Mattis puts tactical nukes back on the table for Russia strategy

Feb. 22 (UPI) — Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asserted on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon needs to invest in low-yield nuclear weapons to counter a Russian strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” — firing low-yield nuclear weapons with the belief that the United States would not retaliate because it would have to use full-scale nuclear weapons.

Experts don’t agree on whether the low-yield option Mattis suggests — which the Defense Department took off the table in the 1990s — is the correct deterrence approach, and more importantly, they don’t agree that “escalate to de-escalate” is actually the Russian doctrine. Many experts argue that this doctrine does not line up with what they know of Russia’s strategy.

Before breaking down each side, let’s define our terms.

Low-yield nuclear weapon

When defense officials talk about low-yield nuclear weapons today, they mean a kind of smaller-scale nuclear device that can be launched from a submarine. The administration wants to incorporate low-yield weapons on both submarine-launched ballistic missiles and sea-launched cruise missiles.

The current U.S. arsenal of low-yield weapons is delivered from planes, but Russia’s anti-aircraft defenses can stop them.

“Smaller-scale” is a relative term. A 20-kiloton “low-yield” device causes destruction on par with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, each of which killed tens of thousands in the initial blast alone.

Escalate to de-escalate

While there’s not agreement that this nuclear doctrine is Russia’s strategy, the thinking goes like this: Because Russia has a large arsenal of low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons, and the United States is limited to the air-launched variety that Russia can shoot down, the United States wouldn’t retaliate because its only option would be to launch full-scale nuclear weapons. The next step would be Russian full-scale nuclear retaliation — mutually assured destruction.

Here’s an example of what that might look like: What if Russia made a quick land grab in the Baltics to make up for what it sees as the loss of its security perimeter. While Russia has a regionally dominant conventional military force, it is underpowered compared to NATO forces. Using the low-yield nuclear strategy would, under this doctrine, halt a conventional response as well as a nuclear response because NATO members would be hesitant to jump too fast up the escalation ladder.

Why it might work

“I am willing to speculate that Russia understands all too well the psychological inhibitions that the United States has placed upon itself, having been the only country to use nuclear weapons in war,” said I.D. Hendrix, senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for New American Security. “It gives them a lot more leeway when they start ratcheting up the tensions.”

Mattis, speaking at a House Armed Services Committee oversight hearing on Feb. 6, said low-yield nuclear weapons prevent “miscalculations” by the Russians that this leeway could cause.

But even without new low-yield weapons, Hendrix said in an interview he doesn’t see any situation in which the United States would not issue an immediate response.

“When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Hendrix said. “The idea of reintroducing or doing a modernization effort that actually brings some tactical nuclear weapons back into the inventory puts more tools back into the tool box.”

Tighter control over the escalation ladder could also bring Russia to the bargaining table, where diplomats could have discussions about deterrence, Hendrix said, adding, “What [Mattis] is doing is stimulating a meeting of the minds.”

Mattis makes a point to emphasize his belief that rather than lowering the threshold to nuclear war, low-yield weapons give negotiators a bargaining chip. He said they would only be used “in the most extreme circumstances” — he even prefers not to use the term “nuclear bombs” and insists on specifically calling them “nuclear deterrents.”

“The deterrence effort stays primary,” Mattis said. “It is not to in any way lower the threshold to use nuclear weapons.”

Why it might not

By keeping the attention of the United States fixed on nuclear threats, Russia gains the space to focus on buttressing its regional military dominance without interference from NATO, said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

“Russia does have more non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons than the United States,” Reif said. “By attempting to mimic Russia by developing more low-yield options I think we play into Moscow’s hands to some extent because Russia can match NATO in the nuclear sphere” but comes up short in the conventional weapons arena.

Reif said the U.S. acquisition of low-yield nuclear bombs could have the “perverse effect of potentially convincing Russia that it could get away with limited nuclear use without putting its survival at risk.”

He also believes that, in the event of the firing of a low-yield weapon, the idea that the nuclear escalation ladder can be tightly controlled, as Hendrix and Mattis have suggested, is flawed.

