The administration of US President Donald Trump has recently revealed Washington’s new approach to nuclear weapons and their role in US military doctrine. The newly released 75-page strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), emphasizes the development, deployment and expansion of low-yield atomic weapons on the premise that they are more usable than older generation nukes, which are much more powerful and destructive, but are never really an option when it comes to actual warfare.
The review also calls for a complete overhaul of the US nuclear weapons infrastructure. The document then outlines its “tailored approach” against what it calls hostile and threatening nations, namely Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
Hobbesian nature of Review
Renowned 17th century British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes viewed the human condition in the state of nature — where no government, no civilization or no common power to restrain human nature exists — as a situation where humans are each other’s wolves and life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” According to Hobbes, with the advent of government, such a situation is largely alleviated inside countries; however, the state of nature exists at all times among independent nations.
The preface to the NPR written by US Defense Secretary James Mattis is by definition a Hobbesian approach to the overall issue of international relations and the specific issue of weapons development and probably the most significant revision of US nuclear strategy since the Cold War.
“We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” the defense secretary said in his preface accompanying the report. “Given the range of potential adversaries, their capabilities and strategic objectives, this review calls for a flexible, tailored nuclear deterrent strategy.”
Based on a realpolitik approach to international affairs, not one based on moral or humanitarian principles, Mattis writes that the new strategy actually encourages “adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate, it in fact raises that threshold.”
In the document itself, alarming statements can be found that could concern any country that finds itself at odds with the US for any given reason.
For example, the NPR clearly states that “it remains the policy of the United States to retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a US nuclear response.” Thus the document leaves the door open to use nuclear force as the US president pleases disregarding any international convention or law. Given past conduct of the US in Japan and recent breaches of international law in Iraq, such wording is at the very least disturbing.
In a final analysis, Mattis reveals the Hobbesian approach of the Trump administration’s foreign policy by emphasizing that global security is not necessarily the product of international cooperation or international law, but is the byproduct of a nuclear armed peace, one that rests on the nuclear capabilities of the United States:
“This review rests on a bedrock truth: nuclear weapons have and will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear-armed states for the foreseeable future. US nuclear weapons not only defend our allies against conventional and nuclear threats, they also help them avoid the need to develop their own nuclear arsenals. This, in turn, furthers global security.”
What does the NPR propose?
The nuclear posture, among other things, calls for revamping US nuclear capabilities by replacing virtually all of the Unites States’ nuclear components. The United States nuclear triad, largely deployed in the 1980s or earlier, consists of three main components: Submarines (SSBNs) armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM); land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); and strategic bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).
All of the above components will be revamped and eventually replaced. There will be a new strategic bomber built mainly by Northrop Grumman, a new ballistic missile submarine to be built mainly by General Dynamics, and a new land-based ballistic missile to be built either by Boeing or Northrop Grumman.
One of the most important policy implications of the document is the production and expansion of low-yield nuclear weapons in regard to all areas of the US nuclear triad.
“Expanding flexible US nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.”
The low-yield nuclear weapons will be also deployed by US submarines: “DoD and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will develop for deployment a low-yield SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] warhead to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses.”
Main area of focus: Russia
While a quick glance at the NPR’s table of content illustrates its attention to North Korea, China and Iran, the primary focus is clearly Russia and what Washington believes should be done to balance power with Moscow in order to counter what it perceives to be the more usable stockpile of Russian nuclear arsenal.
“Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict,” the document reads, calling for an expansion of low-yield nuclear weapons.
“Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative.”
In the preface to the NPR, Mattis goes as far to say, “This is a response to Russian expansion of their capability and the nature of their strategy and doctrine.”
“The US and NATO require a wider range of credible low-yield nuclear options to do a very specific thing: to convince the Russian leadership that if they initiate limited nuclear use, in a war with the alliance, our response will deny them the objective they seek and impose costs that far outweigh those benefits they can achieve,” says Greg Weaver, the deputy director of strategic capabilities for the military’s Joint Staff, expounding on the centrality of what the US perceives as the Russian threat.
Will the new Trump strategy work?
Reactions to the review have been largely negative, and besides moral and ethical considerations, experts have cited both economic and strategic shortcomings as major obstacles to Trump’s nuclear approach. Security experts have also expressed concern about how the document is “war prone,” saying that constructing more “usable” nuclear weapons will increase the possibility of a nuclear war.
Three weeks before the official release of the NPR, James Jatras, a former foreign policy analyst for the US Congress, told Press TV in an interview that the Trump administration’s new policy of constructing more “usable” low-yield nuclear weapons increases chances of nuclear war.
It seems Trump is not making the decisions himself, but had been “misled” by “professional” military leaders to make such decisions, Jatras said.
He warned that such new measures would escalate an arms race between the US and other major world powers, namely Russia and China the main “adversaries” mentioned in the report, which as a result would develop their own weapons to counter the new US arsenal.
Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Ploughshares Fund, said the new strategy — combined with Trump’s volatile approach to international threats — could lower the threshold for employing nuclear weapons.
“This strategy gives him a massive rebuild of the current Cold War arsenal, complete with new missions and new weapons, to include responding to a cyberattack with a nuclear bomb,” Cirincione said. “This plan, coupled with this president, greatly increases the risk of nuclear war.”
“President Trump is embarking on a reckless path — one that will reduce US security both now and in the longer term,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
She said the Trump administration was blurring the line between nuclear and conventional war-fighting.
Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington, has also warned that the US is “on the cusp of a new era of nuclear proliferation.”
The financial burden of the new strategy is also a concern for a country burdened with $21 trillion in debt.
The price tag of Trump’s new strategy is somewhere in the vicinity of 1.2 trillion dollars. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office says the cost of a 30-year overhaul is around $1.2 trillion, more than 20 percent higher than earlier estimates.
To sum up, while some aspects of the Trump nuclear doctrine, like the expansion of low-yield nukes, might seem necessary in the eyes of Washington in order to curb what it sees as Russian influence, the high cost-benefit of such an approach, coupled with vague declarations in the document and unprecedented levels of nuclear weapons expansion, could fan the flames of an arms race and make the document a potential war starter.