“The new arms race has already begun. It’s different in nature than the one during the Cold War, which focused on quantity and two superpowers producing absurd numbers of weapons. Today it is focused on quality and involves several nations instead of just two. The risk for nuclear conflict today is higher than it was during the Cold War.”
That’s William Perry, the secretary of Defense for three years under President Bill Clinton, as quoted by W.J. Hennigan in the latest Time magazine—Donald Trump Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Nuclear Poker.
If that article doesn’t give you the shivers and shudders, pinch yourself to determine whether a year of the Trump regime’s barrage of outrages has numbed you out.
For the past quarter-century, ever since President H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War declared a moratorium on U.S. underground nuclear testing, the Nevada test site that, starting in 1951, was the scene of 928 tests of nuclear weapons—100 of them above ground—has been dormant except for a handful of components tests. But a small contingency crew has kept the site ready for new testing just in case some future leaders might decide such to be needed. One has.
As Hennigan writes, late last year Pr*sident Trump ordered the Department of Energy to be ready for a short-notice test perhaps as soon as six months down the road.
Actually running such a test for logistical or workability purposes would be disturbing enough. But the rationale is far worse than that:
[Six months] is not enough time to install the warhead in shafts as deep as 4,000 ft. and affix all the proper technical instrumentation and diagnostics equipment. But the purpose of such a detonation, which the Administration labels “a simple test, with waivers and simplified processes,” would not be to ensure that the nation’s most powerful weapons were in operational order, or to check whether a new type of warhead worked, a TIME review of nuclear-policy documents has found. Rather, a National Nuclear Security Administration official tells TIME, such a test would be “conducted for political purposes.”
The point, this and other sources say, would be to show Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and other adversaries what they are up against.
In other words, the kind of test being pondered by the regime is pure chest-thumping.
Since the 1970s, in fits and starts, U.S. policy has been to reduce nuclear arsenals, its own, and the rest of the world’s. Even Ronald Reagan—who notoriously joked to radio technicians preparing him for a campaign speech on NPR in 1984 that “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”—chose to work with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for mutual cuts in the nuclear stockpiles of both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Further cuts were made under subsequent administrations. No more.
As noted here last month, Trump has ordered new, lower-yield warheads, including one that can be loaded onto cruise missiles, which have only carried conventional explosives since 2010. These tactical weapons aren’t city-busters like so many of the warheads now in the U.S. arsenal, but mini-nukes for use against targets like a nuclear processing complex, a biological weapons factory, or advancing troops in the field.
The fact they are of lesser yield makes nuclear war more likely.
The problem from the military planners’ point of view, warhawks have said for decades, is that the bigger bombs in our arsenal—some of them with 30 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb—are so destructive that commanders fear using them. They know what the consequences of a full-scale “nuclear exchange” would be: a blasting away of civilization followed by nuclear winter encompassing the whole Northern Hemisphere.
But mini-nukes? Having those at hand might make commanders less hesitant about launching them. Not only would the use of nuclear weapons be made more palatable to politicians and commanders, the excuses for using them would change. Hennigan again:
Trump’s new plan also expands the President’s “first use” of nuclear weapons to circumstances that include “non-nuclear strategic attacks” against the U.S. or its allies. That could mean cyberattacks on nuclear command and control systems or civilian infrastructure, like the electricity grid or air-traffic-control system, arms-control experts have concluded. Previous Administrations limited the threat of a nuclear response to mass-casualty events, like chemical- and biological-weapon attacks. Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear weapons policy expert, said the key concern is the expansion of the nuclear umbrella to “include these new and not extreme possibilities, thus dramatically lowering the threshold for nuclear use.”
Our leaders talk about such scenarios in terms of “limited nuclear war,” a conceit that is stunning in its reckless idiocy. It doesn’t take much thought or delving into the history of warfare to know that limiting a war once it gets started is far from a sure thing even when the only weapons are conventional. When the bombs start falling, the diplomats retreat to the bunkers like everyone else. First the low-yield tactical nukes fly, and on their heels come the civilization wasters.
The new policies are being concretized in the latest Nuclear Posture Review, which has not been finalized, but soon will be. Last month, Ashley Feinberg at The Huffington Post scrutinized a “pre-decisional” copy of the NPR here.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump said, “We must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.”
But that arsenal is already massive, 1,740 ready-to-use nukes on land- and sea-based missiles, as well as gravity weapons carried by airplanes. Plus thousands more warheads in reserve. The Russians have similar numbers. Anyone undeterred by that is not going to be deterred by more.
A few months ago, James Doyle at the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists wrote:
In December , the Defense Science Board—an independent group of experts and former officials that provides advice to the Defense Department—submitted a report advising the Pentagon to invest in low-yield nuclear weapons that could provide “a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use.” This recommendation struck a familiar note.
In 2003, the board issued a study entitled “Future Strategic Strike Forces” that suggested building small nuclear weapons with “great precision, deep penetration, [and] greatly reduced” yield and radioactivity. The board’s call led to investments in new warhead designs such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator—a warhead designed to destroy deeply buried or hardened targets including underground military command centers—and the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Both programs were cancelled in 2008, after millions of dollars had been spent.
Despite the board’s renewed interest in smaller nuclear weapons, and in weapons tailored for limited uses or specific effects, any effort to develop these weapons would encounter the same problem that earlier such efforts have encountered: It is impossible to determine if introducing weapons with these characteristics into the US stockpile, and planning for their use in certain scenarios, would strengthen deterrence or make nuclear war by miscalculation more likely. Building “mini” or tailored nuclear weapons might well lower the threshold to nuclear war; risking that outcome would only make sense if it were absolutely clear that introducing these weapons would remedy some dangerous weakness in deterrence.
Fortunately, no such weakness exists. Any nation using nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies risks a devastating response whose negative consequences would far outweigh any gains delivered by crossing the nuclear threshold.
Bryan Bender at Politico wrote last September:
“It is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which we would need a military option in between our formidable conventional capabilities and our current low-yield nuclear weapons capabilities,” added Alexandra Bell, a former State Department arms control official. “Lawmakers should be very wary of any attempt to reduce the threshold for nuclear use. There is no such thing as a minor nuclear war.”
There is a much-ignored part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—Article VI:
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
That should have been be item No. 1 on the minds of the drafters of the latest Nuclear Posture Review, not the development and building of more nuclear weapons, no matter how mini or many.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.