Congress’s Christmas gift to Trump: A new nuclear weapon

In reaction to the Trump administration’s inept negotiating process on denuclearization, the North Koreans have threatened to send an ominous “Christmas gift.” Unfortunately, Americans are already certain to get a different nightmarish present, compliments of the U.S. Congress.

Absent convincing logic or reason, and against the House of Representative’s inclinations, legislators overwhelmingly decided to provide President Donald Trump with a new nuclear warhead — one that his administration thinks is “more usable.” Indeed, upon signing the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, this president — only the third in U.S. history to be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors — will be in the position to gain control over the new nuclear weapon he first requested in 2018, a submarine-launched “low-yield” warhead.

The United States has the most sophisticated conventional and nuclear arsenals in the world, with capabilities to respond to any limited use of nuclear weapons in multiple ways, including a thousand existing low-yield options that can be delivered by air. In fact, Congress and the last two administrations have already devoted billions of dollars to ensure these assets can effectively penetrate the most advanced air defenses. Based on existing bipartisan-supported plans, those investments are sure to continue.

The Trump Administration has never given a convincing explanation why current bloated investments in upgrades to the U.S. nuclear deterrent are insufficient or why the deployment of the new warhead would make any real change in our current deterrent forces.

Their half-hearted case for this new warhead is fragile, bordering on specious. It contends that Russia has a doctrine whereby it would employ nuclear weapons on a limited basis to end a conventional conflict with NATO. But there is scant evidence of this doctrine’s existence and the question remains: If the current and planned air-launched options cannot properly respond to any such Russian action, why are American taxpayers being asked to spend billions of dollars on those systems?

Moreover, while the yield of this “low-yield” nuclear weapon is estimated to be roughly one-third to one-half of the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed approximately 80,000 people, this is still a weapon that could kill tens of thousands of people in seconds. Launching even a “low-yield” nuclear weapon off a submarine greatly increases the chances of nuclear miscalculation. How would an adversary know the size of the weapon being launched at them? They would not, and would likely respond as if the worst-case scenario was occurring, exponentially increasing the risk of nuclear escalation.

It’s true that the aftermath of a low-yield nuclear warhead detonation would be less extreme than that of higher-yield warheads, but this does not mean that they are somehow less risky to deploy or use. In addition to the destructive effects of any nuclear explosion, the breaking of the existing nuclear-use taboo would invite the kind of retaliation from nuclear-armed adversaries likely to result in a catastrophic all-out nuclear war.

Former military leaders and government officials, from former NATO Supreme Allied Commander retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, to Former (Reagan) Secretary of State George Schultz, to former (George W. Bush) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, have been outspoken in opposition to low-yield warhead development.

Most leading Democratic presidential candidates have also publicly registered opposition, but Senate Democrats seemed to have ignored these views when negotiating the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act. Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) affirmed their opposition in the Council for a Livable World’s nuclear policy questionnaire, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) signed a letter with 17 other Senators to the Senate Armed Services Committee leadership outlining opposition to the deployment of the new warhead. (Curiously, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has formally declined to take a position on this issue.)

The president sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021 will inherit the responsibility of handling the strategic and political consequences of the impending deployment of this destabilizing weapon — along with an active arsenal of about 4,000 nuclear weapons — so American voters deserve to know where all presidential candidates stand on the matter.

It is too late to stop this particular weapon from being built, but — whether future weapons of this nature will be built or deployed — this is unlikely to be the last fight over the desire to develop new, unnecessary nuclear capabilities that would add fuel to the increasing prospect of a dangerous arms race.

Members of Congress would do well to take their cues from leading Democratic presidential contenders and refuse to provide any further funding for new, unnecessary capabilities in search of a strategy. No one ever wants a nuclear war for Christmas.

John F. Tierney is the Executive Director of the Council for a Livable World. As a nine-term Democratic Representative from Massachusetts, he was chair of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee and a former member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hiroshima Joe Biden Nuclear arms race Nuclear disarmament Nuclear strategies Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Pete Buttigieg Tactical nuclear weapon

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