U.S. nuclear deterrent forces have long been the foundation of U.S. national security and the highest priority of the Department of Defense. As President-elect Donald Trump has observed, nuclear weapons pose “the single greatest threat” to the nation. In the coming year, the new administration will review the state of U.S. nuclear forces, the nation’s nuclear policy and posture, and how the strategic environment has changed. With that comes the opportunity to send a strong signal that deterrence has returned to the top of the U.S. nuclear agenda, and that the United States is committed to modernizing the strategic triad.
In 2010, during the last Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration announced that “for the first time,” it had put nuclear terrorism and the prospect of further proliferation “at the top” of the U.S. nuclear policy agenda. The administration furthermore emphasized the importance of “reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.” In so doing, it may have also communicated a relative de-emphasis on the importance of nuclear deterrence.
The 2010 assessment was based on certain benign assumptions about the strategic environment, and in particular the U.S. relationship with Russia. Since then, however, the situation has worsened. After Russia’s incursions into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and apparent Chinese nuclear buildup, the assumption of more benign relations is far more questionable. Indeed, the specter of great power competition and potentially conflict has again returned to the forefront of national security discourse. The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea has also failed, and hopes are now more dim for rolling back their nuclear and long-range missile programs. North Korea is developing long-range ballistic missiles and testing nuclear weapons at an unprecedented pace, and doubts remain about the long-term nuclear status of Iran.