MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Obama administration has missed its own deadline for mapping out a policy on nuclear weapons. Each new administration goes through what is known as the Nuclear Posture Review. It's intended to determine what nuclear weapons are for, how many of them the U.S. should maintain, as well as a host of related highly complex issues. The Nuclear Posture Review was supposed to be done two days ago and submitted to Congress.

But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the administration is still struggling for consensus.

MIKE SHUSTER: From the first weeks of his administration, President Obama signaled he wanted to see deep cuts in the arsenal of American nuclear weapons. But at the same time, he recognized the need to maintain that arsenal as long as other nations possess nuclear weapons. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made reference to the crosscurrents of nuclear weapons policy in remarks he made in Washington last month.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): President Obama has helped focus our attention on the challenges of reducing nuclear dangers and taking concrete steps toward the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. At the same time, as he and the vice president have said, as long as nuclear weapons are required to deter aggression and defend our country and our allies, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

SHUSTER: It is the task of the Nuclear Posture Review to set out how the administration will implement that policy. One of the first and most contentious issues the administration is trying to sort out is what are nuclear weapons for? Some in the administration want a simple and straightforward answer, nuclear weapons are solely for the purpose of deterring a nuclear attack against the U.S. and its allies. Others in the administration prefer a more ambiguous answer, says Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center in Washington.

Mr. BARRY BLECHMAN (Co-Founder, Stimson Center): The Defense Department prefers to have some greater flexibility there because military planners say you never know what might happen.

SHUSTER: Some say the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to retaliate against a biological or chemical attack or to use against an enemy's deeply buried nuclear weapons facilities. Still, even those who argue this position, want the Nuclear Posture Review to declare nuclear weapons are primarily, but not exclusively a deterrent. Either position will depart significantly from past nuclear doctrine, says Jim Walsh of MIT's Security Studies Program.

Dr. JIM WALSH (Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): In contrast to the Bush administration nuclear policy, we have a statement that's going to come out and say we don't want any more new nuclear weapons, and we don't want any new nuclear missions. So that's a change from the past, and that we plan to reduce nuclear weapons in the thousands.

SHUSTER: Right now the U.S. has about 2,200 nuclear weapons deployed on long-range missiles, bombers and in submarines. So does Russia, about the same number. All other states with nuclear weapons have far fewer. The U.S. and Russia are currently negotiating further cuts in deployed nuclear weapons to about 1,600. The U.S. also has several thousand active nuclear warheads stored in reserve. The Nuclear Posture Review will probably call for deep reductions in them, says Jim Walsh.

Dr. WALSH: What you're going to see from this posture review is there'll be change. It's not going to be as much as some people wanted. It's going to be criticized by others as having gone too far. But it definitely points the U.S. in a new direction, that is, de-emphasizing nuclear weapons in a way that we haven't seen before.

SHUSTER: But even as the Obama administration sets its sites on reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, it is committing itself to investing $7 billion in the U.S. nuclear complex to modernize it and make sure U.S. nuclear weapons remain viable. Vice President Joe Biden referred to this difficult balancing act in a speech he gave at the National Defense University last month.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: Some of my own party may have trouble reconciling investment of $7 billion in our nuclear complex with a commitment to arms reductions. Some in the other party may worry we're relinquishing capabilities that have kept our country safe. With both these groups, we respectfully disagree.

SHUSTER: Still Stimson Center's Barry Blechman points out, however the Obama Nuclear Posture Review emerges, it will call for a lesser role for nuclear weapons in the defense of the United States.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yes, definitely it's a step back, a narrowing of the roles of nuclear weapons and the president has said that that's the policy he wishes to pursue to narrow both the roles of nuclear weapons and reduce their number.

SHUSTER: This in turn, say senior officials in the administration, will help the United States work with other nations to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in such problem cases as Iran and North Korea. Again, MIT's Jim Walsh.

Dr. WALSH: We're trying to communicate to the world that we're going to meet our obligations, that we're going to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons. And that that's going to give us political leverage when we have to go to some of these countries and get their help to deal with the problem states that we confront right now.

SHUSTER: The Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review is now expected to be completed sometime this month.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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