Economical with the Truth: Concealed Justifications for Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

In February 2018, Donald Trump’s Department of Defense released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a comprehensive document that describes the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, as seen by the incumbent administration. The previous NPR was released by Barack Obama back in 2010, and it is safe to say that President Trump’s version sees a rather different nuclear future for the United States to that of his predecessor.

The foremost aspect of the 2018 NPR is its push for more nuclear, specifically low-yield, weapons. The given rationale for this policy is as follows: Russia has a greater number and variety of these low-yield weapons than the U.S., which supposedly creates a Russian advantage at lower levels of conflict. In other words, American weapons are too destructive to deter an attack by smaller nuclear weapons. By this logic, it makes sense for the U.S. to add a variety of low-yield weapons to its nuclear arsenal, whose potential use would be more likely.

However, the above logic is based on a weak assumption – the notion that the acquisition of low-yield nuclear weapons is necessary to counter a Russian threat. To make this assumption more convincing, the NPR includes and omits factual information as appropriate in order to support its agenda. For example, it claims that Russia has been making “nuclear threats against [American] allies” (p. I) without citing any convincing evidence, but does not give importance to the fact that the U.S. has nuclear weapons in five European countries, in close proximity to Russia. Also emphasized is the 85 per cent reduction in U.S. nuclear weapon stockpiles since the Cold War, whereas a similar reduction on Russia’s part is ignored. In fact, whilst the policies presented in the NPR are not inadequate per se, the bulk of their true justifications are shrouded with the expected noble rhetoric of “we are responding to threats from Russia/North Korea/China”. Quite how one can argue that North Korea’s nuclear proliferation cannot be matched by the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is inexplicable.

This brings me to my next point, which is that the United States already has over 1,000 nuclear warheads with low-yield options. This fact is omitted in the NPR, a move that raises more questions than it provides answers. Further, the document argues that adding more low-yield weapons will raise the nuclear threshold, a claim that is understandably controversial, though not necessarily misguided.

Lastly, as we learnt earlier in the course, nuclear weapons of lower yield are more efficient in their usage of fissile material than higher-yield weapons. So, whilst it is easy to view low-yield weapon proliferation as less threatening than high-yield advancement, the opposite may well be true. It is also worth remembering that “low-yield” means under 20 kilotons, which would classify the Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima as a low-yield weapon. No fewer than 70,000 people died in Hiroshima.

I will not scrutinize the NPR’s policies themselves, but I do have time to blast their justifications. My key question is this: to where should we trace the true motivations for the new, proliferating direction of the 2018 NPR? The following is my best guess (please read with some levity).

In his first year as president, Donald Trump made clear his determination to dramatically increase the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This was unsurprising given his usual bad-boy demeanor. However, when the time came to discuss the plan with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Trump’s radical ideas fell on deaf ears. Nonetheless, Mattis, Tillerson and Dunford could not entirely ignore the president’s vision, so they agreed on a compromise which eventually materialized through the NPR. The emphasis was chosen to be on low-yield weapons as they appear less threatening, but Trump would have been advised of their high efficiency and tactical capabilities. As for policy motivations, the true reasons of maintaining world hegemony and political status were shrouded by exaggerated, but believable threats from Russia, China and North Korea. In the end, nobody could surely have been surprised.

I would love to hear your versions of the motivations behind Trump’s NPR policies. If you have the time, please do leave a comment. — Sergei

8 thoughts on “Economical with the Truth: Concealed Justifications for Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

  1. There was almost certainly strategic military reasoning behind the Trump administration’s decision to take a decidedly more aggressive stance on the nuclear issue. Additionally, there is a case to be made that there were political motives underlying the new direction taken by the 2018 NPR. One of the most likely is Donald Trump’s desire to be seen as someone who delivers on his promises, no matter the geopolitical repercussions, as evidenced by the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

    This reasoning may be applied to the NPR as well. An often repeated maxim during his presidential campaign was that the United States was “losing” to China and Russia, in areas ranging from trade to the military. The current administration recently took action on the “trade” front, but the push for more low-yield weapons could in part be caused by the necessity to demonstrate that the Trump administration is pursuing measures to maintain American military superiority. The veracity of the statement that the US is falling behind in an arms race, however, is almost certainly false; while it is possible that the technological gap between the American military and those of Russia and China is narrowing, this is very different from “losing”.

