New nukes? No thanks.

Getty Images

So far, President Trump has provided few details about his approach to his most important job as president: reducing the risks of unconstrained global nuclear competition and preventing a nuclear attack against the United States and our allies.

Instead, the new commander-in-chief has instructed the Pentagon to conduct another review of U.S. nuclear strategy, the fourth since the end of the Cold War and the first since President Obama completed a similar review in 2010.

The Nuclear Posture Review will, among other issues, assess how many nuclear weapons are necessary to deter nuclear attack and whether new types of nuclear weapons are necessary. The review may take a year or more to complete.

However, Trump’s cryptic calls for the United States to “strengthen and expand” its already unparalleled nuclear capacity may encourage those who would like to overturn existing U.S. policy — which is to not develop new nuclear warheads or nuclear weapons for new military missions — in order to build new types of “more usable” nuclear warheads.

{mosads}Last week, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on nuclear deterrence strategy, including perspectives from members of a Defense Science Board panel that recommended in their Dec. 2016 report the development of a “tailored nuclear option for limited use.”


At the hearing, the Defense Science Board members acknowledge there is no military requirement for such a weapon.

Nevertheless, the hearing may be a prelude to attempts by House Republicans to build support for the authorization and appropriation of funds for research and development work for new nuclear warheads.

Proponents argue that this is the appropriate response to the possibility that Russia may employ a military strategy of “escalate to de-escalate,” which posits that the threat or the use of a small number of nuclear weapons in a conflict can coerce the enemy to back down.

That’s dangerous thinking. Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict against another nuclear-armed adversary — even in small numbers or in a regional conflict — there is no guarantee that there will not be a nuclear response and a cycle of nuclear escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war.

The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war is even thicker. In a rapidly developing crisis, political and military leaders are working with incomplete information. They have little time to think through highly consequential decisions and often have difficulty communicating with the people commanding their forces — to say nothing about their adversaries. Emotions are high, and the likelihood of miscalculation is increased.

Given these realities, responsible leaders understand that military options that can lead to mutual national suicide should not be on the table. As former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Amb. George Kennan, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former Trilateral Commission Chairman Gerard Smith wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1982 about nuclear weapons first-use contingency plans in Europe, “No one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited.”

Building new, low-yield nuclear weapons for battlefield use would represent a radical reversal of existing U.S. nuclear policy and practice. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review clarified that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack.”

U.S. political and military leaders have contemplated the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield in non-nuclear conflicts in the past, including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War. Each time, U.S. leaders have concluded that the use of nuclear weapons was imprudent and unnecessary.

The pursuit of new, “more usable” nuclear capabilities also would undermine the credibility of U.S. nonproliferation efforts. As our nation tries to turn back the tide of nuclear proliferation worldwide, we cannot afford to take actions that needlessly suggest that nuclear weapons can or should be used as if they were just another kind of weapon in our arsenal.

The diplomatic and security costs of developing and possibly testing new types of nuclear warheads far outweigh any marginal benefits of such arms. President Trump and responsible members of Congress should recognize proposals for new, more usable nuclear warheads for what they are: a dangerous lowering of the nuclear threshold that would make nuclear conflict more likely.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director and Charles Carrigan is a research intern with the Arms Control Association, a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of, and support for, effective arms control policies.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video