“The fog of war is thick but the fog of nuclear war would be even thicker,” Reif said. “Once the nuclear shooting starts, a nuke is going to be a nuke. It’s an incredibly risky bet to think…that cooler heads would prevail.”

The bottom line

It is not clear this doctrine is Russia’s current policy for using nuclear weapons. There is some evidence indicating that Russia is working to raise the threshold for nuclear war, not lower it. Experts point to Russia’s investments in conventional weapons and cyber warfare as demonstrative of the fact that it is looking for alternatives to tactical use of nuclear devices.

“The claim that Russia has such a doctrine…is hotly disputed,” Reif said. “It’s fair to say that Russia relies more on nuclear weapons for security than the United States due to Moscow’s overall conventional inferiority, but Russia’s official nuclear doctrine does not support the claim.”

Russia may prefer nuclear saber rattling to diplomacy because it helps them “identify and exploit ways to keep the West off-balance, including nuclear brandishing,” Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a report.

“Officials are careful to avoid directly contradicting doctrine, but happy to make vague and ominous pronouncements,” Oliker wrote. “This is unnerving, but it falls short of a convincing case of a coherent strategy of ‘escalating to de-escalate.'”

The original theory behind deterrence strategy is that nuclear war would be so destructive as to be unwinnable. Destruction would be mutually assured. Regardless of whether Russia believes in “escalate to de-escalate,” the existence of low-yield nuclear weapons on either side could unhinge this cornerstone of policy.

“Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer,” Mattis said.


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Donald Trump’s spats with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un can mushroom into nuclear warfare

Donald Trump’s spats with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un about the size of their nuclear buttons are reckless, while his desire to expand his nuclear arsenal is a departure from his predecessors and a contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, says Jason Douglas

IN a ceremony some weeks ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand had moved.

The time on the clock now reads two minutes to midnight (midnight being the symbolic hour of global catastrophe).

This is the closest the clock has moved to midnight since 1953, the height of the Cold War and the same year the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb.

Donald Trump

The move was prompted partly by climate change, but was mainly as a result of developments in the global nuclear environment. North Korea’s repeated nuclear provocations; the absence of any progress on US-Russian arms control; and raised tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have all contributed to a heightened sense of danger. Recent developments will do little to dampen these fears.

Officially released on February 2, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has sparked fierce debate.

The NPR is a Congressionally-mandated document released by every president (since Bill Clinton in 1994) and it outlines nuclear weapons policy for the next five to 10 years.

Trump looks set to pursue an entirely different, and much more dangerous, approach than previous presidents.

The trend has been a downward trajectory in US nuclear numbers since the end of the Cold War. President George HW Bush enacted an unprecedented number of nuclear reductions in the early 1990s. Post-Soviet Russia quickly followed suit.

While cuts, for various reasons, halted under Clinton, despite his best efforts, his successor, George W Bush (whose administration hardly baulked at the idea of confronting global threats), reduced the US nuclear

stockpile by about half.

It was under Obama that a conceptual change occurred. As president-elect, writing in 2008, Obama said

that he would forge a new path in US nuclear weapons policy, by working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, going so far as to make this objective a central element of his administration’s policy.

As a first step, he would work with Russia to enact reciprocal cuts. While falling far short of this idealistic goal of disarmament (which he rightly stated he was unlikely to see in his lifetime), Obama’s main legacy was to reposition the idea of nuclear disarmament in the mainstream national security agenda, though as a distant, even aspirational, aim.

While the previous three NPRs sought to engender strategic stability by, effectively, downplaying the role nuclear weapons would play in US policy, Trump’s NPR signals a sharp deviation.

Though tempering much of Trump’s characteristic machismo and bluster, the NPR is a markedly different interpretation of the direction of US policy.

All indications suggest that Trump is seeking to modernise existing weapons, and to expand the arsenal. That would fly in the face of America’s historic commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

This would also create renewed tensions with “strategic competitors” (ie, Russia and China).

To be fair to Trump, the modernisation programme was ushered in by Obama, as many components of the US nuclear enterprise have, or soon will, reach the end of their service lives.

That said, his approach has raised alarms bells, both at home and further afield.

