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A Brake On—Or Gas Pedal To—Nuclear War?

Smaller, speedier atomic bombs won’t make us safer

Trident missile
The Trump administration wants to shrink the warheads on some Trident missiles like this one. The proposal is intended to counter what the administration sees as a Russian willingness to use similar “low yield” nuclear weapons if it found itself losing a conventional war in Europe. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Ronald Gutridge)

Less is more. At least that’s how the Trump administration views its plan to shrink some of its nuclear warheads atop speedy, submarine-launched missiles and count on them, rather than relatively-lumbering warplanes, to keep the peace.

Like a far-off planet that approaches the Sun only rarely, the arcane art of nuclear-deterrent handicapping is back. It was eclipsed by the U.S. government’s post-9/11 terror fixation, and as the Soviet Union faded into history. But now that the perpetual anti-terror war in Afghanistan and elsewhere has become mere white noise in the daily life of most Americans, the Russians are coming. Again.

Put bluntly, concerns about a resurgent Russia and the return of the Cold War’s superpower rivalry is renewing debate over the best way to prevent nuclear war. It’s a fair question. As we have heard since the days of the mythical bomber and missile gaps, the Trump administration argues that there’s now a “deterrence gap” that only its popgun nukes can fill. In the near term, it wants to put small, single-warhead nukes atop some Trident II sub-launched missiles. It also has a longer-range proposal to develop a sea-launched cruise missile.

Whenever they say “low-yield,” you say: “Compared to what?”

But, in actuality, there is no gap; the U.S. has nearly 4,000 nuclear weapons, half aboard submarines, bombers and land-based missiles. The administration plans on modernizing this triad at a cost of $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. As for smaller, so-called “low yield” nukes, the U.S. has about 1,000 of them, consisting largely of B61s, including nearly 200 scattered across NATO bases in in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. But to be able to use these effectively their landlords must permit their use; the Trump administration is seeking such weapons that it can use unilaterally. “It gives an impulsive president a quick-strike option that he could order used within minutes,” fears Joe Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund.

The latest version of the B61 is slated to be outfitted with bolt-on tail fins, designed to give it more stand-off capability (improving pilot survivability), GPS targeting (designed to make it more accurate) and a “dial-a-yield” feature (designed to make its blast more adjustable). They combine to make the B61 more useful.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has saber-rattled that he might use his own smaller nukes if war broke out and Russian forces were in danger of losing to NATO’s conventional armies (for those with long memories, that’s the flip side of the U.S. Cold War threat to counter a Soviet invasion of western Europe with its own nuclear weapons). Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a Senate panel May 9 that the U.S. needs more low-yield nuclear weapons to counter this Russian plan to “escalate to de-escalate.” The concern is that U.S. warplanes, including the brand-new F-35, might not be able to penetrate Russian defenses with their loads of smaller nuclear bombs and missiles, despite their vaunted stealthiness. Moscow could unleash its current crop of low-yield nuclear weapons, the administration’s logic goes, betting that the U.S. wouldn’t risk an all-out nuclear war by launching its remaining bigger warheads to retaliate.

The U.S. push for smaller nuclear weapons “is making sure our deterrent is fit for its time,” Mattis said. Outfitting Tridents with smaller warheads “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” the Trump administration’s February Nuclear Posture Review adds. The review calls for maintaining a robust nuclear-weapons stockpile, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: it echoes themes sounded in outside reports underwritten by major defense contractors and one of the nation’s atomic-weapon design labs.

The administration’s proposal calls for removing “a small number” (probably dozens) of W76 hydrogen warheads from the nation’s fleet of Ohio-class “boomer” submarines. With an estimated punch of 100 kilotons, each is six times the size of the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and no way to deliver a message other than nuclear annihilation. But hydrogen bombs are triggered by much-smaller atomic bombs. The W76’s fuze is actually a 6.5-kiloton nuclear bomb, about half the size of Little Boy. (Arms-control tip: whenever they say “low-yield,” you say: “Compared to what?”) The Trump administration is seeking $88 million in its 2019 budget to begin this nuclear slenderizing.

But when it comes to waging war, unforeseen consequences are common. And when it comes to waging nuclear war—something that has never happened—the fallout multiplies. Those opposed to smaller nukes are concerned that an adversary won’t know if a U.S. missile launched from a submarine is big or small, with one or multiple warheads crammed into its nose, until it reaches its target. Would they wait before reacting? And might a less-than-all-out fusillade from such a submarine betray its location and make it vulnerable to counter-attack?

This latest debate doesn’t break down along the usual hawk-vs.-dove lines. Witness a letter 32 former top U.S. national-security experts sent to Congress May 22. “Ultimately, the greatest concern about the proposed low-yield Trident warhead is that the president might feel less restrained about using it in a crisis,” they wrote. “When it comes to using a nuclear weapon, restraint is a good thing.” Signers included former defense secretary Bill Perry, former secretary of state George Shultz, and James Cartwright, who before he became vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs commanded the nation’s nuclear forces.

Trump’s push for smaller nukes is the latest evolution in a dangerous game that insists there is a nuclear edge to be had, and that the U.S. must do all it can to keep it—or regain it.

Trump tweets nukes

Critics say this makes nuclear war more likely, but the administration disagrees. “In no way does this approach lower the nuclear threshold,” Mattis says in his foreword to the Nuclear Posture Review.

But lowering the nuclear threshold, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. U.S. experts on both sides of this latest American nuclear divide want the same thing: no nuclear war. They just disagree on the best way to keep one from happening. It’s all atomic kabuki: each side paints the other in bold colors, either as nuclear-warmongers or peace-crazed naifs.

But the reality, as usual, is more complex, and it boils down to this: do you think that having “tailored deterrence”—different-sized nuclear weapons for different kinds of (threatened) nuclear war—makes war less likely? And, given that the U.S. already has hundreds of these smaller nuclear weapons, the question is even narrower: do you think that having different-sized nuclear weapons that have a greater chance of reaching their targets faster beats the status quo?

More critically—some would say more dangerously—it ratchets the U.S. into a forward-leaning stance when it comes to breaking the nuclear taboo that has been in place since the U.S. killed perhaps 50,000 people in Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

Deterrence, in the nuclear realm, is theology. That doesn’t make it any less real, but let’s face it—it’s simply a faith-based initiative. The most important step now is to back away from the atomic abyss, not move closer to it by tweaking nuclear arsenals in hopes of creating a stronger deterrent. We’ve played this game of nuclear chicken long enough. Sooner or later, the world’s luck is going to run out. And when it does, there will be no winners, anywhere.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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