The nuclear-weapons policy the Pentagon chief’s team rolled out this past week offered full-throated support for the military’s current and planned nuclear capabilities, including the new cruise missile and the ICBM fleet he once questioned.
When retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis became defense secretary this past year, he arrived at the Pentagon with reservations about the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
He had doubts about an air-launched nuclear cruise missile under development at the Pentagon and questioned whether the United States should have intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos at all.
But in the year since then, Mattis has changed his tune. The nuclear-weapons policy his team rolled out at the Pentagon this past week offered full-throated support for the military’s current and planned nuclear capabilities, including the new cruise missile and the ICBM fleet he once questioned.
The Nuclear Posture Review specifically pointed to a Russian doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate,” in which Moscow would use or threaten to use smaller-yield nuclear weapons in a limited, conventional conflict in Europe in the belief that doing so would compel the United States and NATO to back down.
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The United States would modify “a small number” of existing long-range ballistic missiles carried by Trident strategic submarines to fit them with smaller-yield nuclear warheads.
“In the longer term,” the administration plans to develop a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, re-establishing a weapon that existed during the Cold War but was retired in 2011 by the Obama administration.
Russia slammed the U.S. report, saying it was founded on false assumptions about Moscow’s intentions and contained worrying modernization plans.
The strategy marks a resounding win for backers of the U.S. nuclear enterprise and a setback for disarmament advocates. Mattis is scheduled to testify on the matter Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
The policy reaffirms a full modernization of the U.S. nuclear force approved by President Barack Obama, which replaces the military’s nuclear bombers, submarines and ICBMs at an estimated cost of $1.2 trillion over 30 years. It calls for two types of nuclear weapons not now in the arsenal.
Mattis’ evolution offers insight into the decision-making process of a defense secretary known for his intellectual rigor. His evaluation of the military’s nuclear-weapons capabilities also serves as a counterpoint in an administration whose policymaking process has often appeared hurried and impulsive.
Thomas Karako, a specialist on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said many people — including Obama — enter government sympathetic to disarmament but moderate their ambitions when confronted with threat intelligence.
“I would point out a pattern of being mugged by reality,” said Karako, who wasn’t involved in the evaluation.
In the preface to the policy, Mattis appeared to confirm that sentiment. “We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” he wrote.
Over more than four decades in the Marines, Mattis had little direct involvement with the nuclear arsenal, which is typically the domain of the Air Force and Navy.
He delved into the issue at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution after his retirement.
There, he exchanged views with disarmament advocates including former Secretary of State George Shultz and his onetime boss at the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary William Perry.
Perry has argued that the United States should retire its land-based ICBM force. The U.S. bombers and submarines that carry nuclear warheads offer sufficient deterrence, he has said, and the ICBMs, which sit in fields ready to launch at any moment, could accidentally trigger nuclear war.
Perry has also said adversaries could confuse the cruise missile the Pentagon is developing for a conventional missile.
Mattis, at times, has nearly echoed such views. In 2015 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said it was time for the Pentagon to consider retiring the land-based ICBM force. During his 2017 confirmation, Mattis said he needed to “look at” the cruise missile.
President Donald Trump commissioned a review of nuclear-weapons policy a week after taking office. For Mattis, it became an opportunity to re-educate himself about the U.S. nuclear force, this time with full access to the latest intelligence reports and the U.S. military.
He visited the ICBM force and B-52 bomber fleet in North Dakota. He stopped by a nuclear-submarine base in Washington state. He spoke to the generals at Strategic Command in Nebraska.
“I can’t think of a secretary who so quickly visited all the nuclear forces,” said Rob Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile-defense policy.
All the while, Mattis read widely about nuclear weapons, according to people with knowledge of the process. One person said Mattis referenced works including Yale Professor Paul Bracken’s “The Second Nuclear Age,” which argues for a post-Cold War approach to arms control.
Mattis has said he pressed retired officers, scientists and professors for their views. In addition, he convened a council of retired admirals, generals and specialists to engage in an exchange of divergent views.
“I’ve got the smartest people I can find,” Mattis told nuclear-submarine officers in Washington. “And it’s Republican and Democrat. It’s men and women. It’s old people. It’s young physicists. It’s people who studied history. There are people who know what they’re doing.”
By the time he visited Naval Base Kitsap in Kitsap County in August, Mattis appeared to have all but decided.
Ultimately, Mattis took those and other recommendations to the White House. Congress, the military and the White House all backed the new policy.
According to people who spoke with him, Mattis committed to the cruise missile, in part, because he believes it could penetrate air-defense systems adversaries are likely to develop.
He decided to retain the ICBM force because he thinks the hundreds of silos across the heartland serve as an important deterrent for Russia and other potential adversaries, given how difficult it would be for an enemy to disable them all in one shot.
Russia on Monday said it has met the nuclear-arsenal limits of a key arms-control treaty, but it raised some issues with how the United States has sought to comply with the 2010 accord.
The New START treaty restricts the United States and Russia each to 1,550 deployed strategic-nuclear warheads on a maximum of 700 deployed ICBMs and strategic bombers.
The deadline to verify both countries’ compliance was Monday.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it now has 527 deployed ICBMs and strategic bombers and 1,444 strategic nuclear warheads. The United States reported it has been in compliance with the limits since August.
Russia voiced concern about the U.S. reconfiguring some submarines and bombers to carry conventional weapons, saying it does not have a way to confirm the reconfigured hardware was rendered incapable of carrying nuclear weapons.
The ministry added that the United States also “arbitrarily converted” some missile-launch facilities designated for training, a use it said wasn’t envisaged by the treaty.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaites said Monday that Russia has deployed additional nuclear-capable missiles in its Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad on a permanent basis, calling it a threat to Europe.
The head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Vladimir Shamanov, confirmed the missiles’ deployment, saying the move was a response to a NATO buildup near Russia’s borders, with the number of U.S. weapons in Poland.