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Why Donald Trump Wants His Nukes to Be Smaller

Be wary of tiny nukes in tiny hands.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 2: A stack of scrapped missiles, the South Korean Nike (L, back), the US Hawk (front) and the North Korean Scud (C, back) displayed at a war museum on May 2, 2005 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea apparently test fired a missile into the Sea of Japan raising new fears about Pyongyang's nuclear intentions just days after a U.S. intelligence official said the secretive Stalinist state had the ability in theory to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead. 
(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 2: A stack of scrapped missiles, the South Korean Nike (L, back), the US Hawk (front) and the North Korean Scud (C, back) displayed at a war museum on May 2, 2005 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea apparently test fired a missile into the Sea of Japan raising new fears about Pyongyang's nuclear intentions just days after a U.S. intelligence official said the secretive Stalinist state had the ability in theory to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

So President Donald Trump wants a mini-nuke. At least that is what Politico’s Bryan Bender reports is under consideration in the government’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review, which may propose “smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less damage than traditional thermonuclear bombs — a move that would give military commanders more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely.”

This is hardly surprising. As I wrote in February, it was always clear that Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review “will be, like the 2002 version, a quick and dirty affair that is basically the same wish list as the unpublished December 2016 Defense Science Board study,” which emphasized low-yield nuclear weapons.

Nothing freaked out people more than the portion of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review that leaked to the press calling new “options for variable and reduced yields” one of a series of “desired capabilities” for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.The 2002 NPR, along with George W. Bush administration proposals for “new” nuclear warheads likes the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, met fierce resistance from a number of quarters including Republicans in Congress. When President Barack Obama took office, his NPR stated flatly that the United States would not develop “new” nuclear weapons, a term left undefined.

And nothing was more certain than that once Republicans were back in control there would be new proposals for low-yield nuclear weapons.

But here’s the weird thing: We already have low-yield nuclear weapons. And Obama was developing new ones, no matter what his pretty little Nuclear Posture Review said. The debate in the press isn’t really about tiny nuclear weapons; it is about tiny nuclear weapons in Trump’s tiny hands.

Yes, Virginia, the United States has low-yield nuclear weapons. The B61 family of gravity bombs and W80 cruise missile warheads both have a “variable yield” function that allows them to explode well below their full yield, presumably by just detonating the fission bomb at the heart of a thermonuclear weapon. The B61 Mod 10, for example, was a “dial-a-yield” device that could be set for a range of options from the full yield of 80 kilotons down to about 300 tons. Three hundred tons! The bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was more than 50 times larger.

The W80 has similar setting, with two yield options at five and 150 kilotons. According to Stephen Young at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the life-extended version of this warhead, the W80-4 that will arm the new cruise missile, will have additional low-yield options.

Nuclear weapons advocates used to know this. They complained all the time about an early 1990s congressional amendment, called Spratt-Furse, that constrained research and development on new low-yield nuclear weapons. George W. Bush administration officials, who successfully sought repeal of the measure, argued that modern thermonuclear weapons had primaries with yields prohibited by Spratt-Furse, creating a legal nightmare. “We were in a situation where to think about anything you sort of had to have two physicists, an engineer, and a lawyer,” argued Linton Brooks, then the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, “because most concepts could lead to low-yield [weapons], regardless of what they were designed to do.”

I don’t mean to attack poor Linton for these complaints — in fact, I agree with him. Spratt-Furse was an imperfect instrument that many Democrats, including Rep. Ellen Tauscher and Rep. John Spratt himself, thought might be replaced with something better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t replaced — it was simply repealed during the Bush administration, which then… proceeded not to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons. (The big nuclear weapons projects of the Bush administration — the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Reliable Replacement Warhead — had normal yields.)

No, it was Barack Obama’s administration that, despite a pledge not to develop “new” nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons with new capabilities, programmed a life-extension program for a new variable yield version of the W80 warhead to arm the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile.

The justification provided by the Obama administration, while it varied a bit depending on who was defending it and when, largely focused on the concern that Russia was also developing low-yield weapons that it planned to use in a conflict — a strategy that American analysts call “escalate to de-escalate.” Frank Kendall explained it somewhat obliquely this way: “Beyond deterrence, an LRSO-armed bomber force provides the President with uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation.”

This sentence, which appears to be written in whatever dialect of Dwarvish is spoken by Pentagon bureaucrats, sometimes gets misinterpreted as a threat to use U.S. nuclear weapons pre-emptively. But take the jargon slowly and its meaning is revealed in normal language — to be precise, it’s revealed to be pretty dumb. “Beyond deterrence” means that the Russians have used nuclear weapons against us, as does “extreme crisis.” “An LRSO-armed bomber force” just means bombers with new cruise missiles (and new nuclear warheads). “Flexible options” means following a limited Russian nuclear use with a limited one of our own, allowing us to “signal intent” — warn that we are prepared to do the deed — but also to “control escalation” — without doing it quite yet. So, if the Russians nuke us a little bit, we can use our bombers to nuke them back just a little bit too, so Putin knows we are now mad enough to have a nuclear war, but only if he wants to. As I said, pretty dumb.

You might have also noticed that this is the very same argument given for the new low-yield warheads in Bender’s piece: “to confront Russia, which has raised the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in its battle plans in recent years, including as a first-strike weapon.” I am not privy to what Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review is planning, of course, but all this talk is very much like the Obama-bomb that was already on the books to offer a low-yield option for the new nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The difference is that Obama was very polite about it. Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.

