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The Trump administration’s calculus for the new nukes it wants to build could very well backfire

It looks like the Trump administration is going to get its "usable nukes."

Credit: Getty Images. Edit by Diana Ofosu

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States is about to start adding to its nuclear capabilities with new “low-yield” nuclear warheads.

Congress is approving roughly $90 million in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget (FY19) for these new capabilities. That might not seem like a lot when it comes to the overall $716 billion budget in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but consider that Michigan is spending about the same amount to replace the lead pipes that created a water crisis in Flint.

The Senate passed its version of the budget in June, with the House having earlier passed its own NDAA, leaving the two to square away their differences in a joint conference committee in the coming weeks.

This takes the United States a step closer to using a nuclear weapon in a conventional conflict, at the exact same time that it’s pressuring Iran over its nuclear energy program and North Korea over its nuclear weapons.

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Here’s where we are: President Barack Obama called for a major overhaul of the U.S. nuclear program, focusing on maintenance and repair. It will cost around $1.7 trillion (factoring in inflation) over the next 30 years to upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad.

“If we ever actually used this low-yield weapon, the chances are, we’d start a nuclear war.”

The “triad” refers to the three legs of the U.S. nuclear program — air, land, and sea. If you didn’t know what that was, you’re not alone. During a Republican presidential debate in 2015, candidate Donald Trump clearly had no idea what the triad was nor did he have any kind of priorities set within it.

But after a year in office, his administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), calling for new capabilities, and wanting them to be delivered quickly.

This is the first time the United States has added new nuclear capabilities to its arsenal since Russia and the United States agreed to reduce their weapons nuclear caches after the Cold War.

The possible reversal is alarming non-proliferation advocates.

But just what are these new capabilities and what will it mean, within the context of national security and our global policy, for the United States to add them at this time?

What the Trump administration wants

In its NPR, the Trump administration asked for more “low-yield” nuclear capabilities, namely, nuclear warheads that are launched with a D5 submarine ballistic missile (or D5 SLBM).

The new nuclear warheads would be W76 Mod 2s, a low-yield version of the existing W76s.

These warheads won’t represent a growth in the number of bombs — they’re replacing existing warheads — but they do represent a new capability. It’s unclear how many will be built, but most estimates say the number will be in the dozens.

The Trump administration also wants funds to develop a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

For the new submarine-launched weapons, we’re looking at $65 million in the National Nuclear Security Administration‘s (NNSA, a semi-autonomous department within the Department of Energy) budget, plus $22.5 million that is in the Pentagon’s budget for a total of $87.5 million for the W76 Mod 2 warheads. There’s another additional $1 million in the Pentagon’s budget for the research and development of the sea-launched cruise missile.

This is in addition to that $1.7 trillion overhaul of the nuclear weapons program.

What the United States already has 

Depending on who you ask, the United States either has plenty of nuclear weapons (maybe even too many) or not enough to match any threat posed by Russia or China.

The United States currently has six different classifications of capabilities, including low-yield options:

  • Two types of land-based nuclear weapons — the W78 and the W87 — deployed in the United States. These are not variable-yield weapons, meaning they can’t be “dialed down” to become low-yield weapons.
  • Two types of submarine-based nuclear weapons, the W76 and W88. These cannot be dialed down.
  • Cruise missiles (AGM-86), launched by aircraft, which are high-yield but can be dialed down.
  • Roughly 150 B-61 nuclear “gravity” bombs, deployed on six NATO bases in five European countries. These bombs don’t have motors and are dropped out of airplanes, Dr. Strangelove-style. These bombs can be dialed-down to become low-yield weapons.

U.S. nuclear weapons range from 0.3 to 1,200 kilotons, with “low-yield” weapons generally considered to be under 10 kilotons, a third of the size of what the United States dropped on Hiroshima (which was 15 kilotons) and Nagasaki (20 kilotons) in World War II.

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This is all in addition to the powerful conventional weapons the United States also has, such as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) or Mother of All Bombs, which the U.S. dropped on Afghanistan in April 2017.

“It’s not as if we’re missing a capability,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, adding, “to suggest we have a ‘gap’ to fill with a new one is kind of absurd.”

Even members of the nuclear/defense “priesthood” aren’t all in support of these new capabilities. For instance, William Perry, a former secretary of defense, has made warning the world on the dangers of nuclear weapons his mission. Disputing the “gap” theory — he’s among 32 experts who signed a letter late May urging Congress to reject the Trump administration’s request for the low-yield weapons.

