After the apocalypse: US nuclear policy

After the apocalypse: US nuclear policy

After the Apocalypse is a series of policy recommendations for the new Biden administration. Heather Williams and Vipin Narang are among the scholars requested to offer their recommendations on US nuclear policy first published here by Inkstick Media

February 16, 2021 | Inkstick Media | Sahar Khan
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February 16, 2021
Inkstick Media

Heather Williams, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  1. Listen to Allies: Allies should be a main priority for all US nuclear policies going forward. The Biden administration has stated one of its top foreign policy priorities is rebuilding credibility with allies. Allies are not a monolith, but many have expressed concern about further nuclear reductions, arms control, or changes in the US nuclear posture. The administration will have to balance any arms control efforts with allies’ interests and concerns. This can be done through regular consultation with capitals, engaging allies in the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, and building relationships at both the working and senior levels in the new administration.
  2. Prepare for the NPT Review Conference (RevCon): This happens every five years and was meant to happen in 2020, but the delay to August 2021 presents an important opportunity for the Biden administration to articulate its commitment to arms control and multilateralism. It should also immediately engage with NATO allies to discuss NATO’s nuclear mission, among other things, and prepare to present a united position on nuclear deterrence and disarmament at the RevCon.
  3. Start work on a New START follow-on: The Biden administration should immediately engage with Moscow to work toward a framework agreement for a future arms control agreement with Russia. This might include warhead reductions, non-strategic nuclear weapons, or hypersonic missiles. Many of these will present unique verification challenges and will take time to negotiate, so work should begin immediately on identifying areas of shared interest. Additionally, the administration should strongly encourage Russia (and China) to participate in the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) to promote shared understandings of verification activities.

Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  1. Remove W76-2 SLBM from Deployment: The deployed W76-2  is a new low-yield submarine launched nuclear weapon emplaced alongside multiple high yield weapons on the same type of missile on the same submarine. It creates a so-called “discrimination problem” which is more than just an adversary’s inability to determine if an incoming warhead is high or low yield — it is in fact a deterrence problem because the discrimination problem renders the W76-2 completely unusable.
  2. Prioritize Arms Control and Nonproliferation Agreements: Now that New START received a clean five year extension, work toward additional agreements to limit Russian tactical nuclear weapons deployments and review possibilities for further strategic nuclear caps, or deterrence at even lower numbers to further reduce systemic nuclear risks. The Biden administration should also return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) immediately, while focusing on strengthening and lengthening the agreement in follow-on negotiations. The window for a clean return to the JCPOA is closing with presidential elections in Iran looming in June.
  3. Improve Messaging: The Biden administration should not use the phrase “denuclearization of North Korea,” which was coined by the Trump administration and one of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s favorite phrases — and which Kim Jong Un never agreed to. Instead, the administration should focus on reducing nuclear risks in North Korea, such as slowing its vertical proliferation, and deterring and disincentivizing North Korea from selling its wares abroad. More importantly, President Biden’s team should devise an approach that better reflects these necessary actions. Even if the rhetorical end goal remains “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” every day that passes without an agreement to limit North Korea’s growing arsenal is a day Kim Jong Un has to expand and improve it.