The US military wants to revamp its nuclear arsenal and develop new low-yield atomic weapons, largely in response to Russian actions over the past few years, the Pentagon said in a policy statement released on Friday.
The so-called Nuclear Posture Review outlines the Pentagon’s nuclear ambitions under US President Donald Trump and is the first time since 2010 that the US military has spelled out how it foresees nuclear threats in the coming decades.
“The strategy develops capabilities aimed at making use of nuclear weapons less likely,” Trump said in a statement. “It enhances deterrence of strategic attacks against our nation, and our allies and partners, that may not come in the form of nuclear weapons.”
“And, importantly, it reaffirms our commitment to arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, maintains the moratorium on nuclear testing, and commits to improving efforts to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism,” he said.
The document marks a sobering break from the vision for the US’ atomic future under former US president Barack Obama, who during a famous speech in Prague in 2009 called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
While it underscores the Trump administration’s concerns about North Korea, Iran and China, the focus falls largely on Russia.
“This is a response to Russian expansion of their capability and the nature of their strategy and doctrine,” US Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote in the introduction to the 75-page document.
“These developments, coupled with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and nuclear threats against our allies, mark Moscow’s decided return to great power competition,” he wrote.
The Pentagon worries that Russia assumes the US’ regular, large-yield nuclear weapons are essentially too big to ever be detonated, as their use would likely result in large-scale retaliation and wipe much of humanity off the map.
“There are strong indications that our current strategy posture and capabilities are perceived by the Russians as potentially inadequate to deter them,” Greg Weaver, the deputy director of strategic capabilities for the US military’s Joint Staff, told reporters.
“The US and NATO require a wider range of credible low-yield nuclear options to do a very specific thing: to convince the Russian leadership that if they initiate limited nuclear use, in a war with the alliance, our response will deny them the objective they seek and impose costs that far outweigh those benefits they can achieve,” he added.
The document, an earlier version of which was leaked last month, says that by having additional smaller nukes, the Pentagon can counter adversaries’ “misperceptions” that the US would not respond to another country using its own low-yield bomb.
The new strategy calls for a continuation of the nuclear modernization program ordered by Obama that encompasses all pillars of the “triad” — ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched weapons and bombs delivered by airplane.
However, unlike the Obama strategy, which stressed reducing the role of nuclear weapons, the new policy has a more assertive tone.
Low-yield nuclear weapons, also known as “tactical” nukes, are still extremely powerful, and can pack as much destructive punch as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
The US already has a massive nuclear arsenal at its disposal, including 150 B-61 nuclear bombs stored across multiple European countries that can be configured for low-yield options.
The new weapons envisioned by the Pentagon could be launched from submarines or ships and would not need to be stockpiled in Europe. They could also get around Russian air defenses more easily.
The bombs would not add to the US’ nuclear horde, and would instead repurpose existing warheads, but critics have said that the Pentagon would be going against the spirit of non-proliferation agreements.
“We are on the cusp of a new era of nuclear proliferation,” said Barry Blechman, cofounder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington.
“This is the great nuclear danger raised by the new” nuclear policy, he said.
Weaver disputed media accounts that the review lowered the threshold for the US to use nuclear weapons.
“The purpose of these capabilities is to make a US response to nuclear use more credible, not to make US first-use more likely,” he said.
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