The Nuclear Posture Review, officially revealed Friday, does not change when a president might order a nuclear strike in response to a non-nuclear attack. But it does provide more hypotheticals about the circumstances that might force the president’s hand.
Language in the NPR — a comprehensive look at America’s nuclear weapons and the doctrine behind it — does not differ from the Obama-era language, said both Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, and Greg Weaver, deputy director for strategic stability on the J5, Joint Staff, two of the key authors of the report who spoke to reporters ahead of its release.
While the Obama document couched that possibility in broad terms about “extreme” circumstances,“ this version tries to put a finer point on what events could elicit a response.
After a draft version of the document leaked, a major point of contention in the national security community became that the new language appeared to open the option of a nuclear response to a major cyberattack on U.S. soil.
For instance, on page 16 of the leaked draft, under the “Flexible Capabilities” subhead, the document reads that “the President will have an expanding range of limited and graduated options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks, which could now include attacks against U.S. NC3, in space and cyber space.”
In the published document, that line has been eliminated and replaced by a more general statement about the need for flexibility in the nuclear forces.
Under another subhead, “Hedge Against Diverse Uncertainty” (page 21 of the leaked draft), the authors write the U.S. must “hedge against the potential rapid growth or emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression.” That line appears intact in the final version, on page 38.
Speaking Jan. 27, Gen. Paul Selva, the vice-chairman of the joint chiefs, denied that the document spelled out the option to use nuclear weapons as a response to a cyberattack. And Soofer downplayed such a notion. He and Weaver argued that language in the document does nothing to change the stance laid out by the Obama NPR in 2010.
But asked specifically if a “debilitating” cyber attack on the U.S. could trigger a nuclear response, Soofer said “yes,” if the context was right.
“We are looking at strategic attacks, non-nuclear strategic attacks that cause catastrophic effects. If the attack could, say, cause thousands of U.S. casualties in a city, adversaries need to know that could elicit a nuclear response. That’s a deterrent effect,” Soofer said. “We’re not excluding it, no.”
Weaver used similar logic.
“There is no intent to extend the range of circumstances. It doesn’t do that. The Obama policy didn’t rule out anything as a potential extreme circumstance,” Weaver said. “Our intent is to clarify the kinds of things that might constitute extreme circumstance so adversaries don’t miscalculate and cross that threshold unwittingly.”
Asked specifically if anything was changed as a result of the leaked draft, Soofer and Weaver both said not to their knowledge, though Soofer said he never actually read the leaked draft and wasn’t sure which version appeared online.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.