Donald Trump Wants Small Nukes
'Non-strategic' warheads raise the risk of nuclear war
The Trump administration wants two new, sea-launched nuclear weapons — and looser rules for using them. Experts say the new nuclear policy could make atomic war more likely.
The Nuclear Posture Review, which leaked to the press in mid-January 2018, calls for a new sea-launched cruise missile, or SLCM, and a lower-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM. The cruise missile could be the first new nuclear weapon the United States has developed since the early 1980s.
The goal in developing new nukes is to provide “additional diversity in platforms, range and survivability” of America’s nuclear arsenal, according to the review. To pay for the new weapons, the administration is proposing to increase the share of the annual defense budget devoted to the atomic arsenal from roughly three percent, or $18 billion, to as much as six percent, or $36 billion.
As of early 2018, the United States possesses around 4,000 operational nuclear weapons. The New START treaty with Russia limits the number of deployed atomic warheads to just 1,550. The same treaty caps the number of nuclear delivery vehicles — submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles — at 800.
If Congress funds the new sea-launched weapons and the Pentagon and Department of Energy develop and deploy them — all uncertain prospects — the military will probably have to decommission older weapons in order to make room for them under the terms of New START.
During the final years of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy possessed 350 sea-launched, nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Obama administration quietly retired the last atomic Tomahawks no later than 2013, a few years before New START went into effect.
Like the Tomahawk, the new cruise missile would be “non-strategic,” with an explosive yield of no more than 100 kilotons. America’s strategic nukes, including land- and sea-launched ballistic missiles, pack an explosive yield as great a 475 kilotons per warhead.
The lower-yield version of the Trident SLBM would also carry a non-strategic warhead. At present, a small number of atomic gravity bombs represent the United States’ only non-strategic atomic capability.
According to the Nuclear Posture Review, the aim of deploying additional “small” nukes is to match Russia’s own non-strategic nuclear weapons, which the review claims gives Moscow an “escalation advantage.”
The Russian government believes it can wage — or at least threaten to wage — limited atomic war under the so-called “escalate to de-escalate doctrine,” which calls for the early first use of non-strategic nuclear weapons in order to counter the West’s conventional supremacy during an initially non-nuclear conflict.
And now the United States is proposing to answer Russia’s escalate-to-deescalate doctrine with … the very same doctrine.
To that end, the new nuclear review broadens the range of security threats that the administration claims warrant an atomic response. Where before, the United States warned it would launch nukes only in response to an existential threat such as an atomic sneak attack, under Pres. Donald Trump the country asserts the right to use nukes in response to a major online hack of U.S. infrastructure.
“The Pentagon’s underlying motivation is fear of Russia’s new option for striking U.S. and Western European civilian infrastructure — financial, energy, transportation and communications — with cyber and conventional forces,” explained Bruce Blair, a Princeton University nuclear scholar.
“The ill-conceived … reaction to counter this new infrastructure threat with new low-yield weapons reverses roles and puts the United States in the unenviable position of planning to go first,” Blair said.
It’s flawed thinking to believe that any nuclear exchange can be truly “limited,” experts say. Launching any atomic weapon, regardless of its yield, could trigger runaway back-and-forth retaliation that could destroy all of human civilization. Trump’s review “alarmingly increases the risk of blundering into a nuclear war with Russia,” Blair said.