Now, I don’t feel at all bad that Donald Trump is being held to a different standard than Barrack Obama. I don’t trust the Mango Mussolini with sharp objects, let alone nuclear weapons. This is a man who seems determined to start a nuclear war with his Twitter account. It’s not unfair. Character counts in life.

But still, low-yield nuclear weapons are a silly idea regardless of who wants to build them. It is not clear to me that the United States needs either the LRSO or a warhead with low-yield options. But we should make a distinction between these two problems — the folly of low-yield nuclear weapons and the folly of Donald Trump commanding any nuclear weapons at all, regardless of yield.

Proposals for low-yield nuclear weapons have been around for decades essentially because nuclear weapons designers think they are cool. They are a solution in search of a problem. At the moment, the trendy problem is Russia, but if President Vladimir Putin dropped stone dead tomorrow, there would be a new justification for these things. While I am sure that the Russian nuclear laboratories also want to design mini-nukes for the same reason that our laboratories do, I am not convinced by the logic offered by Kendall or Bender’s anonymous source. Where does this idea that Russia is going to engage in a limited nuclear use — which is often called “escalate to de-escalate” — come from? Not the Russians. Olga Oliker, who I think is doing the best work on Russian nuclear doctrine these days, is pretty skeptical of such talk. “They do not track with what I know of Russian nuclear strategy,” she writes, “nor with how Russians talk about it, for the most part.”

I am no expert in Russian nuclear strategy, but I did live in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade. I know a convenient rationalization when I see one. It’s a kind of “Russian nuclear policy” that actually seems a lot more like an American fantasy about Russian nuclear policy. It’s the nuclear doctrinal equivalent of Penthouse Forum. “Dear Pentagon Forum: I never thought this would happen to me, but last night, in our war-game, I noticed the Russian player kept moving his bombers closer to mine…”

My colleague, Nikolai Sokov, points out that Russian scenarios for nuclear first use are, in fact, defensive ones in which NATO has threatened to overwhelm Russia conventionally. While I am fairly worried about Russian conventional aggression in Europe — and it’s not clear that NATO could conventionally defend some of its neighbors — Putin strikes me as far more likely to use “little green men” than nuclear bombs.

Moreover, I don’t see how a lower-yield setting will make the W80 any more credible than the highest-yield setting. The framing at the beginning of Bender’s piece — “more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely” — seems wrong to me. Linton Brooks, back when he was being attacked for supporting the repeal of Spratt-Furse, used to point out that low-yield weapons don’t lower the threshold for nuclear use relative to high-yield weapons. I think he was right about that too, although we certainly disagreed about which weapons the United States should build. I am not as worried as some of my colleagues that these weapons will make nuclear war more likely because… I think they are still approximately useless. Nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons, and it seems very unlikely to me that a president is going to be confident that he can start a limited nuclear war that doesn’t become a very big one, quickly.

Let’s say the Russians use a low-yield nuclear weapon against Poland or one of the Baltics. OK. Do we actually think that retaliating against a target in Mother Russia with a B61 set on 300 tons will be somehow less dangerous than sending one set on 80 kilotons? I think you are starting a nuclear war with the Russians either way. In for a ton, in for a megaton, I say.

The entire debate over low-yield nuclear weapons seems to represent a nostalgic revival of the one of the worst tendencies of the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence, Michael Krepon has argued, works best at the conceptual level. When those concepts become plans, they strain credulity. One way to look at the history of the Cold War is to see it as an unending series of technical solutions to what was a fundamentally unsolvable political problem stemming from the fact that a nuclear war can’t be won. Roger Molander captured that beautifully in the title of his 1982 book, Nuclear War: What’s in It for You?

These proposals for low-yield warheads implicitly admit this criticism. We can’t use our current arsenal of nuclear weapons because that might cause a nuclear war! But instead of admitting how fanciful all this is, we imagine there must be some technical solution to our intractable political problem. Maybe we can make them smaller! It’s like Goldilocks looking for a nuclear bomb that is just right — not so cold that it fails to deter, but not too hot so that we all perish in a nuclear holocaust. And, as with Goldilocks, this story is a fairy tale. What makes nuclear weapons special is that they are destructive — leveling cities and setting them afire. The most basic conceptions of deterrence rest on that idea. Trump is pretty explicit about the horror of nuclear war being how the damn things work — “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me” — something that most experts clean up so it doesn’t sound so awful. But Trump is right. As I’ve previously written, he is “a spirit guide to the dark recesses of our brains, the place that convinces us the best guarantor of peace and security is the unending and permanent threat of nuclear holocaust.”

The problem is that “the devastation” is what makes nuclear weapons special — their awfulness creates the central dilemma of the nuclear age: They are too awful to use and offer only mutual suicide, a shared danger that Robert Oppenheimer likened to two scorpions, trapped together in a bottle. They keep the peace, but there is a terrible danger we cannot escape. That is the unpleasant implication of the devastation that Trump intuitively senses, in the same accidental way he almost understands Citizen Kane, before shutting down and blocking out the unwelcome meaning. But we can face it: The problem isn’t the tiny nukes that Obama wanted, or Trump’s tiny hands on them; it’s our tiny ideas, far too timid and feeble for the terrible truth of the nuclear age.

Photo credit: VAHI REZA ALAEE/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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