The Buzz

Can America Prevent Russia from Using Low-Yield Nukes?

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review concluded that the U.S. must deploy a small number of low-yield nuclear warheads on its Trident missiles to deter Russian first use of low-yield nuclear weapons for limited nuclear strikes in conventional warfare. It states, “Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such 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. Recent Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons. Russia demonstrates its perception of the advantage these systems provide through numerous exercises and statements. Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative.”[1]

The threat of Russian first use involving limited nuclear strikes was recognized by the Obama administration. In October 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated that “…it’s a sobering fact that the most likely use of nuclear weapons is not the massive nuclear exchange of the classic Cold War-type, but rather the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example, by Russia or North Korea to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis.”[2] As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has stated, “We want to make certain they recognize that we can respond in kind and that we don't have to go with the high yield weapon.”[3]

Domestic opposition to this NPR decision appears to be largely ideological and ignores the disparity in such weapons that now exists and Russia’s doctrine with regards to the first use of nuclear weapons. There is nothing new about low-yield warheads on ballistic missiles. In addition to Russia, the UK and France reportedly have low-yield ballistic missile warheads on their SLBMs.[4]

Russia reportedly has acquired low-yield, precision low-yield and low-collateral damage nuclear weapons. This was originally reported by distinguished Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer who wrote in 2002 that in April 1999 the Russian National Security Council approved a concept for developing and using “…non-strategic low- and flexible-yield battlefield weapons,” and that the yield of these precision weapons would be tens or hundreds of tons of TNT.[5] “Flexible yield” is clearly what we call variable yield or dial a yield. New Russian low-yield nuclear weapons are reported in the Russian press including in the state media. A declassified year 2000 CIA report observed, “Moscow’s military doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons has been evolving and probably has served as the justification for the development of very low-yield, high-precision nuclear weapons. The range of applications will ultimately be determined by Russia’s evolving nuclear doctrine, and could include artillery, air-to-air weapons, ABM weapons, anti-satellite weapons or multiple rocket launchers against tanks or massed troops.…”[6] In 2009, the bipartisan U.S. Strategic Commission report said Russia was developing “…low-yield tactical nuclear weapons including an earth penetrator.”[7]

Actual Russian deployment of strategic low-yield nuclear warheads (tens of tons to 200 tons yield) on Russian SLBMs (the Sineva and Bulava-30) has been reported in the state media (Sputnik News and Ria Novosti), and in the decidedly non-state media, the liberal Ekho Moskvy Radio (in an interview with hardline but well connected Russian journalist Colonel (ret.) Viktor Litovkin.).[8] Since, according to then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, the Bulava-30 SLBM and RS-24/Yars ICBM use the same new warhead, it is nearly certain that the RS-24 also has low- yield options.[9]