    Donald Trump has also continuously portrayed himself as a master negotiator, and has touted his capability to “make deals”. It is possible that he sees nuclear weapons as negotiating tools that gives him more bargaining power when holding discussions with other nuclear powers. Therefore in his eyes, increasing the United States’ nuclear weapon count could enhance his ability to close deals. At the same time, while military motives are usually easy to identify and justify, it must be noted that the political reasoning behind Donald Trump’s decisions is often much more opaque, and any conclusions drawn should not be taken as absolute.

  2. As some experts have discussed the NPR ( and how Sergei mentioned, the argument for low yield nuclear weapons is a weak and unconvincing one. The fact that Russia has developed more low yield weapons does not necessitate that America follow suit. I am worried by the implications for the future if low-yield options become more prevalent on the international security scene, because of the higher likelihood of being used and still leading to escalation of Nuclear War. An adversary may be more likely to deploy low yield options if the path of escalation is unclear or if there is no fear of an all out retaliation attack. If the politics of MAD don’t apply to low yield weapons then I fear an increased willingness to use them.

    One thing that I like about the NPR is the conventionality and moderation it uses. As a CSIS panel discussed(, the NPR allows for strong channels of incorporating allies in the nuclear process and strategy. This has led to countries like Japan and other allies roughly looking upon the NPR approvingly. Even though this administration has been characterized by tumultuous relationships with allies and the media, it appears the NPR came out relatively-moderate in reaffirming past postures.

  3. I believe that the motivations underlying this nuclear posture review are as you Sergei put it. All nuclear posture reviews represent an incoming presidential administration’s answers to these questions and the relative priority accorded to different approaches. This NPR is in line with Trump’s previous statements in which he expressed negative views of nuclear arms control agreements like New START with Russia and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. This NPR does not show much – if any – ambition with regard to international arms control efforts. So Trump’s unprecedented rhetoric about nuclear weapons in previous public statements – he has been hinting at drastically increasing the number of US nuclear weapons as well as actually using them against adversaries – is only legitimized in this NPR.

    What I found particularly interesting was how the 2018 NPR at first seems quite similar to previous versions issued under President Obama and Bush. The overall aim of the US nuclear weapons arsenal (deterrence) has not changed and, as in the past, it is stated that nuclear weapons will only be used in the ‘most extreme circumstances’. Trump’s NPR, however, broadens the deterrent aim of the US nuclear arsenal. It should deter not only nuclear attacks by adversaries, but also several kinds of non-nuclear attacks. Nuclear weapons may be used, according to Trump’s NPR, in response to ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attacks’, including attacks on ‘civilian population or infrastructure’.

    As was detailed in several analyses after a draft of the NPR was leaked, this wording suggests that, for example, retaliation against massive cyber-attacks may also involve the use of nuclear weapons. The NPR also raises the possibility of using nuclear weapons against any actor that ‘supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices’.

  4. I would surmise that the motivation for such a move is entirely based on public optics–particularly directed toward (often uninformed) US citizens. The preexisting United States arsenal of 1,000 low-yield nuclear warheads far exceeds what would be used under any circumstances. I can’t think of a scenario it would be tactically advantageous to deploy 1000+ low-yield warheads. Considering this in addition to the long-established mutually assured destruction between foreign adversaries and their international allies, there is no reasonable tactical advantage to this move.

