The Buzz

Can America Prevent Russia from Using Low-Yield Nukes?

Concerning the Russian Vostok 2010 military exercise, the official newspaper of the Far East Military District said, “To suppress a large center of the separatists’ resistance and to achieve minimal losses of the attacking troops a low-yield ‘nuclear’ attack was mounted against the enemy.”[35] In the same exercise, Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that Russia used a nuclear-armed S-300 surface-to-air missile against a ground target.[36]

Despite the near hysterical reaction from Russia and U.S. arms control enthusiasts, the U.S. program for a low-yield warhead for the Trident missile is quite modest, prudent and not remotely comparable to existing Russian capabilities and programs. The weapons that the U.S. plans to install will be small in number, modest in cost, not a new type of nuclear weapon and will not require a nuclear test.[37] This clearly rules out low-collateral damage warheads, precision or near-precision accuracy, or earth penetration – all capabilities that the Russians are reported to have or are developing. Such restrictions also preclude any significant warfighting capability. The purpose of the low-yield Trident warhead is not warfighting but rather to deter Russian first use of nuclear weapons which would very likely involve precision low-yield or low-collateral damage nuclear weapons. The Russians believe they can use these without precipitating a massive nuclear exchange.

The Trident submarines have the survivability that is necessary for an effective deterrent, but they have 1980s level accuracy which is good but not precision or near precision. Their survivable capability could deter Russian first use of low-yield weapons including use against bomber bases and nuclear-capable fighter bases to eliminate U.S. retaliatory capability against low-yield attack by a preemptive attack. However, these aircraft are not on alert and, hence, unless put on alert can be eliminated by about ten ordinary nuclear weapons. A 2007 study by CSIS concluded, “In a ‘bolt from the blue’ attack, just five dedicated nuclear strikes could take out all three strategic nuclear bomber bases and the two submarine bases.”[38] Trident submarines at sea will very likely survive, but non-alert bombers present at their bases could be destroyed. A small number of B-61 nuclear bombs are reportedly deployed at five NATO air bases in Europe.[39] Again, they could be taken out by a small nuclear attack if they are not on alert or dispersed. A very good recent analysis by James R. Howe has concluded that a small number of precision low-yield nuclear weapons would eliminate the ability of these bases to retaliate for months (even assuming no follow-on Russian nuclear attacks) with very low levels of collateral damage.[40] Howe also raised concern about the possibility of a much larger Russian precision-low-yield attack (about 1,300 to 1,500 weapons) which has the potential to defeat NATO with modest collateral damage.

The NPR decision on Trident low-yield capability was recommended by the Obama administration’s Defense Science Board in December 2016.[41] It plugs a major hole in our current deterrent capability at virtually no cost.