This new departure should come as no surprise. As president-elect, even before he darkened the doorway of the Oval Office, Trump called for a greatly increased nuclear arsenal, while, apparently, welcoming the suggestion that this would, undoubtedly, spark a renewed arms race.

Amid nuclear sabre-rattling by North Korea, Trump announced that if Pyongyang ever launched an attack on the US (or, presumably, its allies), it would be met with a storm of “fire and fury”, later boasting that his nuclear button was much bigger than Kim Jong Un’s.

An intercontinental ballistic missile launched by North Korea. Picture: KRT via AP

Irrespective of the comparative size of Trump’s nuclear button, such crass appeals to masculinity are dangerous in the world of nuclear politics. Veiled (as well as not-so-veiled) threats lead to feelings of insecurity in others, who then take countermeasures to defend themselves.

This, in turn, breeds mistrust and, ultimately, sows the seeds of conflict.

In typical Trump style, his nuclear utterances, mostly communicated through Twitter, have been consistently belligerent and unpredictable.

In a sphere inhabited by diplomats and skilled negotiators (masters in the art of carefully-judged nuance), impulsively tweeting bravado-fuelled nuclear threats simply isn’t done. In any case, many important State Department positions remain vacant, because nuclear diplomacy has been all but ignored by Trump.

According to a Pentagon spokesperson, Trump’s NPR calls for a “credible nuclear deterrent, with diverse capabilities”.

The word “diverse” is subtle, a euphemism alluding to the fact that the president has called for the development of smaller tactical nuclear weapons with lower explosive power.

The thinking behind tactical nuclear weapons is that the current crop is too big and powerful to use as a deterrent, simply because no statesman would regard a threat to use them (for deterrence purposes) as credible.

This, in fact, is a misnomer, since some tactical nuclear weapons possess roughly the same explosive power as the bomb detonated above Nagasaki, which killed 70,000 people.

“Conventionalising” nuclear weapons by making them smaller effectively lowers the threshold for their use and may make a nuclear exchange more likely.

The pursuit of these weapons would also represent a violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), which outlawed an entire category of nuclear missiles between the Cold War superpowers.

While Trump supporters will laud this expansion as part of a wider attempt to “make America great again”, the main issue is, as most sober analysts have argued, that the threat simply doesn’t exist to warrant it. Moreover, he has 4,000 nuclear weapons at his disposal already, and this should be sufficient to handle a multitude of contingencies.

The US nuclear arsenal, for example, far exceeds that of China, in both quality and quantity. It remains roughly on a numerical par with that of Russia, due to the New START arms control agreement, concluded under Obama.

In addition to this, the belief that

Beijing and Moscow are placing nuclear weapons centre stage, as part of their respective defence strategies, is understandable, but mistaken.

To counter this possibility, however, as the review makes clear, the Trump administration wants to widen the range of scenarios under which US nuclear weapons might conceivably be used, such as in response to a cyber-attack or a non-nuclear strategic attack. At the very least, the review indicates that the US will be placing a greater reliance on nuclear weapons in the years ahead.

Not only does the NPR appear to call for an expansion of the US nuclear force, it also actively militates against efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally. Arms control between the US and Russia is given a derisory mention.

It dismisses the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (signed by Clinton in 1996, but rejected by the US Senate in 1999). As well as this, Trump has repeatedly criticised the Iran deal, a multilateral agreement concluded between the United Nations P5 and Germany (“P5+1”) and Iran, designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in return for a relaxation of some economic sanctions.

These all have near-universal backing throughout the international community, as a way forward for defusing nuclear tensions, but Trump’s dismissive attitude is a worrying sign.

Jon Wolfsthal, a Harvard academic and former Obama administration official, has stated that the Nuclear Posture Review clearly bears no resemblance to Trump’s actual outlook; rather, he argued, it is a reflection of more moderate voices within his cabinet (namely secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, and secretary of state, Rex Tillerson), whom Wolfsthal calls the “axis of adults”.

The chances of a nuclear exchange are relatively slim. But that’s not to say that it won’t, or can’t, happen. Excessive complacency in the infallibility of nuclear deterrence is misguided, especially with the chatter of loose talk in the background.

