Source: Roll Call | John M. Donnelly |February 2, 2017
Report suggests ‘tailored nuclear option for limited use’
A blue-ribbon Pentagon panel has urged the Trump administration to make the U.S. arsenal more capable of “limited” atomic war.
The Defense Science Board, in an unpublished December report obtained by CQ Roll Call, urges the president to consider altering existing and planned U.S. armaments to achieve a greater number of lower-yield weapons that could provide a “tailored nuclear option for limited use.”
The recommendation is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but it foreshadows a raging debate just over the horizon.
Fully one-third of the nuclear arsenal is already considered low-yield, defense analysts say, and almost all the newest warheads are being built with less destructive options. But experts on the Pentagon panel and elsewhere say the board’s goal is to further increase the number of smaller-scale nuclear weapons — and the ways they can be delivered — in order to deter adversaries, primarily Russia, from using nuclear weapons first.
Critics of such an expansion say that even these less explosive nuclear weapons, which pack only a fraction of the punch of the bombs America dropped on Japan in 1945, can still kill scores of thousands of people and lead to lasting environmental damage. They worry that expanding the inventory of lower-yield warheads — and the means for delivering them — could make atomic war more thinkable and could trigger a cycle of response from adversaries, possibly making nuclear conflict more likely. And, they say, such an expansion would cost a lot of money without necessarily increasing security.
The issue will gain greater prominence in the next several years as an up-to-$1 trillion update of the U.S. nuclear arsenal becomes the biggest Pentagon budget issue. That update, as now planned, mostly involves building new versions of the same submarines, bombers, missiles, bombs and warheads. Support for the modernization effort is bipartisan.
But any effort to create new weapons, or even to modify existing ones, in order to expand the arsenal of potentially usable nuclear weapons is likely to trigger opposition.
“There’s one role — and only one role — for nuclear weapons, and that’s deterrence. We cannot, must not, will not ever countenance their actual use,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. “There’s no such thing as limited nuclear war, and for the Pentagon’s advisory board to even suggest such a thing is deeply troubling.”
“I have no doubt the proposal to research low-yield nuclear weapons is just the first step to actually building them,” she added. “I’ve fought against such reckless efforts in the past and will do so again, with every tool at my disposal.”
Conservatives on the congressional defense committees generally support exploring new nuclear options.
“We know from testimony that Russia, among others, are fielding new nuclear weapons with new capabilities for new employment doctrines,” said Alabama Republican Rep. Mike D. Rogers, the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. “We would be irresponsible not to evaluate what these developments mean for the U.S. and our modernization programs.”
Dustin Walker, a spokesman for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services, said, “It has been the policy of Republican and Democratic presidents since the end of the Cold War to retain a range of nuclear capabilities, both in terms of explosive yield and method of delivery. Such a range of capabilities strengthens deterrence by signaling to potential adversaries that we can respond to a wide range of scenarios.”
Worries about Trump
The Defense Science Board’s nuclear recommendation is buried inside a report titled “Seven Defense Priorities for the New Administration,” which also addresses homeland security, protecting information systems and more. The board has made similar nuclear recommendations before, but the new report adds volume to a growing chorus of hawkish experts calling for a nuclear arsenal they say is more “discriminate.”
The board’s latest statement comes at a pivotal time because Trump rattled many Americans with comments during the campaign about nuclear weapons. He suggested that atomic arms might be an appropriate response to an Islamic State attack and that it’s good for a president to be “unpredictable” about nuclear weapons. He also said, referring to nuclear weapons in general, that “the power, the destruction is very important to me.”
Thirty-four former nuclear launch control officers wrote an open letter during the campaign arguing that Trump “should not have his finger on the button.” And lawmakers are weighing legislation this year that, for the first time, would give Congress, not just the president, authority to launch a nuclear first strike, though those bills’ chances of passing either chamber are scant.
Last month, Trump mandated a new “nuclear posture review,” an assessment of the way forward aimed at ensuring the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The memorandum contained echoes of the Defense Science Board’s language. Trump said the review would ensure a nuclear arsenal that is “modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies.”
Lawmakers from both parties said last week that the debate over more lower-yield warheads should be part of the upcoming review.