The plea fell on deaf ears and the Trump administration will get its new weapons, which, said Gronlund, “are not about responding to a Russian nuclear attack.”

The land-based ballistic nuclear missiles deployed in five states in the upper-Midwest can get to Russia or China in under 30 minutes. There’s pretty much no point in having a non-nuclear option for these missiles because if the United States were to fire one, the target would assume the worst, and (if the target has the capability), respond with a nuclear strike before the U.S. missile even reaches it.

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The reverse is also true, meaning that there’s no way Russia would fire anything at the United States without knowing that the response would be massive, unholy devastation.

The new Cold War

During the Cold War, the United States had plenty of low-yield nuclear weapons, like the M28/M29 “Davy Crockett,” but those weapons were destroyed after the United States and Russia agreed to get rid of some of their stockpiles.

The Trump administration’s goal, though, is to develop new capabilities and to field it very quickly, within the next two years.

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress that this push is too hasty.

“Given the serious concerns that have been raised about this proposal, it behooves us to not rush, to address the implications of this proposal for strategic nuclear stability,” said Reif. “Instead, the administration is trying to get Congress to quickly approve it.”

But certainly not everyone thinks our lawmakers should take their time.

Frank Miller, a retired civil servant with over 20 years at the Department of Defense, is an outspoken supporter of this new capability and helped shed some light on the administration’s rationale.

He told ThinkProgress that the current U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons might not hold as a deterrent. Miller, who is also a principal at The Scowcroft Group, a risk-management consulting group, repeats the NPR’s take on these new low-yield weapons serving “as a deterrent to Russian thinking.”

In other words: Russia thinks it can use those weapons to win a war. The Trump administration feels it can use these weapons to deter war.

The NPR has opened the door for a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack under vague, “extreme circumstances” (which is in violation of international law). It doesn’t say that nuclear weapons will never be used in the battlefield, and makes it clear that the United States could use them as a first strike:

“To help preserve deterrence and the assurance of allies and partners, the United States has never adopted a “no first use” policy and, given the contemporary threat environment, such a policy is not justified today. It remains the policy of the United States to retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a U.S. nuclear response.”

Miller reasons, if Russia figures it can strike first with a tactical weapon, in the battlefield, with a low-yield weapon, the United States can use one of these low-yield weapons to strike a strategically important Russian target.

Miller’s thinking, and that of the administration, relies on a reading of the Russian doctrine that allows for use a nuclear weapon to win on the (conventional) battlefield. Because Russia views conflict this way, the argument goes, the United States needs new capabilities.

But as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2018 Nuclear Notebook report points out, that strategy is far from clear. The authors write, “independent analysts have challenged the NPR’s characterization of the Russian strategy as overblown and a misreading of what is really happening.”

What could go wrong

That brings us to the unintended consequences, which are worrying non-proliferation advocates.

“We’re acting like if we ever use one of these [low-yield weapons], then Russia wouldn’t respond in kind,” said James McKeon, policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told ThinkProgress. “And then suddenly you have an escalation ladder… and half the planet is eviscerated,” he added.

Opponents say these new capabilities will lower the threshold, even if they are designed by the administration to raise them, and that the consequences could be catastrophic.

Using Nuke Maps, a site that tries to approximate the damage done by various types of nuclear strikes, we can see that even the lowest-yield nuclear weapon would mean thousands of deaths in a city such as Washington, D.C..
Using Nuke Maps, a site that tries to approximate the damage done by various types of nuclear strikes, we can see that even the lowest-yield nuclear weapon would mean thousands of deaths in a city such as Washington, D.C..

It’s hard to say what kind of damage a low-yield 0.3 kiloton nuclear weapon would cause, as there are always lots of variables at work.

But according to one model (there are certainly others out there), if such a weapon hit Washington, D.C. and detonated at surface level, it would kill around 9,000 people and injure an additional 13,000. It would also expose thousands more to radiation and cause all kinds of pollution, although that is a tough thing to even try to estimate.

To be clear, the Pentagon’s strategy is certainly not to actually start a nuclear war, although their calculus to prevent one is problematic to non-proliferation advocates such as McKeon, who describes the Pentagon’s reasoning as “a strange logic train.”

“The idea is if military commanders have this capability within their arsenal, are they more likely to use it?” he asked.

The thinking among those who support the new capabilities is that the United States would not use the its nuclear missiles right now in the context of a conventional conflict, as that would represent a major escalation.

