Nuclear weapons: a new arms race on the horizon

The idea that building more nuclear weapons – and ones that are easier to use – reduces the risk of nuclear war is entirely wrong-headed

US president Donald Trump alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon last month. A new nuclear policy issued by the Trump administration last Friday vows to counter a rush by the Russians to modernise their forces. Photograph: Al Drago/The New York Times

US president Donald Trump alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon last month. A new nuclear policy issued by the Trump administration last Friday vows to counter a rush by the Russians to modernise their forces. Photograph: Al Drago/The New York Times

 

A treaty committing the United States and Russia to keeping their nuclear arsenals at their lowest levels since the Cold War came into effect on Monday. The Obama-era agreement, like similar deals overseen by the Reagan and George W Bush administrations, aimed to reduce the possibility of an apocalyptic conflict while building confidence between Washington and Moscow. But, coming into force just days after the Trump administration published an aggressive review of its nuclear strategy, the New START treaty and the ambition it stands for already look to be in jeopardy.

The new Pentagon policy document, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, pledges to expand the US’s nuclear capabilities to counter Russian modernisation of its own tactical weapons. A key plank of the strategy is development of the US’s low-yield nuclear weapons, which have a strength of less than 20 kilotons. The Pentagon argues that low-yield devices are a more effective deterrent than larger nuclear bombs because, with less power and destructive capacity, rivals know they are more likely to be used. The review casts North Korea as a “clear and grave threat” to the US and also pin-points China, saying the US arsenal is designed to prevent Beijing from “mistakenly concluding” that it could use nuclear weapons in Asia and not expect a response. Needless to say, there is little indication that the White House is keen to extend the New START agreement beyond 2021, when it is set to expire.

The administration argues that the document is in line with a previous review in 2010, and that the expansion is a response to Russian escalation. Trump himself said the strategy was “aimed at making use of nuclear weapons less likely”.

That’s doubtful. The thrust of the 2010 review and Obama’s broader non-proliferation efforts was to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons by taking a lead and cajoling others into following suit. The idea that building more nuclear weapons – and ones that are easier to use – reduces the risk of nuclear war is entirely wrong-headed. Increasing the volume of low-yield weapons, and having them mounted on submarines and ships, as the strategy sets out, increases the range of scenarios in which retaliation may be considered and dramatically expands the risk of miscalculation on either side. “If we put nuclear weapons on cruise missiles and we launch conventional cruise missiles, how does Russia know that they are conventional,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

Moreover, low-yield is a relative term. The atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima in 1945 possessed just 15 kilotons of explosive force. That this arsenal will be in the hands of the immature and erratic Donald Trump makes the planned expansion, and the arms race it will inevitably set in train, all the more alarming.

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