The Trump administration isn’t content with the current nuclear stockpile, despite the fact that the United States currently has roughly 4,000 nuclear weapons at its disposal, which can be delivered by a “Triad” of land-based missile silos, sea-based submarines, and air force bombers. Now, it wants new nukes — and more worryingly, to lower the threshold for using them, according to a leaked draft of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
The latest NPR, obtained by HuffPost earlier this month, is about as far from Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons as one could get. It states that rival nations, namely Russia and China, but also North Korea and Iran, have not followed America’s lead in reducing the number of nuclear weapons and the possibility of proliferation. Consequently, the NPR calls for a “diverse set of nuclear capabilities” to provide the president with “flexibility” to deter all possible adversaries.
Some of the review’s recommendations are relatively uncontroversial, like the modernization of key parts of the U.S. nuclear triad, an upgrade that began under the Obama administration. The new NPR also calls for a modernization of the U.S. nuclear command and control structure, which failed spectacularly last Saturday when it sent out a false warning to Hawaiians about an incoming ballistic missile.
However, the latest NPR also calls for additional “low-yield” nuclear weapons to enhance the the country’s flexibility and range of deterrence options. These weapons include a new nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a new cruise missile, also capable of being launched from a submarine.
What qualifies as a “low-yield” weapon is open to debate. The current U.S. arsenal mainly consists of weapons between 100 kilotons and 1.2 megatons, so a new “low-yield” weapon would likely approach the destructive power of the “Little Boy” weapon that was used to bomb Hiroshima and had a yield of 16 kilotons. But the NPR’s whitewashed language skips over the fact that even a “low-yield” weapon could destroy everything in Manhattan between Central Park and Greenwich Village.
The NPR argues that these new weapons would “provide a diverse set of characteristics enhancing our ability to tailor deterrence and assurance [and] expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to…a strategic attack.” Critics, however, maintain that the new NPR escalates the chances of a nuclear exchange.
“There’s nothing about an incoming ballistic missile warning that would tell a country that it’s a low-yield nuke,” Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told ThinkProgress. “How would they know? They’d react as if it was the worst-case scenario.”
Bell also noted a contradiction in the NPR. It maintains that the new approach doesn’t “lower the threshold” for nuclear use, but also advocates for a new set of low-yield weapons that can be used at a lower threshold.
“[The United States] already has low-yield weapons, some say it’s for deterrence,” Erica Fein, Advocacy Director of Win Without War, told ThinkProgress. “If you use cruise missiles [in conventional theaters like Syria] it does increase the chance of miscalculation. What can’t you do with your existing capabilities? If you go down the logic chain [the NPR] is nonsensical.”
There’s also the issue of non-proliferation and nuclear security. The Obama administration made stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and improving the security surrounding often poorly-guarded nuclear materials like Uranium and Plutonium a high priority. Although experts are split as to Obama’s nonproliferation legacy, several achievements do stand out, including strategic arms treaties with Russia and the Iran deal. In Trump’s NPR however, arms control seems to have been pushed to the back of the table.
“It’s concerning to me that the sections involving non-proliferation and nuclear security read as an afterthought,” Bell said. “It’s as if someone came along and said ‘You need to add this in.’”
Bell was also concerned with the passivity of the NPR, as if the advances made by “adversaries” like Iran, China and North Korea have happened in a vacuum, and the only way to counter them is to return to the Cold War-era arms race dynamics, instead of investing in non-proliferation efforts.
“There’s a very passive viewpoint in the NPR that these things are just happening to us,” she said.
The final, official draft of the updated Nuclear Posture Review is likely to be released in the coming weeks. Hopefully by that time, Bell said, officials will have taken into consideration the scale of their decisions.
“There’s no such thing as a limited nuclear war,” she said. “Once you start, you open the door for further nuclear [conflict and proliferation].”