Low-Yield Nuclear Missiles Are Here: But Is That a Good Thing?


Low-Yield Nuclear Missiles Are Here: But Is That a Good Thing?

There are many arguments on both sides about these deadly weapons.

The Pentagon and Department of Energy have completed production and development of a new low-yield nuclear warhead for the Trident II D5 nuclear armed ballistic missile to give commanders a tactical nuclear-weapons option to add to the overall strategic deterrence posture. 

“W76-2 warheads were delivered to the Navy. A modification of the W76-1, the W76-2 supports the low-yield, sea-launched ballistic missile capability called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan - Biennial Plan Summary, writes. 

The low-yield variant, in development for several years now, is intended to match and further deter Russian and Chinese initiatives to engineer and deploy low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons. The 2018 NPR also calls for a nuclear-armed Sub-Launched Cruise Missile to add to the U.S. arsenal as well. 

The intent, as articulated by the NPR, is to widen the aperture of U.S. nuclear weapons possibilities and introduce a certain kind of layered deterrence, ensuring potential rivals that a tactically oriented or limited nuclear weapons attack would be guaranteed response. Such is the paradox of strategic deterrence thinking, to build and threaten massively destructive weapons to prevent them from being used at all. In effect, create peace through the promise of a catastrophic alternative

This being said, some critics from Congress and the Pentagon have expressed a measure of hesitation regarding the development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, arguing that they should not be considered as an option. The presence of these kinds of weapons, the criticism maintains, would simply make nuclear war more likely by introducing the possibility of some kind of realistic limited nuclear exchange. 

Many at the Pentagon, including former Sec. of Defense Jim Mattis, have conversely argued that low-yield nuclear weapons would not necessarily lower the threshold to war and increase risk but rather add substantial value to the deterrence posture and, as Mattis told Congress several years ago, potentially bring Russia back to the negotiating table. 

Still, others have maintained that the possibility or prospect, however remote, of any kind of limited nuclear war should be completely removed from the table as an option. Therefore, the thinking goes, any potential use of nuclear weapons, no matter how small, should be countered with the assurance that it would be met with a large, overwhelming and catastrophic use of nuclear firepower. Such a stance would be intended to simply draw a clear and distinct boundary, suggesting that any use of nuclear weapons, in any capacity, will not be allowed without inspiring a massive nuclear response. The hope with this rationale is of course that it will completely prevent the possibility of limited nuclear weapons from being considered or even built. 

“The rapidly evolving threat environment facing our Nation underscores the need for the United States to maintain a diverse set of nuclear capabilities that can provide flexible, tailored options to enhance deterrence and achieve national security objectives should deterrence fail,” the Department of Energy report says. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.