Of all the things being affected by the coronavirus today, nuclear deterrence may not be the first thing to come to mind. But as the virus spreads, the individuals charged with carrying out the nuclear deterrence mission are just as critical as the weapons themselves. Both the Navy and Air Force have made adjustments to keep their nuclear personnel safe from infection. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense recently confirmed that a new submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon has been deployed. The W76-2 low-yield warhead was described in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review as a weapon meant to counter Russia, particularly to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” Low-yield nuclear weapons are a dangerous and unnecessary means of deterring Russian aggression. To better understand why, some of the main arguments supporting the deployment of this weapon are refuted below.
Claim: Low-yield weapons promote nuclear deterrence.
Undersecretary of defense for policy, John Rood, said that “This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon.”
Critics of the current Nuclear Posture Review argue that the deployment of new low-yield nuclear weapons will increase the risk of nuclear war. The existence of lower yield nuclear weapons will make it easier for U.S. officials to consider the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. According to the Nuclear Posture Review, low-yield weapons are intended to deter Russian aggression in regional conflicts and raise the nuclear threshold. However, there is no evidence that if Russia did strike first, for example in a NATO country, that use of a low-yield nuclear weapon would deter further nuclear weapon use. Glaser and Fetter from the Harvard Kennedy School argue that counter nuclear forces will lead to inadvertent use of nuclear weapons by an adversary. According to this logic, low-yield weapons lower the negative consequences of nuclear weapon use because they are intended for use on limited targets, such as large military bases, underground military facilities, or large industrial complexes.
Ballistic missile submarines are the backbone of the United States’ nuclear triad because they maximize survivability. Submarines assure the U.S. can strike an adversary at any time after a surprise attack because they are an “undetectable” launch platform. If low-yield nuclear weapons are used in a first strike attack, the U.S.’s most powerful hidden strategic deterrent may become vulnerable to attack. Opponents of this viewpoint argue that Russia does not have the capability to detect the location of nuclear submarines. However, the cost of endangering the most important part of the nuclear triad outweighs the purported benefit of deterrence from deploying low-yield nuclear weapons. Submarine-launched missiles are not meant for a tactical battlefield environment.
Claim: Low-yield weapons will ensure the U.S. wins a nuclear conflict.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 7 that “the bottom line” is that the new warhead gives the president “options [that will] allow us to deter conflict” and “if necessary…fight and win.”
This claim ignores the fact that use of low-yield weapons in response to a previous strike will fail to limit the damage that could be inflicted by a second strike from an adversary. There is no guarantee the U.S. would win a nuclear conflict by responding in-kind to a low-yield attack with a similar yield weapon. In an interview for the television film World Order 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that if Russia’s warning systems detected an enemy attack with nuclear-armed missiles, he would order “reciprocal” nuclear strikes. If low-yield weapons are used, damage limitation is impossible because the forces that would survive a low-yield attack could still inflict the level of damage required for assured destruction. If the U.S. launches a low yield warhead towards Russian assets, there is a “discrimination problem”– no label will warn Moscow that an approaching weapon is low-yield. This situation will likely result in dangerous miscommunication that will lead to continued escalation of the nuclear exchange. In a situation like this, there is no “winning” a nuclear conflict. Both the United States and Russia would suffer immeasurable material damage. The United States would also hurt its own foreign policy goals by missing an opportunity to rally the world against Russia for breaking the norm against nuclear weapon use.
Claim: Low-yield nuclear weapons are an effective tool to counter Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” posture.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) says that the W76-2 “enhances U.S. deterrence and tells Russia that any attempt to use nuclear weapons as part of an escalate-to-deescalate approach will not be successful.”
It has been accepted by the Trump administration that Russia is relying on an “escalate-to-deescalate” nuclear strategy, which purports that Russia will use nuclear weapons early in a regional conflict in order to prevent the breakout of a bigger war. The major flaw in this argument is assuming that “escalate-to-deescalate” is limited to nuclear weapon use. According to War on the Rocks contributor Jay Ross, Russia generally likes to attempt to “control escalation” by moving first in regional conflicts to manipulate the circumstances of conflict. “Escalate-to-deescalate” cannot be thought about in exclusively nuclear terms. Doing so overlooks a broad range of tactics used by Russia to assert its influence in regional conflicts. Russia’s strategy involves kinetic and non-kinetic features such as cyberattacks, economic warfare, and other nonmilitary efforts that the U.S. fails to counter. The U.S. must adjust its strategy to focus on more than nuclear weapon-led foreign policy if it aims to counter potential Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Russian aggression – from meddling in U.S. elections and the continued occupation of Crimea – must be countered beyond a show of nuclear capabilities. Low-yield weapons deployed against Russia will normalize the idea that such weapons can be used in response to conventional regional conflicts. The United States must delve into its strategic toolbox to counter Russia in non-nuclear ways that are conscious of limited resources (especially in the time of the coronavirus), and maintain a credible commitment to NATO. The U.S. does not need to rely on nuclear weapons alone to maintain deterrence.