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Small nuclear weapons a bad choice for the United States

Mini-nukes: Still a bad choice for the United States, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
James E. Doyle, 21 Apr 17,  In December, the Defense Science Board—an independent group of experts and former officials that provides advice to the Defense Department—submitted a report advising the Pentagon to invest in low-yield nuclear weapons that could provide “a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use.” This recommendation struck a familiar note. In 2003, the board issued a study entitled “Future Strategic Strike Forces” that suggested building small nuclear weapons with “great precision, deep penetration, [and] greatly reduced” yield and radioactivity. The board’s call led to investments in new warhead designs such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator—a warhead designed to destroy deeply buried or hardened targets including underground military command centers—and the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Both programs were cancelled in 2008, after millions of dollars had been spent.

Despite the board’s renewed interest in smaller nuclear weapons, and in weapons tailored for limited uses or specific effects, any effort to develop these weapons would encounter the same problem that earlier such efforts have encountered: It is impossible to determine if introducing weapons with these characteristics into the US stockpile, and planning for their use in certain scenarios, would strengthen deterrence or make nuclear war by miscalculation more likely. Building “mini” or tailored nuclear weapons might well lower the threshold to nuclear war; risking that outcome would only make sense if it were absolutely clear that introducing these weapons would remedy some dangerous weakness in deterrence.

Fortunately, no such weakness exists. Any nation using nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies risks a devastating response whose negative consequences would far outweigh any gains delivered by crossing the nuclear threshold. The United States has always possessed the means to employ a small number of nuclear weapons with relatively low yields—between, say, half a kiloton and 50 kilotons. In fact, the inventory of such weapons used to be massive; thousands of weapons with yields under 50 kilotons were deployed as artillery shells, land mines, short-range ballistic missiles, torpedoes, depth charges, anti-aircraft missiles, and even nuclear backpack weapons.

The current US tactical nuclear arsenal is comprised of approximately 500 B61 gravity bombs, which have three tactical versions—the B61-3, -4, and -10—with yields as low as .3 kilotons. The US Air Force deploys 150 to 200 B61s at six NATO air bases in five countries. Additional weapons are stored in the United States for possible overseas deployment.  Also available is the W-80-1 warhead, deployed on hundreds of US air-launched cruise missiles, with a variable yield that can be set as low as 5 kilotons.

This list of “smaller” nuclear weapons demonstrates that there are no significant “gaps” in US nuclear capabilities that potential adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea could exploit.

That is why, today as in 2003, the Pentagon has no military requirement for the board’s cryptically-named “tailored nuclear option for limited use.” The military understands better than anyone the danger and unpredictability of using nuclear weapons. The military also understands how unlikely it is that any use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed nation would remain “limited.”  That is why the vast majority of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons have been retired from service.

……..Just as in the early 2000s, current proponents of mini-nukes or of vague “limited nuclear options” offer no convincing evidence that new weapons in this category are needed—or more importantly, that they would make nuclear use less likely. Instead, potential nuclear adversaries are likely to see the acquisition of additional weapons in this category as an indication that US opposition to nuclear use has decreased and that Washington may be the first to cross the nuclear threshold. Such an outcome would undermine global stability and increase the risk of nuclear war. Defense resources are better spent on strengthening US conventional forces.


April 22, 2017 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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