Such changes would fall short of the overhaul of nuclear policy and programs that President Joe Biden has long argued would help blunt a nuclear arms race, namely a declaration that the United States would not be the first to strike an adversary using atomic weapons.
Yet halting the Trump-era “add-ons,” as they are called, are considered the most likely cuts if Biden wants to reverse the previous administration’s elevation of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, due to resistance from military leaders to big changes as Russia and China build up their arsenals.
“The Biden administration’s problem or challenge, of course, is how can it show that it is doing something on reductions or reforms without undercutting the modernization program that was set in motion by [former President Barack] Obama,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
He said some of the newer weapons approved by former President Donald Trump are “the low-hanging fruit,” particularly a new nuclear-armed cruise missile for the Navy.
“The good news for [Biden] is that the Trump administration hasn’t progressed very far,” he said. “Not a lot of money has [been] sunk into it yet.”
Much attention has been given to whether Biden’s review, which is led by the Pentagon, will lead to changes in what is known as nuclear declaratory policy.
Nonproliferation advocates and progressives have argued the administration should adopt a less ambiguous stance on the conditions under which atomic weapons might be used in war. They have argued that the U.S. should declare a “no first use” policy, or at least declare that the “sole purpose” of the arsenal is to deter only nuclear weapons, not conventional or other threats.
Biden, as a senator and vice president, had expressed support for considering both policy changes. But the proposals are unpopular among allies who rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for their own defense, according to two people privy to the review’s deliberations.
The Biden team is reportedly considering tweaking some of the language in the Trump-era stance to assert that the role of nuclear weapons is “fundamentally” to deter the use of other nuclear weapons.
That would be a departure from the 2018 Trump review, which stated explicitly that “deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons,” citing that they could be used to defend against a “non-nuclear attack.”
Such a change would be more in line with the review completed in 2010 under the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.
The Pentagon declined to comment on what is being considered in the nuclear review or when it will be completed.
The White House also declined to address specific questions about the review. A White House official said the administration “is committed to renewing American leadership in nonproliferation and addressing the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.”
The official added the review will “look at these issues” and “take account of the current security environment and will assess U.S. strategy, posture, and policy.”
But the final deliberations are coming into view.
“I think we’ll probably see, certainly, a shift back towards the tone and tenor of the 2010 NPR,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, who co-authored a new study on the nuclear triad for the government-funded RAND Corp.
But that also likely means sticking to the major overhaul of the nuclear triad that was underwritten in the Obama administration and is estimated to cost $634 billion over the next decade.
The Trump administration added to that modernization push by authorizing at least three new weapon systems and upgraded warheads, including a cruise missile and a smaller warhead for subs.
Critics argue such less destructive weapons are more destabilizing because they are more likely to be used in a conflict than weapons that can obliterate entire cities.
Biden, however, has been under pressure from some Democrats in Congress to reconsider the development of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which is set to replace the Minuteman III ICBMs that are located in underground silos across five Western states.
The administration decided to forgo a request from the offices of Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to study whether the current missiles could be operated longer, according to a pair of congressional staffers.
A Pentagon-ordered unclassified study on the future of the ICBM force commissioned by the Pentagon last month isn’t expected to recommend major changes to the missile replacement program, which was awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2020.
“I don’t think it’s going to be Earth-shattering in any way,” said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the lead author of the study.
The Biden nuclear review is also not expected to propose changes to the development of a new fleet of Columbia–class ballistic missile submarines under construction by General Dynamics, or the B-21 stealth bomber also being built by Northrop Grumman.
“Many of the same programs, many of the same policies will remain the same,” predicted Klotz, who ran the National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy, which builds the nuclear warheads, from 2014 to 2018.
He said he expects “some changes on the margin to indicate they have looked seriously at [potential reforms], but I expect the fundamental tenets of the nuclear modernization program to continue pretty much as they have since they were first conceived in the Obama administration.”
But that doesn’t mean Biden, who has long advocated for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, doesn’t have options.
When he was running for president in 2020, Biden pledged “to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons,” including writing that “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.”
“As president,” he continued, “I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”
He doubled down on the theme in March 2021 in his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
“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,” he wrote.
One option under consideration is to remove the W76-2 nuclear warhead, a lower yield, or less explosive, bomb that the Trump administration called for in the 2018 review and was deployed on submarines the following year, officials said.
But many see that as one of the more difficult decisions by Trump to reverse.
“I don’t think anybody’s arguing that by its existence, it is posing stability problems,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a former nuclear adviser to Biden who is in touch with current administration officials. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of energy in the Pentagon to remove them or go through the logistical challenge of having to deal with that.”
Kristensen agreed: “Since that boat has already sailed, so to speak, they may focus on the others.”
Another component of the arsenal that advocates consider more ripe for reversal is the Trump decision to keep the B83, the last megaton bomb that was developed in the 1970s but the Obama administration slated for retirement.
Kristensen also pointed out that the B61-12 warhead, which had been designed to replace the B83, is now coming on line. “There is no need for it,” he said of the latter. “The military has been pretty clear about that. I’ve heard the bomber crews don’t even practice with it anymore.”
“There really isn’t a very strong rationale for the B83,” added Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser at Global Zero, a disarmament group. “It no longer has a role so we can get rid of it. We were happy to dump it.”
Also on the table is halting development of the Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, a class of weapon that was retired after the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review but revived by Trump.
More than $15 million in research funding was included in Biden’s first defense budget, but the administration has since shown tepid support for the program. It would be the first such weapon since the end of the Cold War, when earlier models were taken off warships and placed in storage.
Wolfsthal sees a “lack of deep support” for that program in the Navy.
Others see it as the most likely system on Biden’s chopping block. “I doubt anything else will be in for serious criticism,” added a former government official who has been privy to the discussions.
Indeed, Biden’s review is shaping up to be a major win for hawks — and foreign allies who have reportedly lobbied against major policy changes.
Advocates for reconsidering old assumptions believe they have been sidelined by more traditionalists even under a president who has spent decades trying to reform a U.S. nuclear strategy that he believes relies on more weapons than necessary.
Even for the relatively modest changes to the weapons portfolio being considered, there is likely to be strong resistance on the Hill and inside the Pentagon.
One government official advising the Pentagon accused the Biden administration of “minimizing the role of nukes at a time we need to be expanding in the low-yield area.”
“It will be [a] s— show,” the official added, “but not as bad as it could be.”