Pentagon unveils policy focused on deterring Russia with smaller nukes

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The Defense Department unveiled a new policy Friday that calls for expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities, with an eye on countering Russia’s growing nuclear power.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) calls for developing smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia. The strategy would challenge the view that U.S. nuclear weapons are too big to be used and therefore no longer an effective deterrent.

“We cannot afford to let [the U.S. nuclear arsenal] become obsolete,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.

The NPR does feature sections geared toward North Korea, China and Iran, but its main focus appears to be Russia.


“Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable,” the document states.

President Trump on Friday applauded the new policy, which follows months of analysis that he ordered last year.

“Over the past decade, despite United States efforts to reduce the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons, other nuclear nations grew their stockpiles, increased the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and—in some cases—pursued the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other nations,” Trump said in a statement.

“Meanwhile, successive United States administrations deferred much-needed modernization of our nuclear weapons, infrastructure, and delivery systems. The 2018 NPR addresses these challenges.”

Greg Weaver, the Pentagon’s deputy director of strategic capabilities, cautioned that the U.S. is not in an arms race with Russia, but argued instead that the Trump administration is “responding to Russian initiative.”

“There are strong indications that our current strategy, posture and capabilities are perceived by the Russians as potentially inadequate to deter them,” Weaver said.

Weaver, speaking alongside Shanahan, added that the U.S. would be willing to sideline development of the low-yield weapon should the Russians “redress the imbalance in non-strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon’s nuclear review is its first in eight years, and the new document closely follows its predecessor with a few exceptions.

While the 2010 document emphasized reducing multiple nations’ nuclear stockpiles, the 2018 version emphasizes the need to enhance capabilities.

One difference is a plan to modify a small amount of submarine-launched nuclear warheads with less powerful options. 

The Pentagon will also bring back sea-based nuclear cruise missiles, which will take up to a decade to develop, officials said.

In addition, the review reverses plans to retire the B-83 bomb, the largest nuclear weapon in the U.S. stockpile. The bomb would continue to be used until a replacement is found.

The U.S. currently has roughly 1,400 nuclear weapons, down from a high of more than 12,000 during the 1980s. Under the New Start nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the U.S. could raise that level to 1,550.

U.S. officials insisted that these changes will make its deterrents more credible and raise the nuclear threshold. 

But critics warn that such low-yield weapons would actually increase the likeliness of a nuclear war because they blur the line between acceptable and non-acceptable weapons to use, increasing the risk of miscalculation.

Officials also declined to offer a dollar figure for such “adjustments,” even when pressed by reporters.

Former President Barack Obama had kicked off a 30-year, $1.2 trillion plan to replace or modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad with new land-based ballistic missiles, submarines and long-range stealth bombers. 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Nuclear weapon Russia U.S.-Russia relations
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