The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was recently released by the Department of Defense, and within it a new modernization path was outlined for the nuclear arsenal. This path includes developing a new low-yield nuclear weapon to place on a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The United States currently has a diverse arsenal of weapons in the nuclear triad, including the B61 low-yield gravity bomb.
At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary Mattis said that developing a new low-yield warhead is needed to “[reaffirm] the mutually reinforcing role of nuclear deterrence in a complex and dynamic security environment while underscoring continued U.S. commitment to non-proliferation, counter-nuclear terrorism, and arms control.” He argued the need to have a diverse range of low-yield warheads to have both a stronger deterrent against foreign actors, and a stronger starting position in nuclear arms negotiations.
While having a variety of response options is ideal for nuclear weapons, it is not necessary to develop more low-yield weapons to have credible deterrence. At this hearing, some representatives had questions on whether investing in new warheads is wise in the current international climate.
Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA) had a very interesting question for Secretary Mattis: Since the United States already has a low-yield nuclear weapon and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $1.2 trillion is needed to modernize the nuclear triad as laid out in the NPR, shouldn’t the DoD be investing in other military capabilities instead, such as counter air defense? Secretary Mattis responded that though the United States is in fact investing in these other capabilities, deterrence is dynamic and must be dealt with as it stands today. This underscores the debate on what is considered a credible deterrent and whether many different low-yield warheads are necessary versus other means.
According to the NPR, China and Russia are modernizing their own nuclear triads, leading the DoD to believe that these countries can come to the negotiating table with more leverage than the United States can. But the US does not need to match every aspect of a foreign power’s nuclear forces. The United States is already a nuclear power, giving it a great deal of negotiating authority in the first place, and deterrence and strength can be developed through other tools, not just a new nuclear warhead. For instance, the ability penetrate foreign air defenses is a tool that the military can utilize in a variety of ways, including the ability to drop a low-yield nuclear bomb on a foreign target, as well as delivering conventional munitions. By developing the capability to penetrate foreign air space, then guarantees its ability to deliver low-yield nuclear warhead and negate the need for a submarine launched alternative.
Any time the United States goes to war with another country, the military is going to need to be able to penetrate its air defense capabilities. The 2019 Defense Budget lays out a request develop the B-21 Raider, a stealth strategic bomber that is designed to penetrate enemy airspace undetected and deliver conventional or nuclear weapons. Rather than spending a significant portion of the estimated $1.2 trillion on developing a new weapon that should never be used, the United States should be investing that money into developing tools and delivery mechanisms like the B-21 that are more versatile than an SLBM.
If, as Secretary Mattis implied, our ability to penetrate enemy air defenses with an aircraft delivered nuclear weapon is in doubt, then development of counter air defense capabilities should supersede the need for another nuclear weapon. The ability to penetrate enemy airspace when needed would give the United States’ deterrence capability more credibility, something Secretary Mattis believes a low-yield nuclear weapon provides. As other countries are consistently evolving their defensive counter air capabilities, the United States needs to be updating its offensive capabilities to match.
Building another low-yield nuclear warhead to place on a SLBM is diverting potential resources from other aspects of the military that could use more funding. The nuclear triad offers a diversity of response capabilities, rather duplicative capabilities by different legs. Secretary Mattis himself told the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee that the new warhead is “not for warfighting but to bolster deterrence.” That deterrence already exists across the three options the triad provides, and can be effective without the need to design and build a new nuclear weapon.