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Sept. 22, 2022
Notes from the Pentagon

Biden officials tried to restrict nuclear arms use

By Bill Gertz
Biden administration officials involved in the recent Nuclear Posture Review of U.S. strategic weapons and forces sought to further restrict the use of nuclear arms as during internal discussions on the nuclear review but ultimately backed off, according to Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, nominee to be the next Strategic Command chief.

The changes were rejected in favor of keeping longstanding declared policy that U.S. weapons would only be used in extreme circumstances. The review also shot down calls to adopt a new policy of not being the first nation to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, and declaring the sole purpose of strategic arms is for deterrence.

Gen. Cotton, currently head of the Air Force Strike Command, stated in written answers to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee that officials conducting the posture review wanted to change the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used. The final NPR defines U.S. nuclear declaratory policy as using nuclear attacks only in “extreme circumstances” to defend vital U.S. interests and those of allies.

Gen. Cotton stated that the working group of officials from the Pentagon and other federal agencies examined numerous strategies and declaratory use policy including replacing the term “extreme” with “existential.”

“The NPR determined that a policy of continued calculated ambiguity focused on ‘extreme circumstances’ was prudent given the current security environment,” he stated. “I support the decision made to select the declaratory policy described in the 2022 NPR.”

Changing from “extreme” threat conditions to “existential” threats would further restrict when the U.S. military could respond to a nuclear attack.

President Biden, following the example of the Obama administration in which he served, has announced he wants the United States to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in defense strategy. The proposed language change was opposed by military and Pentagon war planners and those in charge of nuclear deterrence, based on growing nuclear threats from China and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday appeared to ratchet up his threat to use nuclear weapons. In a speech, the Russian leader said Moscow is prepared to use its most powerful means of destruction and that he is not bluffing.

U.S. officials dismissed earlier threats by Mr. Putin to use nuclear weapons as rhetorical since no higher alert status of his forces was detected.

Gen. Cotton also revealed the Biden administration considered a shift in U.S. nuclear policy to “no-first-use” — a declaration that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Biden officials also discussed adopting a new policy that states the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter war and retaliate if necessary.

Mr. Biden said before he was president he favors the sole-purpose nuclear policy.

However, those policy changes also were rejected by military commanders and reflected in the latest final NPR.

“Implementing a ‘No First Use’ or ‘Sole Use’ policy would have a detrimental effect on strategic deterrence and our extended deterrence commitments to our allies and partners,” Gen. Cotton argued. “A strategy of calculated ambiguity, which is supported by our allies, is the most effective way to deter Russia, China, North Korea or other nuclear armed adversaries.”

Gen. Cotton then stated that as part of the NPR, the administration “retains the goal of moving toward a ‘sole purpose’ declaration which will require us to work with our allies and partners to identify concrete steps that would allow us to do so.”

Adm. Charles Richard, the outgoing Strategic Command commander, said recently that the final NPR included debate on whether nuclear declaratory policy should be modified, but in the end the earlier policies were kept in place.

“I support those and I do not recommend any further changes or discussion or consideration. I think we have fine policies,” Adm. Richard said.

His likely successor, Gen. Cotton, agrees. “This policy provides a prudent approach to deterring the range of strategic attacks in a challenging and increasingly complex security environment,” he said in his written answers.

Central Asian nations resist Chinese, Russian overtures
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to mobilize Central Asian nations during the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Uzbekistan last week.

Both leaders suggested labeling the United States a state sponsor of terrorism for supplying arms to Ukraine that they said were being used to attack civilian targets. Analysts say the intent of the speeches was to mobilize the SCO as an anti-U.S. and anti-Western alliance, but several SCO members, including India, balked at the idea.

China and Russia also have sought to generate anti-U.S. sentiment within the BRICs grouping of nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — but fell short there as well.

The SCO includes China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The NATO alliance, the so-called “Quad” quasi-alliance of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, and other groups and alliances are developing stronger opposition to the expansionist regimes in Beijing and Moscow.

At the same time China and Russia are seeking to set up new blocs like the SCO and use them against the West, although analysts say the returns so far have been meager.

Public calls by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to back their military expansionism represent an unusual level of transparency. But such speeches, designed to mobilize friends and partners to support their authoritarian systems, have produced little results so far.

GAO faults lack of coordination on satellite imagery
Congress’ Government Accountability Office is urging the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies to improve their ability to buy, use and share commercial satellite imagery for military operations and spying.

“The U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Defense have not clarified roles and responsibilities for the acquisition of commercial satellite imagery,” the office concluded in a report required under a recent intelligence authorization law.

The National Reconnaissance Office is the main agency in charge of acquiring images from commercial satellite companies for both the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

“However, multiple [Defense Department] organizations have acquired commercial imagery over recent years,” the report said in a partially declassified version. “There is no guidance that addresses organizational roles and responsibilities across the [intelligence community] and DOD for these acquisitions.”

Commercial satellite images of Russian military forces in Ukraine highlight the expanding use of nongovernment, space-based photographs for both government and private sector use.

Both the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies plan to purchase more commercial imagery in the future, “but have limited ability to incorporate emerging commercial satellite capabilities in a timely manner,” according to GAO.

The report said the expansion of the commercial space sector and the increased reliance on space are expected to sharply increase the demand for commercial space imagery. The office urged clarifying the roles and responsibility to avoid “unnecessary overlap” in using the commercial imagery.

Both the intelligence community and Defense Department “have not developed an effective approach to bring these capabilities into geospatial-intelligence (GEOINT) operations.”

“Without doing so, the U.S. may lose ground in space to competitors such as China, and the U.S. commercial industry may be limited in their ability to compete with foreign competitors,” the report said.

Current government policy calls for maximizing the use of commercial space capabilities, but intelligence and defense agencies lack performance goals and measures to tell if they are making progress, the GAO found.

Until users set specific goals and measures, intelligence and defense agencies “risk missing commercial opportunities they need to maintain their advantage over competitors such as China and cannot ensure that the intent to maximize commercial satellite imagery is met.”

Todd Harrison, a space expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the cumbersome contracting process is the main obstacle for intelligence and defense agencies in using commercial satellite imagery.

“The traditional approach of buying space remote-sensing capabilities as a product rather than a service is incompatible with the business model of many commercially oriented firms,” Mr. Harrison stated in a recent report. The multiyear funding process used by the Pentagon and intelligence community are “far too slow to keep pace with the innovation cycle of commercial space companies and the capabilities of U.S. allies and adversaries alike,” he stated.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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