“We’re attempting to convince other nations that they can live securely, and they must not pursue nuclear weapons … while we’re taking steps to augment our capability. There’s an obvious disconnect there.”

However, National Security Adviser John Bolton supports the notion of the United States launching the first-strike against North Korea. And the NPR definitely does not rule this out, even if the language is focused on deterrence.

“The Nuclear Posture Review is of course written to say, ‘We need these extra weapons to deter Russia’ because they might think that there is a gap that would prevent us responding to a Russian nuclear use in Europe,” said Gronlund. In other words, Russia might not see the nuclear weapons the U.S. already has as a sufficient deterrent.

But there’s no evidence that Russia thinks we lack deterrent options. After all, Russia has never launched a nuclear strike against another country, certainly not the United States.

Non-proliferation non-starter

This mini-ramp-up in the U.S. nuclear program comes at a delicate time. The Trump administration is in the early stages of trying to talk North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons program, with Pyongyang insisting that on security guarantees from the get-go.

“At a time when we’re attempting to convince other nations that they can live securely, and they must not pursue nuclear weapons — and, in the case of North Korea, dismantle what they have — while we’re taking steps to augment our capability,” said Reif. “There’s an obvious disconnect there, and one that isn’t going unnoticed.”

Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, has certainly noticed. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif immediately pointed out the shift in U.S. policy on Twitter:

The United States and Israel — both armed with nuclear weapons — have accused Iran of secretly inching toward having a weapons program, even though UN nuclear inspectors have time and time again concluded that Iran’s nuclear energy program is just that.

Still, the United States pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last month, violating the multilateral agreement which saw Iran submit to the inspections and scale back its enrichment activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Zarif, who notes almost every U.S. weapons deal with fiery tweets, pointed out who has nuclear capability last week:

But, Miller argues, the United States is only doing what is necessary.

“President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009 called on the world’s nuclear weapons states to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies.”

Only the United States and the United Kingdom headed that advice, said Miller.

“The notion that continued American exceptionalism in reducing arms is going to cause other countries to do the same thing is simply not a valid concept. Other countries will do what other countries do, regardless of what we do,” said Miller.

“We are not starting an arms race… there’s nothing that we’re doing here that contradicts our non-proliferation goals long-term,” said Miller. “But,” he adds, “We have to stay in the game.”

But while the Russians are certainly upgrading their nuclear weapons program — as the United States plans to — the assumption that they are on the verge of raining down a nuclear apocalypse upon the world is not born out in the latest report on Russia’s nuclear forces.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, told United Nations General Assembly is 2012 that Iran was a year or two away from having a nuclear bomb. Iran still does not have a nuclear weapons program.  (CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, told United Nations General Assembly is 2012 that Iran was a year or two away from having a nuclear bomb. Iran still does not have a nuclear weapons program. (CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The report does stress the need for a new arms reduction agreement, without which “the shrinking of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal that has characterized the past two decades will likely come to an end.”

That kind of agreement will be hard to pull off if the United States keeps adding nuclear capabilities. The NPR also lays out a roadmap for more closely integrating conventional and nuclear operations  and making sure NATO “can effectively integrate nuclear and non-nuclear operations, if deterrence fails.”

“So we’re sending a message to Russia and the rest of the world that we’re not trying to reduce the role of nuclear weapons — we’re trying to increase it,” said Gronlund.

The United States has upheld itself as a leader in non-proliferation, which also means leading by example — as it has done for decades. But no more, it seems.

“We are starting, for the first time, to go in the wrong direction,” said McKeon, “We can’t have a global leadership role by setting the wrong example.”

Reif, meanwhile, calls the new capabilities “a solution in search of a problem.”

It’s worth noting that U.S. nuclear policy isn’t written in stone — administrations come and go. Weapons are built and dismantled.

Gronlund points out that United States has had nuclear cruise missiles on surface ships in the past, and that they were removed, put in storage and, ultimately, dismantled. When it comes to nuclear weapons, bad ideas are not rare. For instance, there’s Project Pluto, which, for some reason, involved a nuclear-reactor powered missile, which would essentially be polluting as it went along. For a hilarious, horrifying take on this, check out McKeon’s interview with nuclear historian Alex Wallerstein on the Nukes of Hazard podcast.

Less hilarious is this sobering reality: “If we ever actually used this low-yield weapon, the chances are, we’d start a nuclear war,” said McKeon.