Pentagon proposes new ‘lower-yield’ nuclear weapons to better deter Russia

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump called on Friday for the overhaul of the country’s nuclear arsenal and developing new low-yield atomic bombs. The reassessment of the U.S. nuclear posture comes largely in response to Russia’s actions in the past several years.

In 2009, Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In a break with the previous administration’s policies, Pentagon’s latest Nuclear Posture Review urges creation of a “lower-yield” nuclear option and mentions the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to “extreme circumstances,” which include non-nuclear attacks.

Trump said in a statement, however, that the U.S. remains committed to nuclear non-proliferation.

“These [review’s] conclusions are grounded in a realistic assessment of the global security environment, the need to deter the use of the most destructive weapons on earth, and our Nations long-standing commitment to nuclear non-proliferation,” he stated. “The strategy develops capabilities aimed at making use of nuclear weapons less likely.”

While the new document includes concerns about North Korea, Iran and China, it primarily focuses on Russia.

“This is a response to Russian expansion of their capability and the nature of their strategy and doctrine,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote in the introduction to the 75-page document. “These developments, coupled with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and nuclear threats against our allies, mark Moscow’s decided return to Great Power competition.”

The Pentagon worries Russia assumes America’s regular, large-yield weapons are essentially too big to ever be detonated, as their use would likely result in large-scale retaliation and wipe much of humanity off the map.

“There are strong indications that our current strategy posture and capabilities are perceived by the Russians as potentially inadequate to deter them,” Greg Weaver, the deputy director of strategic capabilities for the military’s Joint Staff, told reporters.

“The U.S. and NATO require a wider range of credible low-yield nuclear options to do a very specific thing: to convince the Russian leadership that if they initiate limited nuclear use, in a war with the alliance, our response will deny them the objective they seek and impose costs that far outweigh those benefits they can achieve,” he added.

The document argues that by having more, smaller nukes the Pentagon can counter adversaries’ “misperceptions” that the United States would not respond to another country using its own low-yield bomb.

The new strategy calls for a continuation of the nuclear modernization program ordered by Obama that encompasses all pillars of the “triad” — ground-based intercontinental ballistic weapons, submarine-launched rockets and bombs delivered by plane. But unlike the Obama strategy, which stressed reducing the role of nuclear weapons, the new policy has a more assertive tone.

Low-yield nuclear weapons, also known as “tactical” nukes, are still extremely powerful and can pack as much destructive punch as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

America already has a massive nuclear arsenal at its disposal, including 150 B-61 nukes stored across multiple European countries that can be configured for low-yield options. The new weapons envisioned by the Pentagon would be launchable from submarines or ships, so would not need to be stockpiled in Europe. They could also get around Russian air defenses more easily.

The bombs would not add to America’s nuclear horde, and would instead repurpose existing warheads, but critics say the Pentagon would be going against the spirit of non-proliferation agreements.

“We are on the cusp of a new era of nuclear proliferation,” warned Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington. “This is the great nuclear danger raised by the new” nuclear policy.

Weaver disputed media accounts that the nuclear posture review lowered the threshold for America to use nuclear weapons. “The purpose of these capabilities is to make a U.S. response to nuclear use more credible, not to make U.S. first use more likely,” he said.

with reporting by AFP

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