The Trump administration is taking dramatic steps to revamp the nation’s arsenal and prepare for a theoretical nuclear war with Russia in Eastern Europe, with the two countries returning to Cold War-era gamesmanship on the world stage and rethinking the unthinkable: how mankind’s deadliest weapons could be used in the 21st century.
The Kremlin’s strategy of “escalate to de-escalate,” analysts say, hinges on the belief that Russia can deploy several small “tactical” nuclear weapons in the region before the U.S. and its NATO allies are able to respond. Without an effective tactical nuclear capability of their own, U.S. leaders would then be forced to choose between standing down or escalating a theater conflict into all-out global nuclear warfare.
Scholars say the approach could be dangerously effective in exploiting holes in America’s nuclear stockpile, most notably a lack of sea-based weapons capable of launching quickly and penetrating Russia’s increasingly advanced air defense systems.
The Pentagon last week took a major step forward by fielding its first new nuclear warhead in decades. The submarine-launched, low-yield device is specifically designed to counter Russia’s arsenal of smaller missiles and to give the U.S. a way to retaliate in kind.
Analysts say that is just the first move in a grand long-term nuclear strategy to counter Russia and contend with an ambitious China, which has shown signs that it also wants to become a major nuclear player.
“Nuclear weapons are back,” said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “For the past 25 years or so, many people assumed these were Cold War relics, that we were so stupid to have these in the Cold War, we’re more enlightened now and we’re getting rid of them. We might want that to be the case, [President] Obama wanted that to be the case. But Russia, China and North Korea see it differently.”
A new arms race
Growing evidence shows the U.S. and Russia are once again in a nuclear arms race, and analysts say such a situation poses serious global risks. The two countries already possess more than 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, according to figures from the Arms Control Association.
Against that backdrop, the Trump administration is facing pressure from some in Congress to negotiate with Moscow and extend the New START, a 2011 pact designed to draw down countries’ active nuclear stockpiles and set up new inspection protocols. The agreement is set to expire next year, although President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have the power to extend it for five years.
Military observers say that allowing the treaty to expire next year would reignite the nuclear competition between the U.S. and its Cold War adversary.
“The stability that we’ve learned to take for granted in the nuclear realm seems to be drying up,” Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who helped craft the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in the 1990s, told Newsweek magazine this week. “People are once again going to worry about the possibility that somebody could be tempted to engage in nuclear blackmail — threatening the use of nuclear weapons — to get their way.”
Indeed, analysts say, Russia’s foreign policy, particularly in Eastern Europe, hinges on demonstrating to the U.S. and its NATO allies that it is able and willing to quickly deploy nuclear weapons if necessary. Mr. Putin seems to be banking on the fact that such threats could force the U.S. and NATO to give in to Russian demands or avoid any military confrontations out of fear that full-scale nuclear weapons would soon become part of the conflict.
Mr. Putin and Russian military officials, pointing to the U.S. withdrawal last year from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Washington’s reluctance to commit to a New START extension, say Mr. Trump is the aggressor in the revived nuclear debate. Mr. Putin has sounded an increasingly provocative tone about the weapons balance between the two countries and says Russia leads in fields such as intercontinental hypersonic missiles.
“We are in the unique situation in our contemporary history in which they’re trying to catch up with us,” Mr. Putin said in a December speech at the Russian Defense Ministry.
Since the early days of President Trump’s tenure, the White House has recognized the shifting strategic dynamic and has undertaken a comprehensive strategy to address it.
In 2018, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, a sweeping document that calls for wholesale changes in American nuclear policy, particularly in the realm of countering Moscow.
The approach began to come to fruition last week with the Navy’s announcement that it had deployed the first new U.S. nuclear weapon in decades. Navy officials confirmed the fielding of a submarine-launched ballistic missile known as the W76-2, a relatively low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used as a counter to Russia’s growing array of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons.
“In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the department identified the requirement to ‘modify a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads’ to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners,” Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said in a statement.
The submarine-launched missile “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Mr. Rood said.
The administration’s recently released fiscal 2021 budget request calls for billions of dollars in investments in nuclear warheads, including intermediate-range weapons that were banned under the INF Treaty. The budget request is likely to generate substantial opposition in the Democratic-led House.
Despite a newfound focus on tactical weapons, critics caution that the idea of a limited nuclear war is a misnomer. Skeptics say that any lowering of the threshold to launch a nuclear weapon is a major step in the wrong direction.
“There is no such thing as a low-yield nuclear weapon. Either it’s a nuclear weapon or not. There is no use of this weapon that does not lead [to] nuclear war,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat and a Marine Corps veteran, said in a Twitter post last week after the Pentagon announced the W76-2 deployment.
“This throws off game-theory calculations and messes with nuclear deterrence calculations,” he said. “The answer to Russia using any nuclear weapon ‘low yield’ or not is a nuclear strike. Any indication that we may use something less only makes it more likely that Russia strikes first.”
But weapons specialists counter that the U.S. has little choice but to begin producing small numbers of low-yield, tactical warheads. The hope is that such weapons are never used but having them in the U.S. arsenal provides options beyond surrender and complete annihilation.
In the event of a theoretical Russian strike in Eastern Europe, for example, analysts argue that the U.S. right now is limited in its ability to respond.
“If Russia uses a small nuclear weapon against an air base or something, we can’t retaliate with something 10 times bigger than Hiroshima. That could spiral out of control,” said Mr. Kroenig, the Atlantic Council scholar.
Analysts say Mr. Trump is correct to insist that any future nuclear weapons deals — including New START — include China, not just the U.S. and Russia. China has just a fraction of the nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals, but U.S. officials warn that Beijing is aiming to double the size of its stockpile over the next decade.
Mounting evidence shows China has recognized that its limited nuclear capabilities constitute a hole in its otherwise effective quest to compete with the U.S. on the world stage.
“Beijing worries that the establishment of an advanced, multi-layered US missile defense architecture will weaken China’s strategic deterrent by diminishing its ability to deliver a retaliatory nuclear attack,” says a recent analysis of China’s nuclear ambitions by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project. “To avert this outcome, China is expanding the number of weapons in its arsenal and increasing the sophistication of its delivery systems.”
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