By Gunnar Westberg
February 16, 2018
This is how I would summarize the new US Nuclear Posture Review, issued last week by the Trump administration:
• We can fight and win a nuclear exchange
• We are prepared to use nuclear weapons against a conventional attack, e.g. a cyberattack
• We may consider using nuclear weapons against a nuclear-weapons-free country
• We care not to mention our obligations under NPT Art VI
• We have never heard of the climate effects of nuclear war.
In January 2017, President Donald Trump ordered a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The report is now available. It is 75 pages long. Most of the material repeats earlier NPRs.
I will here concentrate on the new aspects.
“Escalate to de-escalate”
Russian military writers have discussed the possibility of using “small” nuclear weapons if the country is attacked by an adversary with considerable conventional superiority.
These “small” – Hiroshima-sized? – nukes would serve as a warning: We are prepared to defend ourselves with nuclear weapons. Such a discussion is to be expected considering the inferiority of Russia in conventional weapons. President Putin has hinted at such possibilities.
However, no change in deployment, activation, upgrading, or maintenance of the “tactical” nuclear weapons in storage has been done, as far as we know, and no evidence is given in the NPR.
A major problem is that there are frequent allegations in the NPR about the strategy of Russia, the main enemy, with no references – you do not know if the NPR relies on explicit statements by Russian military leaders or just refers to discussions in Russian publications, or other unnamed sources.
The use of small nukes to “escalate to deescalate” now seems to be a US, instead of a Russian, proposal. This is an unnecessary and irresponsible development.
The superior US conventional arsenal should make the use of “small” nukes unnecessary, and it is, in any case, very dangerous.
“Small nukes” for submarines are also considered, both a missile and a cruise missile. This is a dangerous development as the target country will not know that a “small” weapon is coming, and massive retaliation may seem to be the choice. You have no time to evaluate, you cannot wait for the impact.
Development of such a bomb – the B61-12 – has already been under way for several years. This is going to be a bomb with a dial, which can be set anywhere from 50 kt to less than 1 kt. The weapon is going to be targetable, probably earth-penetrating, suitable for attack on protected command centers, intended for use in Europe.
B61-12 is a new weapon, and thus, like the submarine-based new nukes, breaks the US pledge not to develop any new nuclear weapons.
It is interesting that apart from the new B61-12, no production plans for these new warheads are mentioned. We can only hope that the development of these weapons will not start for several years, preferably never.
Use against conventional targets
There are several statements in the NPR that nuclear weapons can be actively used, as deterrent against or retaliation for a non-nuclear attack. Thus, serious damage to US civilian infrastructure could be a reason for nuclear retaliation.
This is possibly the most irresponsible and irrational part of the new policy.
The USA would then use nuclear weapons against a country which – supposedly – has launched a cyber-attack. Such a policy should be unthinkable. That it is illegal is obvious.
The enormous superiority of the United States in conventional warfare against any possible adversary should make the use of nuclear weapons unwarranted, both against non-nuclear-weapon states or against nuclear-weapon states who have not used their nukes against the US. Why else have this superiority?
There is a fairly large amount of loose talk about new strategies, new weapons, new principles in the NPR. Much talk, less workshop.
Let us hope that Russia and China agree with this interpretation and do not start an arms race. Loose talk from the Pentagon, just as from President Putin, is dangerous. One day your enemy may take you at your word.
Nowhere in the NPR is the vast conventional military superiority of the USA and NATO over Russia mentioned. Nowhere is there a report that the Russian military spending at present is only about one eighth of that of the US, and has been rapidly decreasing for two years.
Nowhere in this document are climate effects of nuclear war considered!
President Reagan had said that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The victor in a large nuclear war is committing suicide, starving to death with the rest of humanity.
This document is dangerous, irresponsible, and naïve. It pretends that we should prepare for a “nuclear exchange,” a small scale nuclear war that could be contained.
It treats nuclear weapons and nuclear war as just weapons and war, not as means of genocide and omnicide and the possible extermination of humankind.
This document and this policy are the responsibility of the administration of Donald Trump, but are the product of the Military-Industrial Complex of the USA. This thinking was there before Trump and will remain after him.
This NPR shows that the prohibition of all nuclear weapons is even more important than we knew a few months ago.
The nuclear threshold is getting lower, the risk of a large nuclear war is increasing.
[Many useful links to expert views on the new NPR, gathered by the Federation of American Scientists, can be found here.]
Recommended reading about nuclear weapons and the NPR in particular here on The Transnational.
Statement on the NPR by Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Weapons here.