The Trump administration is considering introducing “small-scale” nuclear weapons to the U.S. military arsenal, in a move reminiscent of some of the stranger ideas proposed during the Cold War.
A panel is evaluating options for introducing these low-yield weapons ahead of the Nuclear Posture Review, according to Politico. This strategic assessment, which was last carried out under the Obama administration in 2010, will examine whether the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “appropriately tailored to deter 21-st century threats and reassure our allies.”
But rather then helping to counter potential adversaries like Russia and North Korea, this new weapon could make conflict more likely; it also ignores some of the more crucial challenges facing the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Trump has pushed for renewed investment in the U.S. nuclear force to make it “stronger and more powerful then ever.” This includes $1.8 billion to develop a new nuclear cruise missile – which actually began as a project under the Obama administration. However the infrastructure that supports the weapons’ production, storage, and transport is crumbling.
The weapons are overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy which former Texas Gov. Rick Perry leads. Perry famously vowed to eliminate the Energy Department when he ran for president in 2012 and was reportedly unaware that the department maintained the country’s nuclear weapons complex when he was tapped for the secretary job. (DOE staff were also reportedly alarmed by the brazen ignorance of Trump’s transition team: in the early days following the election, staffers told Vanity Fair that Trump staffers simply never showed up to meet with department officials and were confused when morale dropped later.)
The NNSA’s facilities, which in some cases are more than half a century old, have been described as an accident waiting to happen and face a $3.7 billion backlog in essential repairs. They include everything from leaky roofs to “routine” encounters with rodents. “I can think of no greater threat to the national security enterprise than the state of NNSA’s infrastructure,” NNSA administrator Frank Klotz told Foreign Policy in March.
What’s more, the Office of Secure Transportation, the agency which transports nuclear weapons across America, is also struggling. A 2017 Los Angeles Times investigation found that there were “widespread alcohol problems” among staff and a “breakdown of morale” because of long hours and budget cuts. The report claimed that the agency’s fleet of trucks was past their operation life even by the department’s own guidelines.
“Like other parts of the nuclear enterprise, the agency has been allowed to atrophy as the country has focused on other things,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) in an interview at the time.
The nuclear posture review, which is supported by the Department of Energy, will likely make some recommendations on infrastructure maintenance. But any re-introduction of nuclear weapons is likely to create fierce debate, especially as there is uncertainty where these “low-yield” weapons will fit in the arsenal.
Small-scale nukes were a feature of the early years of the Cold War, when the United States and USSR developed weapons like nuclear depth charges, nuclear artillery, and “backpack nukes.” In the late 1950s, the Army developed the Davy Crockett Weapons System, a recoilless rifle system which could fire a small atomic round 2.5 miles – meaning it could very easily irradiate the soldier who’d fired it in the first place.
Proponents of the so-called “mini-nukes” argue that they give forces tactical flexibility which the current range of U.S. nuclear forces does not. However, critics say that the new weapons risk undercutting the idea of nuclear deterrence, which helped prevent the Cold War from rapidly escalating.
“It is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which we would need a military in between our formidable conventional capabilities and our current low-yield nuclear weapons capabilities,” former State Department arms control official Alexandra Bell told Politico. “Lawmakers should be very wary of any attempts to reduce the threshold for nuclear use. There is no such thing as a limited nuclear war.”