WASHINGTON – The new nuclear strategy released by the Trump administration last Friday states that the nuclear-threat environment has dramatically changed since the last nuclear strategy was developed by the Obama administration eight years ago. Yet some experts vigorously dispute this claim and warn it could place the U.S. on a dangerous course.
According to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States has attempted to be a model for other nations by steadily drawing down its nuclear stockpiles as part of international agreements. But the new administration insists this strategy did not work because Russia, China and North Korea continued to modernize their arsenal and have dramatically changed their mindsets, making the use of nuclear weapons more plausible.
“We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” the NPR states.
This change in the threat environment since the release of former-President Barack Obama’s 2010 NPR has been the catalyst for what the new report calls a “tailored” approach to nuclear threats and for the U.S. to be more “flexible” in its nuclear capabilities.
However, this threat assessment is not being universally agreed with.
Alexandra Bell, a director of policy with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, agreed that the U.S. is facing heightened threats, especially from North Korea. But she said that the strategies the Trump administration are contemplating are not going to lower a threat of a nuclear weapons usage and are moving backwards towards another Cold-War style arms race.
“We are facing challenges in the international security environment, and yes countries are modernizing their nuclear forces,” Bell said in an interview. But she added that America has been modernizing its stockpile as well and a more diplomatic approach to easing tensions between nations should be taken.
Bell said one obvious sign of the shortcomings of Trump administration diplomacy is the failure to fill the position of ambassador to South Korea, despite the increasing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
“I don’t think that we are properly leading the international community by sort of sitting back and saying, ‘We’re mad at the things that Russia and China are doing, so we’re going to do the same things’,” Bell said.
Sharon Weiner, a political science professor from American University who specializes in national security and nuclear weapons, said the question is not whether there has been a change to the threat environment, but if the strategies put forth by the NPR are appropriate for those changes.
“If you look at the history of the Cold War, the threat environment changes all the time,” Weiner said in an interview. “The more important question is, has it changed such that new nuclear questions and potentially more nuclear weapons help the United States be more secure?”
Weiner also said that it’s hard to see that the proposed changes “make the situation better for anybody.”
One key provision in the NPR for addressing the perceived new threat environment is repurposing low-yield nuclear warheads currently used for gravity bombs to fit on ballistic missiles used on submarines.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee that the shift to greater use of low-yield nuclear weapons will be a key factor in deterring threats from countries like Russia.
According to the NPR, Russia has developed a “escalate to de-escalate” strategy around the use of nuclear weapons. In a nutshell, the strategy might call for Russia to use a low-yield nuclear weapon against an enemy and then dare the U.S. to make a large scale nuclear response – especially if the U.S. lacks an effective low-yield response.
Mattis and the NPR emphatically dismissed this notion and said any nuclear attack by Russia or China would be met with a nuclear response, low-yield or not.
Mattis also said that the gravity bombs are not an effective option for the U.S. because bombers cannot penetrate anti-aircraft defenses systems of American adversaries, which have greatly improved over the last 20 years.
This same reasoning is why the NPR is also reversing an Obama administration decision to retire submarine-launched cruise missiles. Obama’s 2010 NPR argued that these submarines were redundant because of other air-based options.
The key debate around the use low-yield nuclear weapons is that, because they do not have the destructive ability of a traditional large-scale weapon, it would increase their chances of being used. Bell and Weiner both agreed with this argument.
However, Matthew Costlow, a national defense analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, said that low-yield nuclear weapons have been part of nuclear arsenals for decades and one has never been used.
“Just because you have the capabilities to use a nuclear weapon does not mean it is any easier or harder to use,” Costlow said. “It is simply untrue and unsupported by historical evidence that lower-yield nuclear weapons increase the risk of use.”