US looks to develop low-yield nuclear weapons
The US military wants to overhaul its atomic arsenal and develop a new type of low-yield weapon that experts worry could lead to greater proliferation and heighten the risk of nuclear war.
The proposed changes to the nuclear weapons programme, outlined in a draft version of the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Nuclear Posture Review, mark a significant break from the vision for America's nuclear future under Barack Obama, who during a famous speech in Prague in 2009 called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Arguing today's security environment is more complex than in 2010 – the last time the US DoD published a nuclear review – the draft document stated that the US needs to realign its nuclear policy with a ‘realistic assessment’ of the threats it now faces from North Korea, Russia and China.
According to Jim Mattis, US Defense Secretary, global threat conditions have worsened markedly since the 2010 nuclear policy review. The US now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before, Mattis wrote in the document.
The new strategy calls for a continuation of the nuclear modernisation programme ordered by Obama, but notable changes include a call for the increased development of low-yield nuclear weapons.
These devices, also known as ‘tactical’ nukes, are extremely powerful and can pack as much destructive punch as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Policymakers worry that regular, large-yield weapons are essentially too big to be detonated, as their use would likely result in large-scale retaliation from an adversary and wipe too much of humanity off the map.
The US DoD stated that by having smaller nukes will counter adversaries' ‘mistaken confidence’ that the US would not respond to another country using its own low-yield bomb.
The proposed policy says the US DoD and the National Nuclear Security Administration will develop a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile for deployment. Such a capability would ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defences.
Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, warned that the review contains major steps backward from the goals of previous administrations to reduce the risk of nuclear war and prevent nuclear weapons spreading to additional nations.
Barry Blechman said: ‘Nuclear ideologues maintain that the US has to match the adversary's arsenal, weapon for weapon, yield for yield, to deter nuclear use. There is no empirical basis for this view, but it is widely held among civilians being appointed to positions in the administration of President Donald Trump.’
The nuclear review states that the development of new, lower-yield nuclear weapons is not intended to enable ‘nuclear war-fighting’ that would see the US military using the weapons on the battlefield.
The document also states that Russia is upgrading its nuclear ‘triad’ of air-, sea- and land-based missiles to include a new ‘hypersonic glide vehicle’ and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, undersea autonomous torpedo.
The document states that the US would only consider using nuclear weapons in ‘extreme circumstances.’ These include attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, their command and control or warning and attack assessment capabilities.
Barry Blechman said this goes against the spirit of the 1968 global non-proliferation treaty aimed at curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Blechman added: ‘It would encourage those in many other countries who argue that nuclear weapons are essential to security.’
The nuclear review states its commitment to the non-proliferation treaty ‘remains strong.’ Michaela Dodge, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank, disputed critics' contention that the new policy could lead to more conflict or that it would break the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty.
Michaela Dodge commented: ‘Additionally, a decision to use nuclear weapons would not be made haphazardly.
The nuclear posture review process is run by serious people with in-depth understanding of difficult nuclear weapons policy challenges.’