    That said, such a position should not be seen as utterly useless. President Trump is preoccupied with public perception (both domestically and internationally), and such an announcement allows him to publicly reaffirm his prioritization of maintaining the United States’ military dominance. The research and development that is actually securing our country (robotics and cybersecurity advancements, new local weapons technology, advanced missile deterrence, more robust weapons delivery systems, etc) are highly confidential and proprietary, and thus not the kind of thing that Trump can reveal to the public. The policies set forth in the most recent NPR are not particularly shocking and they are useful in strengthening American citizens’ sense of security. However, they do set a precedent for continued global production of nuclear weapons and (despite the review’s weak claims) the new policies would seem to lower the threshold for nuclear war, if anything. This seems to be an improper approach to such potentially devastating weapons, but, as they most likely (and certainly hopefully) won’t be deployed, President Trump has found a way to weaponize nuclear options with his words.

  5. It is no surprise that President Trump loves the military – perhaps not fighting in it, but to have it under his command. What’s fascinating to me is how the motivational patterns for the factory “tailored” deterrence scheme is nothing new. It seems that this President wishes to return to Cold War era policies with nuclear retaliation and the employment of tactical warheads. Is this nostalgia for the good old days? Or does the administration believe that we are in a new Cold War? I think that Trump’s personality lies with the former, while we might be blindly steamrolling in the the latter.
    The NPR lacks perspective, as Sergei points out. For me what is fascinating is the lack or perception as to why other countries are improving their nuclear delivery systems, while we have seemingly not. I think the finger will be pointed at President George W. Bush for pulling the US out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which is not even mentioned once throughout the entire document. Instead of extending assurances backed by legitimate fears, we are setting the foundations for a nuclear arms race based on who can strike whom the fastest and overcome a nation’s air-defense systems to establish the credible threat condition of deterrence.
    President Trump thinking that boosting the US’s tactical arsenal is a longterm solution is flawed. We are reacting to the acts of other countries to deter war without being proactive in measures that build peace. Everyone is armed to the teeth, and there is no clear advantage – this is the time to hammer out agreements, and not undermine them. Unfortunately, that means little to someone who always imagines the good old days.

  6. I think Sergei gets the motivations behind the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review exactly right. I see the document as one that intends to signal a significant ideological departure from the previous administration, which has become Trump’s signature approach to the Obama administration’s policy.

    Obama dreamed of a “nuclear zero,” but realizing that that isn’t feasible in the near future, the 2010 NPR established the administration’s goal of making deterrence of nuclear attacks the only purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons. Trump’s NPR is exactly the opposite: the 2018 NPR envisions a much more expansive role for the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. The NPR reaffirms the importance of deterrence, but posits that U.S. nukes ought not only deter against nuclear attacks, but also “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” including attacks on allies, the civilian population, or infrastructure (p. 21). It also outlines “assurance of allies and partners,” “achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails,” and “capacity to hedge against an uncertain future” as other purposes of nuclear weapons.

    This ideological shift is the bedrock for the policy changes that the 2018 NPR calls for. The document blasts previous administrations for “underfunding,” claiming the need for “significant and sustained investments” to the nuclear weapons infrastructure in order for deterrence to remain feasible in the years to come (p. 64). Investment would go towards low-yield nuclear weapons and sea-launched cruise missiles. Interestingly, the justification for this expansion is still couched in the language of arms reduction; the report claims that pursuit of SLCM would induce Russia to negotiate a reduction in its own nuclear arsenal (p. 55). It seems to me that an arms race is a similarly likely outcome.

    Like other commenters on this thread, I am skeptical of how this expansion would help U.S. interests. And as we might expect with a policy of arms expansion, the 2018 NPR shows, as Rachel mentioned, little desire for arms control. The document acknowledges the existence of New START, but offers no indication of whether or not Trump will continue the policy or come up with another policy altogether.

    Overall, the ambiguity within 2018 NPR leaves me with more questions than answers. What kind of “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” would justify the first-use of nuclear weapons? Would a terrorist attack of 9/11 proportions count, or would it have to be an attack formally carried out by another state’s government? Will increased spending on U.S. nuclear infrastructure encourage increased spending by other nuclear states? Indeed, what hope is there of securing arms control treaties in the years to come? It seems that the Trump administration’s primary goal with this document was not to provide clarity, but to lambast the previous administration and make Trump look “tougher” by comparison.

