“Dangerous, cold war thinking” is how some critics are describing it.
Jon Wolfsthal was a special assistant to former President Barack Obama on arms control and nonproliferation.
He has seen the most recent draft of a nuclear posture review (NPR) coming out of President Donald Trump’s administration.
And he’s concerned.
What he sees are plans designed to loosen constraints on nuclear weapons use, and develop new low-yield nuclear warheads for US Trident missiles.
Where the Obama administration sought to reduce nuclear weapons use in US defense, Trump is aggressively increasing it.
Arms control advocates argue the new proposal to make smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons increases the chances for nuclear conflict, especially since what they see is Trump’s volatility and ostentatious boasting to North Korea about the U.S. arsenal.
The the first to be published in eight years, the NPR is expected to be published after Trump’s State of the Union speech at the end of the month.
It expands the circumstances in which the US might use nuclear weapons to include a response to a non-nuclear attack causing mass casualties, or aimed at critical infrastructure, nuclear command, and control sites.
Wolfsthal said the NPR states the U.S. will start work on reintroducing a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile to counter a new ground-launched cruise missile the U.S. has accused Russia of developing in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Earlier NPR drafts were more hawkish, according to Wolfsthal. The final drops proposals to develop a nuclear hyper-glide weapon; it also removes promises to non-nuclear nations the US will refrain from using its nuclear weapons against them.
“My read is this is a walk-back from how extreme it was early on. It doesn’t have as much terrible stuff in it as it did originally. But it’s still bad. What I’ve been told by the people who wrote the thing was what they were trying to do was to send a clear deterrent message to Russians, the North Korean and the Chinese. And there is pretty good, moderate but strong language that makes clear that any attempt by Russia or North Korea to use nuclear weapons would result in a massive consequence for them and I think that’s actually moderate, centrist, and probably very much needed. Where they go overboard is where they say that in order to make that credible, the US needs to develop two new types of nuclear weapons.”
The modified Trident warhead, Wolfsthal said, is “totally unnecessary” because the US already possesses low-yield weapons, B-61 gravity bombs, and air-launched cruise missiles.
He criticizes arming the planned new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines with a low-yield “tactical” weapon as “pretty dumb” because firing it would reveal a submarine’s position.
“We spend five billion dollars per submarine to make it invisible and we put a lot of warheads on each submarine and so what they want to do is take one missile, put one small warhead on it and launch it first, so the submarine is vulnerable to Russian attack. That strikes me as being unsustainable from a naval strategy point of view.”
Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, cited incoherent justification for developing the new weapons.
“It assumes that the intelligence community has determined that one or several adversaries out there are gambling that the US would be self-deterred from using a ballistic missile warhead because they have larger yield. That’s just not the case. We have never, ever heard anyone say that is so. I don’t think any adversary – certainly not Russia, – would gamble that if they did something with nukes that were low yield that we would not respond. That’s completely ludicrous. I think this is about having some warhead work at the laboratories and exploring options. I don’t see this as a real mission.”
Head of the Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball, said:
“The United States already possesses a diverse array of nuclear capabilities, and there is no evidence that more usable weapons will strengthen deterrence of adversaries or compel them to make different choices about their arsenals. The use of even a small number of these weapons would be catastrophic. Threatening nuclear attack to counter new kinds of ‘asymmetric’ threats is unnecessary, would increase the risk of nuclear weapons use, and would make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies.”
Clapper told CNN:
“Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, the access to the nuclear codes. In a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”
If there is one promise Trump is keeping in all this it’s the promise of a new arms race.
While he was still President-elect, he tweeted:
“[The U.S.] must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Trump stated in an off-air conversation with MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
“Let it be an arms race…we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Maybe this is the “bigger button” to which Trump referred.
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