It’s bad enough that President Donald Trump has absolute authority to launch the vast US nuclear arsenal and effectively end the world as we know it.
And it’s bad enough that President Trump, ignoring decades of presidential restraint, makes childish nuclear threats over Twitter, boasting that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korea’s.
It’s also bad enough that, in Hawaii, we were reminded that false alarms of nuclear attack happen. They have happened before and will happen again. If Trump had chosen to respond to this alarm, he could have started World War III — by mistake.
Now imagine President Trump with new, more “usable” nuclear weapons, and more options to use them.
Scary, but true. The Trump administration has wandered far outside the mainstream of nuclear policy and into the wilderness — and in the process, made nuclear war more likely.
The Trump administration just released its Nuclear Posture Review. It’s not pretty.
Most alarmingly, the administration wants to build two new types of nuclear weapons that — get this — it suggests are more likely to be used. Both types, a ballistic missile and a cruise missile, would be deployed at sea and would have a lower explosive yield than some others, but that does not make them any less dangerous. In fact, the administration says it wants these new weapons so it can make more credible nuclear threats and “enhance deterrence.”
Let’s unpack this a bit. There are some in the Trump camp who believe that US nuclear weapons are so powerful (over 100 kilotons) that the president is self-deterred from using them given the horrific damage they would cause. So they would like new nukes with lower yields (say 10 kilotons, about the size of the Hiroshima bomb) to make Trump’s threats to use them more “credible.”
This is senseless, dangerous, and redundant. There is no evidence — zero — that other nations, such as Russia or North Korea, believe that they can take advantage of the United States because we would not retaliate with the 4,000 nuclear bombs we have. In fact, the best way to undermine US credibility in this area is to build new lower yield nukes, and thereby admit we are not willing to use the bigger ones. This is self-defeating logic.
Moreover, there is a built-in assumption that if we use “small” bombs we might be able to prevent a conflict from spiraling into full-scale nuclear war. But that is nonsense. As Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work testified in 2015:
“Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”
Building new, low-yield nukes dangerously lowers the threshold for their use.
But even if you think that there is a role for more usable nukes, we already have 1,000 of them, and are building new ones. The B61 gravity bomb, currently under renovation for $10 billion, has a variable yield as low as one-third of a kiloton. The new air-launched cruise missile (as much as $30 billion) can go as low as five kilotons. None of these weapons are needed.
Even so, the Trump administration would like to replace some of the high-yield warheads on submarine-launched Trident missiles with lower-yield ones. This would be expensive and undermine the security of the submarines. These boats cost billions of dollars each and are designed to hide beneath the oceans as an assured ability to respond to any nuclear attack. Would we really launch a low-yield nuke early in a conflict and thereby endanger the submarine and its remaining weapons and crew?
Trump also wants is to bring back the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. This weapon was retired by President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War as part of his bold plan to remove all nuclear weapons from navy ships. This bipartisan move still makes sense today. So-called tactical nuclear weapons have no real military value but could lead to accidental nuclear war. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles cannot be distinguished from conventional ones, so in a conflict an adversary may mistakenly believe it is under nuclear attack. Bad plan. There is no longer any reason to bear this risk.
But wait, there’s more. The administration wants to create new opportunities for Trump to use nuclear weapons, including using them first. The Obama administration had moved to limit the use of nuclear weapons to only deter nuclear attacks against the United States or its allies, as opposed to using nukes to counter chemical, biological or conventional weapons. But the Trump administration wants to expand the role of nukes to respond to “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” possibly include cyber attacks. As a result, we could have President Trump launching a first strike nuclear attack over the next Russian or North Korean computer hack.
This is simply dangerous. “The entire broadening of the landscape for nuclear deterrence is a very fundamental step in the wrong direction, a really bad one,” former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and Intentional Studies last week. “I think the idea of nuclear deterrence of cyber attacks, broadly, certainly does not make any sense.”
President Trump does not appreciate that a nuke is not just another weapon, but bigger. We should not give Trump, or any president, new, more usable nuclear weapons and new ways to use them. We should be taking reasonable steps to make nuclear war less likely and limiting a president’s nuclear authority. Trump’s plan brings us closer to nuclear war, and should be rejected.
In our report, 10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President, William J. Perry, 19th US Secretary of Defense put it this way: "As we learned the hard way, there is only one way to win an arms race. Refuse to run." Brave politicians can put the brakes on our slide back to a Cold War nuclear posture, but only if the electorate informs itself. Thank you for your interest in reducing nuclear threats, wherever thay come from, and in our work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
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"As we learned the hard way, there is only one way to win an arms race. Refuse to run." @SecDef19.
Photo: Pantex production technicians prepare a B61 for a surveillance test. The B61 is a thermonuclear gravity bomb. Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration. Flickr (cc) / NNSANews
This article has been adapted from an article originally published in The Hill, January 17, 2018.
A correction was made to a figure in the original article. While in 2011, the "United States previously had 5,113 atomic warheads deployed in silos, bombers, and submarines, mostly in the continental US," that number is now approximately 4,000.