Photograph: JT Armstrong/AP A battle is being fought in Washington over the Biden administration’s nuclear weapons policy, amid fears by arms control advocates that the president will renege on campaign promises to rein in the US arsenal.
The battlegrounds are a nuclear posture review (NPR) due early next year and a defence budget expected about the same time. At stake is a chance to put the brakes on an arms race between the US, Russia and China – or the risk of that race accelerating.
Despite Biden’s pledge during the campaign – and in his interim national security guidance issued in March – that his administration would reduce “our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons”, hawks at the Pentagon have won the early skirmishes.
Biden is also under pressure from some allies, nervous about Biden’s past support for limiting the use of nuclear weapons to the “sole purpose” of deterring, and retaliating against, a nuclear attack on the US or its allies.
The current US posture is broader, leaving open a nuclear response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”. Britain and France also retain a certain amount of ambiguity about when they would use their weapons, and are concerned a US change to “sole purpose” would oblige them ultimately to narrow their options. Paris has taken the lead in conveying those anxieties, and Emmanuel Macron raised nuclear posture issues with Biden when the two met in Rome on Friday.
The big struggle, however, is on the home front, where arms control advocates are on the defensive.
The administration’s first defence budget in February included $43bn for an array of nuclear modernisation schemes, including controversial programmes introduced by Donald Trump, like a new sea-launched cruise missile. The total cost of modernisation could be over $1.5 trillion.
In September, one of Biden’s political appointees at the Pentagon, Leonor Tomero, who questioned the need for such a vast and growing nuclear weapons budget, was forced out in a bureaucratic power struggle after just nine months in the post. Her job had been to oversee the drafting of the NPR, which sets out what nuclear weapons the US should have and under what conditions they could be used.