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A mistake for USA to deploy the low-yield Trident nuclear warhead

Stop the low-yield Trident nuclear warhead, The Hill On Tuesday,  the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces debated the draft Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.It voted out, on party lines, language that prohibits deployment of a low-yield warhead on the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. That makes sense: The rationale for the warhead is dubious, and the weapon likely would never be selected for use.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for a low-yield warhead on some Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The plan modifies a W76-1 warhead, which has an explosive yield of 100 kilotons — seven times the size of the weapon used against Hiroshima — to produce the W76-2, reportedly with a yield of “just” five-seven kilotons.

Adding this weapon to the arsenal would risk lowering the nuclear threshold. To be sure, Pentagon officials assert that new low-yield weapons would not lower the threshold.

Yet the Nuclear Posture Review argued for low-yield weapons out of concern that Russia might feel it could use its “small” nuclear weapons free of concern about U.S. retaliation because the United States arsenal consists mainly of large-yield weapons.

So, at a minimum, the goal of new U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons would appear to be to persuade Moscow that the United States is more likely to go nuclear.

It is in the U.S. interest to maintain the highest possible threshold against the use of any nuclear arms. We should avoid steps that might signal, even inadvertently, that the use of “small” nukes is somehow acceptable………

SLBMs on submarines at sea constitute the most important and most survivable leg of the U.S. strategic triad, because the submarines can hide underwater and have lots of ocean in which to roam.  Each submarine at sea carries a significant portion of the survivable U.S. nuclear deterrent.

The problem with launching an SLBM with a W76-2 is that it would reveal the submarine’s location. The submarine could maneuver away from the launch point, but it still would have compromised its general position, putting at risk the boat and the other 80-90 warheads it carried. Would the U.S. military run that risk, particularly given the availability of other low-yield options?

A bigger problem is discrimination. The Russians could not tell whether a launched SLBM carried a W76-2 or a W76-1 (100 kilotons) or, for that matter, a W88 (450 kilotons) until the weapon (or weapons) detonated………

The problem is that a launch from many parts of the Atlantic toward the Baltics would also appear, at least initially, to be a launch against Moscow.

Would the U.S. leadership launch a W76-2 — and run the risk that the Russians misread it as larger warhead intended to flatten Moscow in a decapitation strike — when F-35s and B61-12 bombs are available in Europe (as they will be in the early 2020s)?

The W76-2 makes little strategic sense, could inadvertently lower the nuclear threshold and likely would never be used, even in the most dire circumstances.

The Trump administration made a mistake by deciding to produce it. Congress should use the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to correct that mistake and prohibit its deployment.

Steven Pifer is a William Perry fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

June 10, 2019 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

1 Comment »


    Comment by gloria meadows | June 10, 2019 | Reply

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