policy veterans see a tough road for Biden if he wants to raise the threshold.

For example, Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who was involved in preparing the Nuclear Posture Review in the Obama administration, said that adopting a no first use policy is much harder now.

“This year, conditions really have deteriorated, and it was difficult for supporters of no first use to prevail in 2010. It's even more difficult for them to prevail in 2022,” said Einhorn, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who says Biden can take steps toward an eventual no first use policy.

He noted that Biden decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan despite misgivings from top military leaders. But “I think in this situation, to change U.S. policy, Biden really would have to overrule some key advisers in the Pentagon, at the Strategic Command and even overcome reservations within the State Department.”

More hawkish Democrats in Congress are also likely to be an obstacle. Asked about Biden's desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee overseeing strategic forces, said “everyone would like that.”

“The question is whether you look weak doing it, and we can’t afford to,” he said.

‘A wild card’

However, some hawks who would like to maintain the nuclear status quo — and even increase the U.S. arsenal — aren’t so sure Biden won’t still go his own way.

A former Trump National Security Council official predicted that “they’ll reject no first use” but “they’ll come out with sole purpose.”

In the end, his advisers maintain, the president alone will decide. “This is going to be the president’s posture review and the president’s policy,” Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser, said in a podcast interview with Emma Belcher, president of Ploughshares Fund, a disarmament group.

“So nothing that is presented and disseminated by this administration, nothing that is adopted by this administration will be inconsistent with the president’s policy desires, preferences and direction,” Finer added.

Another person with knowledge of the ongoing review said the team is “a long way from making any decisions.

“Biden himself has made it clear he will be the final decision maker on the key issues in the NPR, and he wants to be presented with options,” the person added. “It's hard for me to imagine that sole purpose wouldn't be an option, given that he said as much during the campaign. But my sense is the recommendation will not be for sole purpose.”

The former Trump aide also said “the real question” is whether Biden decides to override the recommendations. “This is where POTUS is a wild card,” the person speculated.

But leading arms control advocates don't sound hopeful that Biden will get the full menu to choose from. “We want to make sure that the president is presented with a full range of options even those that particular agencies — NSC, the Pentagon — may not prefer or recommend,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “And it would be a disservice to the president’s Nuclear Posture Review if the nuclear weapons blob at the Pentagon were to give him a limited range of options.”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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