Global Security Environment

Mian Majid Ali Afzal

The reviews outline the potential adversaries and threats to US security. By comparing the global security environment in the 2018 review with the 2002 review and 2010 review, one finds that there is no major change in threats and adversaries, but the priorities have changed. The international security environment was termed as dynamic and unpredictable in 2002 review. The threat of global nuclear war had reduced in the 2010 security environment assessment but the risk of the use of nuclear weapons had increased. Non-state actors and terrorism are also given more focus in the 2010 Review. The competition with Russia and China is mentioned in all three reviews. Russia and China are mentioned in the 2002 and 2010 reviews as the undesired but potential adversaries. Their nuclear programs are termed as a source of concern for the US. The 2018 review states Russia and China as geopolitical competitors. The other common pressing challenge is nuclear proliferation. The threat of nuclear terrorism was given relatively more space in the 2010 review as compared to 2002 and 2018 reviews. According to the 2010 Review, nuclear terrorism was the most immediate and extreme threat. It stated that Al Qaeda and its allies were trying to get nuclear weapons. And that they would use nuclear weapons against the United States if they could get them.

Role of Nuclear Weapons

The basic role assigned to nuclear weapons in the US strategy is to deter a nuclear attack on the US mainland, its allies, and partners. This, however, also includes other conditions where nuclear weapons play a role. The 2002 review stated that nuclear forces would “continue to play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies, and friends.” Nuclear weapons provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force. Obama pledged to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in his April 2009 Prague speech. Although the 2010 review downgraded the role of nuclear weapons for deterring nuclear aggression, there remained a range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons might have played a role. These included conventional or chemical and biological weapons attack16 from states like Russia and China which were nuclear weapons states and noncompliant states like Iran and North Korea. The 2002 Review limits contingencies, in which nuclear weapons might be employed, in an indirect manner. The 2018 review is more explicit on the role of nuclear weapons in the US strategy. It defines the role of nuclear weapons would be to deter nuclear and non-nuclear attacks. “Non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” The 2018 Review also creates a new category of threats, non-nuclear strategic attacks, upon which the US may consider using nuclear weapons. By assigning new roles to the nuclear weapons, the latest review has further lowered the nuclear threshold and makes nuclear weapons more of war fighting weapons rather than for deterrence. This situation is dangerous for nuclear nonproliferation since the US is the main driver of global nuclear non-proliferation policy.

Nuclear Force Policy and Strategy

In 2002 review a new triad was introduced, consisting of offensive strike systems (which partly included the old strategic nuclear triad), defensive systems, and a responsive defense infrastructure. In 2002 review a capabilities-based approach was adopted instead of threat-based approach. The 2018 review calls the current Nuclear Command, Control and Communication (NC3) a legacy of the Cold War and requires modernization to address the challenges posed in the 21st Century.

Safety and Security

The subject of safety and security of nuclear weapons received less attention in 2002 review than the successive reviews. The US committed itself to nuclear safety and security worldwide. It also focused on expanding international cooperation to strengthen “nuclear security standards, practices, and international safeguards.” The 2018 review largely shares its safety and security clauses with the 2010 review. The objective of both review’s posture is to deny terrorist organizations any access to nuclear weapons, weapon-usable materials, and related technologies.

The 2002 review had pledged to reduce the size of the operationally deployed nuclear arsenal. The 2018 review outlines the modernization of nuclear warheads, triad, and command, control and communication to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The US has plans to engage on extensive nuclear modernization program spread over 30 years. The 2018 review makes no changes in the size of nuclear modernizations instead it adds new Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) and low-yield nuclear warheads plans. The 2018 review says that nuclear modernization will take no more than the 6.4 percent of the national defense budget, but the new proposed capabilities will cost separately. The complete US nuclear arsenal will be under modernization for the next 20 years.

Arms Control

The US and Russia possess 92 percent of the global nuclear arsenal between them. After the end of Cold War and till 2009, the US has decreased its operationally deployed nuclear warheads and

It limited the operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 and the number of delivery vehicles to 700 on both sides. The nuclear warheads and bombs are also going under the Life Extension Program (LEF). The 2018 review also downplays the prospect of strategic arms control, it wishes to eliminate nuclear weapons but in the current environment, it is supposedly forced to not only retain them but also expand them. The review also fails to make efforts in this regard.


The US has been a major advocate of nuclear arms control towards the end of Cold War and post-Cold War. Nuclear weapons are traditionally assigned the deterrent role; however, developing new low-yield weapons, lowering the threshold, and expanding nuclear use scenarios make nuclear weapons more of war-fighting weapons. After majors, arms control initiatives like START and INF, nuclear arms competition between the US and Russia had cooled down. Although the nuclear stockpile has decreased drastically from the Cold War highs, nuclear modernization, both qualitatively and quantitatively, has nullified the gains. In 2010 NPT Review Conference also, the US and other countries agreed to “diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies” and to take forward the talks on further reductions in nuclear arsenals. Obama can be credited with further reductions in the active US nuclear arsenal but his pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons failed with the US nuclear modernization plans. The US nuclear policy is headed towards nuclear war-fighting by modernizing non-strategic weapons and expanding nuclear response scenarios. All major powers, i.e. US, Russia, China, and India, are currently engaged in nuclear modernization and arms race. The future of arms control and disarmament looks bleak especially with the focus on the low-yield nuclear weapons. Unlike the 2010 review, the latest review doesn’t say much regarding the nuclear arms control and the language suggests that the US is merely fulfilling the formality on the arms control. It should undertake serious efforts to engage China and Russia in arms control negotiations.


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