Trump administration to call for easier-to-use nuclear weapons

Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

The Trump administration wants to make it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons in a wider range of circumstances, according to the draft text of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) obtained by The Huffington Post. The final text will not be released until next month, but the draft reflects major (and scary) changes to U.S. policy around nuclear weapons.

Most notably, the 2018 NPR calls for the development of new nuclear weapons — specifically “low-yield” nuclear bombs or so-called “mini-nukes.” The nickname does not refer to the size of the bomb itself but rather the size of explosion produced by it. Mini-nukes would be designed to minimize the amount of damage and fallout caused by their use.

The current U.S. arsenal’s submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are fitted with high-yield W88 warheads. At nearly 500 kilotons, these massive explosions could easily wipe out an area the size of Manhattan. The 2018 NPR calls for adding a low-yield option to our SLBMs — which could mean an explosion as small a .3 kilotons, significantly smaller than even the bombs used against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The point of these low-yield nuclear bombs is to be more usable.

Much of nuclear strategy relies on the concept of “deterrence” — the idea that you can prevent your opponent from attacking you with nuclear weapons because you would respond with nukes of your own resulting in mutually assured destruction. Critics of current U.S. nuclear strategy argue that our bombs are just too destructive to practically use in most circumstances — that is to say we are “self-deterred” — and that our adversaries know this.

The Defense Department is concerned that Russia would employ its own low-yield nuclear weapons in an Eastern European conflict, assured that the United States would not risk all-out nuclear war by responding with a 500 kiloton warhead.

“Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative,” the report said.

Arms control experts argue the deployment of mini-nukes would make it easier for miscalculation to occur since in a potential conflict adversaries would have no way of knowing whether a missile headed their direction was armed with a high or low-yield weapon.

Modern Russian nuclear strategy is quite different from American strategy. Russia is believed to be willing to introduce nuclear weapons into a conventional conflict by engaging in “limited” strikes. The idea is that Russia could end such a conflict by scaring off the other players by their willingness to use nukes. The National Institute for Public Policy calls this the “escalate to win” strategy.

The 2018 NPR suggests the U.S. wants Russia to know that escalation will only be met with more escalation and that the U.S. president has what the report calls “flexibility” when it comes to nuclear weapons. That includes the possibility of nuclear first-use by the United States.

Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik News has already responded to the leaked report saying it is designed to change the perception that nuclear war is “unthinkable.”

The idea of making nuclear weapons more palatable would be alarming in any era, but it is especially concerning under this particular administration run by a president who has displayed a cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons.

“If we had them, why can’t we use them?” candidate Donald Trump reportedly asked an adviser several times in summer 2016.

“Let it be an arms race,” Trump said as president-elect in response to concerns that the development of new nuclear weapons could destabilize the current political order around nukes.

That was all before the escalation of the North Korean nuclear crisis which has led President Trump to threaten “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against the country of 25 million people. Less than two weeks ago, the president took to Twitter to brag about the size of his “nuclear button.”

The Arms Control Association is already criticizing the Trump administration plan to make nuclear weapons “more usable.”

“That is dangerous, Cold War thinking,” executive director Daryl G. Kimball wrote. “Moreover, once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict against another nuclear-armed adversary, even in small numbers or in a regional conflict, there is no guarantee against a cycle of escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war.”