The release of the Obama administration's review of its nuclear strategy will be delayed even further as the government stakeholders continue to debate what options to ultimately present to President Obama, the Senate Armed Services Committee has confirmed.
The Cable previously reported that the administration had notified Congress the Feb. 1 release date of the Nuclear Posture Review would be pushed back to March 1, which is next Monday. But multiple sources both in and out of government now say that mid to late March is the new thinking, following the latest principals' meeting and a still-unresolved debate over how the document will characterize the fundamental role of nuclear weapons. Obama is scheduled to review his final options on March 17, multiple sources said.
"One reason for the delay is a very heated debate about the mission issue," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, referring to what's known as the "declaratory policy," the basic message the U.S. sends about when it reserves the right to use nukes. "There are people on both sides of the fence."
Several sources said that the debate pits the office of Vice President Joseph Biden against the Office of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, with the State Department somewhere in between. Biden is said to be advocating for a policy that minimizes the scenarios under which nukes could be used while Gates wants to preserve as much flexibility as possible.
The current policy of "calculated ambiguity," which deliberately keeps U.S. intentions unclear, is almost certain to be changed. Nonproliferation advocates want the policy to be either "no first use," or that the "sole purpose" of nukes is to deter other countries, but neither of those is likely to be the final word.
In between there are a number of steps along the spectrum. The document could state that the U.S. reserves the right to use atomic weapons only to respond to a nuclear attack. Or, the wording could also allow nuke use in response to a WMD attack, to include biological and chemical weapons. Or it could carve out an exception for an "existential" attack, such as if South Korea was about to be overrun by North Korean conventional forces.
"We know ‘first use' and ‘sole purpose' are essentially off the table, but they will make steps toward that direction," said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The question is how many steps they will take toward that and whether they will mention that as a goal."
"The delay might actually be helpful," said Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists. A busy White House can now give the review more senior level attention, which could improve the final outcome, he said.
Some other details about the ongoing review that are coming out include several sources saying the document will not call for nuclear withdrawal from Europe, although it may say it's up for discussion or even go so far to say that NATO no longer requires nukes in Europe.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has been increasing his calls for a NATO discussion about removing U.S. nuclear weapons from his country and the Belgians have sounded off on the issue as well.
The Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review tipped the administration's hand a little, stating. "To reinforce U.S. commitments to our allies and partners, we will consult closely with them on new, tailored, regional deterrence architectures that ... make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy."
Multiple experts who have been briefed on the process they will be looking at whether the NPR will alter the approach to the basic targets of the majority of the nuclear weapons, Russia and China.
"It's not enough to tinker with the regions," said Kristensen. "You have to tackle the big, tough issue about how to posture against Russian and China. If you can't get to that, then we are just going to be plunking along for the next decade with the same basic scenarios that we have today."
"That's the dog that never barked. They never even thought about taking that on," said Young. "That would have the real transformational change Obama called for in Prague."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.