The Department of Defense acknowledged yesterday that it has deployed a new, sea-based nuclear warhead capability. The move — first reported last week by the Federation of American Scientists — is just the first in the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar, multi-decade plan to replace and expand U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. But the administration’s stated rationale for the new weapon, a modified, lower-yield nuclear warhead installed on Trident D-5 submarine-launched strategic ballistic missiles, is deeply flawed, and the decision to field the device only heightens the danger of escalation.
The Pentagon argues the weapon is necessary to counter what it says is Russia’s willingness to use low-yield nuclear weapons, first to gain an advantage over the United States and its allies in a regional conflict and secondly, to prevail in such a war.
However, the assertion that Russia has formally adopted such a strategy is highly questionable. The Russian Federation still retains a sizeable stockpile of “tactical” nuclear weapons (estimated to number some 2,000 bombs in central storage) and there is reason to believe that Russia’s military and political leaders consider nuclear weapons to be more important to their overall national security than their U.S. counterparts. This is due to Moscow’s relative conventional military inferiority and its concerns that improvements in U.S. missile-defense technology might allow the United States to negate at least part of Russia’s strategic nuclear retaliatory force. Nevertheless, Russia’s official military doctrine does not support the claim that it has an “escalate to deescalate” nuclear use strategy.
As Jeffrey Edmonds, a former director for Russia on the National Security Council, has written, “If the Russian leadership decides to use nuclear weapons in a limited way to gain escalation control, then it is likely doing so as a last measure, reacting from a perception that the Russian state is about to fall.”
What is far more likely to prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to perceive that he could get away with limited nuclear use are the irresponsible statements by President Donald Trump questioning the value of the NATO alliance. For example, last year, The New York Times reported that senior administration officials said that several times over the course of 2018, Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from NATO, and in the days around the NATO summit that year, Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance.
The United States deploying additional lower-yield nuclear does nothing to overcome the damage caused by such reports and other statements by Trump that raise doubt about whether he would fulfill the U.S. treaty commitment to come to the aid of an alliance member in a real crisis.
Furthermore, the new, lower-yield Navy nuclear warhead, known as the W76-2, is redundant. Washington already possesses hundreds of low-yield warheads as part of the air-leg of the nuclear triad (of land-, sea- and air-based launch capabilities), and it plans to invest over $150 billion in the coming decades to ensure these warheads can penetrate the most advanced air defenses. The United States also deploys some 180 “tactical” nuclear gravity bombs at five NATO military bases in Europe for possible use in a conflict with Russia. The Navy’s new, sub-based lower-yield nuclear warhead is a solution in search of a problem.
The administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review argues that the additional low-yield warhead is “not intended to enable” nuclear war-fighting “[n]or will it lower the nuclear threshold” (p. 54).
This assertion, however, ignores the fact that the stated purpose is to make their use “more credible” in the eyes of U.S. adversaries, which means that they are meant to be seen as “more usable.”
The Dangerous Belief in “Limited” Nuclear Conflict
In its Feb. 4 statement attributed to John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon states this quite plainly, saying that the new weapon “provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon” that will allow Washington to “credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” including “limited nuclear employment.”
The belief that a nuclear conflict would be “limited” and could be controlled is extremely dangerous. Political and military leaders must recognize even so-called “limited” nuclear use puts their national survival at risk.
The fog of war is thick, and the fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. As national security legends McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1982, “No one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited.”
It has been estimated that the use of even a fraction of the nearly 3,000 nuclear weapons in the active U.S. and Russian arsenals could lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people within days of the initial attacks in each country. An all-out exchange would kill hundreds of millions and produce catastrophic global consequences with adverse agricultural, economic, health, and environmental consequences for billions of people.
In addition, the idea that lower-yield nuclear weapons produce “limited” or “more survivable” effects is misleading. Many potential military targets for “lower-yield” nuclear weapons in a conflict with Russia are in or near urban areas, and in or near allied territory.
Simply put, no country should be preparing to wage a “limited nuclear war” when neither side can guarantee such a conflict would remain “limited.”
Rather than deploy new types of “more usable” nuclear weapons, Presidents Trump and Putin should, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declared in 1985, recognize that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
Risks of Confusion
The Navy’s new lower-yield nuclear weapon poses additional risks.
Given that U.S. strategic submarines currently carry ballistic missiles armed with higher-yield warheads, it is unclear how and whether Russia know that an incoming missile is armed with a low-yield warhead rather than with high-yield warheads? The answer is it wouldn’t, thereby increasing the risks of unintended escalation.
For these and other reasons, last year the House of Representatives voted against the Trump administration’s plan to deploy the W76-2 warheads on the Navy’s strategic submarines. Unfortunately, the House-Senate conference committee on the National Defense Authorization Act approved funding for the program.
Rather than continuing to deploy this new and redundant nuclear war-fighting capability, the United States should:
- Invest in maintaining its overall conventional edge;
- Buttress the defenses that are needed on NATO’s Eastern flank where Russia has local military superiority; and
- More effectively defend against and respond to Russia’s use of disinformation, propaganda, and cyber tools to undermine Western democratic institutions.
With a qualitative nuclear arms race with Russia already underway, the United States needs to redouble efforts to reduce tensions, decrease the risk of nuclear war, and take the basic steps that are necessary to ensure a costly new quantitative arms race does not break out.
For instance, in 12 months, the only remaining treaty limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is due to expire, unless the presidents of the United States and Russia agree to extend the treaty. Article XIV of the treaty allows for an extension by mutual agreement until 2026 without further approval from the U.S. Senate or the Russian Duma. New START verifiably caps the two countries’ deployed strategic arsenals to no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 700 nuclear delivery systems.
Russia has proposed extending the treaty by five years without conditions, but President Trump remains undecided on whether to extend and has not put forward an alternative plan for replacing the treaty.
Without New START, and with the pursuit of new nuclear weapons capabilities on both sides, the risk of all-out nuclear arms competition will only grow.