A blue-ribbon Pentagon panel has urged the Trump administration to make the U.S. arsenal more capable of “limited” atomic war.
The Defense Science Board, in an unpublished December report obtained by CQ Roll Call, urges the president to consider altering existing and planned U.S. armaments to achieve a greater number of lower-yield weapons that could provide a “tailored nuclear option for limited use.”
The recommendation is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but it foreshadows a raging debate just over the horizon.
Fully one-third of the nuclear arsenal is already considered low-yield, defense analysts say, and almost all the newest warheads are being built with less destructive options. But experts on the Pentagon panel and elsewhere say the board’s goal is to further increase the number of smaller-scale nuclear weapons — and the ways they can be delivered — in order to deter adversaries, primarily Russia, from using nuclear weapons first.
Critics of such an expansion say that even these less explosive nuclear weapons, which pack only a fraction of the punch of the bombs America dropped on Japan in 1945, can still kill scores of thousands of people and lead to lasting environmental damage. They worry that expanding the inventory of lower-yield warheads — and the means for delivering them — could make atomic war more thinkable and could trigger a cycle of response from adversaries, possibly making nuclear conflict more likely. And, they say, such an expansion would cost a lot of money without necessarily increasing security.
The issue will gain greater prominence in the next several years as an up-to-$1 trillion update of the U.S. nuclear arsenal becomes the biggest Pentagon budget issue. That update, as now planned, mostly involves building new versions of the same submarines, bombers, missiles, bombs and warheads. Support for the modernization effort is bipartisan.
But any effort to create new weapons, or even to modify existing ones, in order to expand the arsenal of potentially usable nuclear weapons is likely to trigger opposition.
“There’s one role — and only one role — for nuclear weapons, and that’s deterrence. We cannot, must not, will not ever countenance their actual use,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. “There’s no such thing as limited nuclear war, and for the Pentagon’s advisory board to even suggest such a thing is deeply troubling.”
“I have no doubt the proposal to research low-yield nuclear weapons is just the first step to actually building them,” she added. “I’ve fought against such reckless efforts in the past and will do so again, with every tool at my disposal.”
Conservatives on the congressional defense committees generally support exploring new nuclear options.
“We know from testimony that Russia, among others, are fielding new nuclear weapons with new capabilities for new employment doctrines,” said Alabama Republican Rep. Mike D. Rogers, the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. “We would be irresponsible not to evaluate what these developments mean for the U.S. and our modernization programs.”
Dustin Walker, a spokesman for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services, said, “It has been the policy of Republican and Democratic presidents since the end of the Cold War to retain a range of nuclear capabilities, both in terms of explosive yield and method of delivery. Such a range of capabilities strengthens deterrence by signaling to potential adversaries that we can respond to a wide range of scenarios.”
Worries about Trump
The Defense Science Board’s nuclear recommendation is buried inside a report titled “Seven Defense Priorities for the New Administration,” which also addresses homeland security, protecting information systems and more. The board has made similar nuclear recommendations before, but the new report adds volume to a growing chorus of hawkish experts calling for a nuclear arsenal they say is more “discriminate.”
The board’s latest statement comes at a pivotal time because Trump rattled many Americans with comments during the campaign about nuclear weapons. He suggested that atomic arms might be an appropriate response to an Islamic State attack and that it’s good for a president to be “unpredictable” about nuclear weapons. He also said, referring to nuclear weapons in general, that “the power, the destruction is very important to me.”
Thirty-four former nuclear launch control officers wrote an open letter during the campaign arguing that Trump “should not have his finger on the button.” And lawmakers are weighing legislation this year that, for the first time, would give Congress, not just the president, authority to launch a nuclear first strike, though those bills’ chances of passing either chamber are scant.
Last month, Trump mandated a new “nuclear posture review,” an assessment of the way forward aimed at ensuring the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The memorandum contained echoes of the Defense Science Board’s language. Trump said the review would ensure a nuclear arsenal that is “modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies.”
Lawmakers from both parties said last week that the debate over more lower-yield warheads should be part of the upcoming review.
New forms of deterrence
The Defense Science Board’s position is that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons first in a war in order to deter the United States from further escalating the conflict — a posture Moscow calls “escalate to de-escalate.” China, North Korea, Iran and other potential foes may take a similar tack, this group of experts fears.
The concern is that enemies may not perceive America’s massive nuclear arsenal as a credible threat, because neither foes nor friends believe the U.S. would use it. Moreover, the group says, if countries such as South Korea and Japan don’t believe America’s nuclear umbrella will protect them, they may consider building their own atomic arsenals.
The hawks also say the U.S. military’s conventional firepower is not sufficient to deter or respond to a growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threat, because those countries’ increasingly long-range air defenses and missiles have neutered much of America’s conventional clout.
The U.S. military has significantly scaled back its inventory of low-yield nuclear weapons but still retains about 1,500, said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert with the Federation of American Scientists. The explosive energy of low-yield warheads is generally 10 kilotons or less, which is two-thirds the power of the Hiroshima bomb that killed perhaps 150,000 people.
All current and future low-yield U.S. weapons would be delivered by aircraft. But more options are needed, the nuclear advocates say. America’s ballistic missiles — both ground-based and submarine-launched — are not equipped to carry lower-yield nuclear warheads, nor are drones, experts say. Missiles might be able to reach targets faster and without getting anywhere near an enemy’s territory. And drones would not risk pilots’ lives and can fly for long periods of time.
“The world has moved on from Cold War deterrence concepts, but alas, the U.S. debate has not,” said William Schneider, a defense expert at the Hudson Institute think tank and a veteran member of the Defense Science Board.
Fears of expanded arms race
Those who oppose development or production of more small-scale nuclear weapons argue that U.S. conventional capabilities are unmatched. They also say there’s no reason to believe that Russia, for all its bluster, would go nuclear in a conflict, because it would never assume the United States wouldn’t respond either with overwhelming conventional force or nuclear weapons.
Moreover, they say, the United States has or will have plenty of lower-yield nuclear bombs to drop if necessary. And, they add, there are few scenarios in which missiles would be needed to deliver such warheads, because aircraft will suffice, particularly if they can launch atomic-tipped cruise missiles from long distances.
There are potentially serious disadvantages to expanding the lower-yield arsenal, the critics also contend.
First, there’s the cost — expected to be in the billions. Then there’s the concern that any such U.S. moves would be matched by Russia and China in a new low-yield arms race that would increase tensions and heighten the risk of deadly miscalculation. What’s more, these analysts say, the U.S. military would need to present the president with options for using these weapons in a crisis, and those options may prove attractive. That’s because the president might believe he could use these weapons without necessarily starting a global nuclear war.
Kingston Reif, an expert on atomic weaponry with the Arms Control Association, fears that proponents of expanding the number and variety of lower-yield nuclear weapons may get the upper hand in the Trump administration.
“The pursuit of new types of nuclear warheads for limited-use scenarios is strategically and technically unwise,” Reif said. “We should be looking to strengthen the dividing line between nuclear and conventional, not blurring that line.”
It’s fair to say that a new nuclear arms race is already underway. But questions remain as to whether it will expand, in what ways and how dangerously.
“This was a game we played during the Cold War, and it took us a while to get out of it,” said Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, referring to America’s reduced reliance on tactical nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
In 1993, Congress enacted legislation that would ban development of new types of nuclear weapons. That ban was overturned about a decade later. But the defense board report notes that neither the Pentagon nor the Energy Department has actually begun such development work. That could change soon, if only via modifications to existing warheads.