  7. Given that earlier posts have already explored the decision making processes within the Trump administration, I would like to consider another point that was made in Sergei’s point – specifically the rationale that the United States must develop its lower-yield nuclear arsenal in order to counteract Russia’s diverse range of nuclear warheads.

    In general, I share Sergei’s skepticism in regard to the necessity of expanding the United States’ low-yield arsenal beyond the current level. Of course, as Sergei pointed out, there is validity in the argument that smaller warheads may be more ‘efficient’ in delivering the same destructive effect with less fissile material. However, I find that soft-power considerations (e.g. international backlash) make prospects of the United States engaging in a ‘limited’ nuclear warfare with lower yield nuclear weapons unlikely.

    This question reminds me of the American public policy considerations during the Korean War. In a press conference of November 1951, President Truman indicated that he was prepared to use all means necessary to protect the Republic of Korea, including the nuclear option. 5 months later, 9 nuclear warheads were transported and stationed in US bases in Okinawa. Despite build-up, the nuclear bombs were not used not in the war, in part due to staunch opposition by other leaders, such as British PM Atlee.

    What this episode shows is the inherent limitation of the use of nuclear weapons due to its stigma. In other words, the necessity of using the nuclear weapon must be overwhelming enough to override concerns of international and domestic backlash – as we have seen in the case Korea, can be considerable). Considering the United States’ capabilities in conventional warfare, I cannot think of a objectives (e.g. controlling regional conflicts, deterrence) in which the United States cannot achieve via conventional warfare, but with low-scale nuclear warfare. In conclusion, when one brings in international and domestic backlash into consideration, I find that nuclear warheads are reserved with one purpose and one purpose only – mutually assured destruction.

    Interesting Read:

  8. Sergei, I think you are definitely on the right track with the ideas expressed in this post. The first part of your commentary attacks the rationale behind President Trump’s decision to increase the amount of low-yield weapons to counter Russia’s supremacy in this category, and retaliate against their “escalate to deescalate” posture. Like you alluded to, it appears that the US can sometimes lack clear analysis into the strategic decisions their adversaries may have with respect to nuclear weapons. From Russia’s perspective, the overarching presence of NATO is clear and palpable, and Russia’s arms buildup makes intuitive sense given the threat they face right near their border. The US should understand threats are felt in both direction.

    I do wonder how this type of situation plays out in other regions, specifically the Asia Pacific, and what insights it may yield. There is no NATO-like alliance between the US and other regional partners in the Asia-Pacific, and deterrence is pursued through a “series of bilateral arrangements with varying degrees of multilateral cooperation across different missions.” The US relies more on strategic nuclear capabilities here to deter would be-adversaries, and thus it begs the question of whether an alliance like NATO may just be outdated and lead to the accumulation of weapons, even at a low yield.

    Additionally, you touch on the fact that the US already has over 1,000 low-yield weapons, which seems like enough to counter any Russian threat. The same lack of logic in the NPR is apparent in other sections, specifically Section VI, where a discussion of hedging against diverse uncertainties takes place. The way to mitigate against the potential consequences of future challenges is to “sustain a reserve nuclear stockpile of non-deployed weapons able to support U.S. nuclear strategies amid unexpected change.” However, the US already has plenty of nuclear weapons in “reserve,” in the case of any harm that would occur to its nuclear infrastructure. I understand being safe is important, but it appears that the US is focused on constantly finding new threats to justify new increases in nuclear weaponry, when we already have enough nukes to blow the world up many times over.

    While it is always difficult to discern motivations, I think there is mainly a genuine strategic posture for Trump’s hawkish stance on nuclear weapons as well as perhaps a touch of personal aspect. I refrain from conducting psychological evaluations of the President and his desire to prove himself better since the analysis is so subjective, and tend to focus on what rational motivations may be driving policy. Here it just seems that his policy is grounded in reasserting America’s role in world affairs as a power not afraid to take risks and bully others into submission.

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