Obama had raised hopes that he would opt for some more radical ideas in this nuclear strategy. But after months of internal wrangling, the administration clearly decided not to touch them. The status quo won the day on some big-ticket items.
One idea that was examined but discarded would have been to change the basic structure of America's nuclear forces, which are in a land-sea-air triad. Instead of getting rid of one leg, such as the bombers, as some have suggested, the new nuclear strategy endorses keeping all three. The thinking is that the bombers have power as signals, if moved onto the runways in a crisis; the land-based missiles are quick to launch; and the submarines are invulnerable. Another more dramatic idea would have been to declare that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. That was also discarded.
The review re-examined the question of keeping nuclear missiles on alert. Many analysts have questioned whether it is still a good idea to keep the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to launch within four minutes and submarine-launched ballistic missiles within 12 minutes now that the superpower confrontation is over. The review concludes that the nuclear alert status quo "should be maintained for the present." The main reason given is that if the missiles were taken off alert, it could give an adversary "the incentive to attack before the 're-alerting' was complete." Over the longer term, the document calls for studies to improve the command and control system and give the president more time to make an informed decision in case of a warning of nuclear attack. For a president under pressure, such decisions as whether to launch a retaliatory strike have been the nightmare of the nuclear age.
On tactical nuclear weapons -- the short-range, or battlefield nukes -- the administration decided not to decide, for now. The United States currently has about 200 such small weapons in Europe, and the nuclear strategy review calls for waiting for NATO to complete a new "strategic concept" later this year. However, one such weapons system, the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, is to be retired.
All in all, the words of Obama's nuclear strategy bore the marks of his avowed goal to reduce the nuclear danger, but he eschewed taking more dramatic steps away from the legacy of the Cold War arms race.