As a 71-year-old man, Trump, who would have been an adolescent at the tense zenith of the Cold War standoff, is old enough to remember the Soviet atomic threat, poised to strike the United States at any moment, as well as the now laughable ways in which a vulnerable populace sought to ride out a nuclear attack.

As his policy appears to be moving the United States, and the world, closer to the nuclear precipice, let’s hope the axis of adults continues to prevail.

Jason Douglas is currently pursuing a PhD in US nuclear strategy in UCC


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Kick Off To A Nuclear Race Threatening Doomsday

By Sergio Duarte

The writer is President of the 1995 Nobel Peace Laureate Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and a former Ambassador of Brazil who served in key posts. He was President of the 2005 Seventh Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs with UNODA, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2007-2012). – The Editor

NEW YORK (IDN) – As if by coincidence, almost simultaneously the world learned of the Doomsday Clock moving closer to midnight and of the release of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by the government of the United States.

Although based on very different world views, both actions respond to security concerns: the former is a dramatic reminder of the imminent dangers posed by nuclear weapons and of the need for their elimination; the latter stresses the role of nuclear armament as capable of dealing with international tensions and of avoiding such dangers through the expansion of the flexibility and diversity of existing nuclear capabilities.

The Doomsday Clock is a serious and timely warning demanding urgent national and international measures to control and finally ban nuclear weapons as the best guarantee against their actual use in conflict.

For many observers, the NPR would increase the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons and could serve as justification for other nuclear armed States to improve the destructive potential of their own arsenals as a way to counter what they might see as an aggressive posture, thus triggering a new round of the nuclear arms race.

The central argument of the Nuclear Posture Review is that nuclear weapons have and will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear and non-nuclear attack and are essential to prevent aggression now and for the foreseeable future. Complementary and interrelated roles of these weapons are listed as: assurance to allies and partners, achievement of national objectives in case of failure of deterrence and maintenance of the capacity to hedge against an uncertain future.

According to the NPR, the deterrent role of the American nuclear arsenals would be extended through the enhancement of the flexibility and range of nuclear options, including low yield weapons, which would prevent potential adversaries from seeking advantages in a limited nuclear escalation.

Critics of the new nuclear posture have warned that smaller, low-yield atomic devices would in fact blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons and lower the nuclear threshold. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the cycle of escalation would be limited once nuclear weapons of any size are introduced in the theater of war.

In addition, the NPR contemplates the use of nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks on the United States and does not rule out first use. It is also possible to argue that some current non-nuclear nations might be tempted to acquire these weapons themselves if they become convinced that such a move would make them similarly able to achieve their national objectives and to prevent attack from possessors.

Since the advent of the United Nations, the international community has made painstaking progress in its effort to deal with the terrifying prospect of nuclear conflict. That was the objective of the very first General Assembly resolution in 1946, which unfortunately did not achieve concrete results.

During the following decades a few States developed nuclear capabilities while the wide majority accepted a number of legally binding commitments not to acquire atomic weapons and placed their trust instead in increased confidence building measures and cooperative security undertakings as a hedge against the inherent uncertainties and unpredictability of international relations.

In spite of mutual accusations of violations, bilateral measures negotiated between the United States and the Russian Federation resulted in significant reductions of the staggering amount of weapons of mass destruction amassed during the Cold War.

UN Secretary-General António Gueterres recently congratulated both countries on the successful reduction of their strategic nuclear forces to the levels established by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and stressed that “efforts in nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control are more vital than ever”.

[The Treaty was signed April 8, 2010 in Prague by Russia and the United States and entered into force on February 5, 2011. New START replaced the 1991 START I treaty, which expired December 2009, and superseded the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which terminated when New START entered into force.]

The total nuclear warhead count in the United States and Russia now stands at the lowest levels ever. This is truly a commendable effort that should be taken forward to achieve the long-sought goal of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Guterres went on to call on both States “to engage in the necessary dialogue that will lead to further arsenal reductions and to continue to display the historic leadership across the multilateral disarmament agenda.” Strong leadership by the two most heavily armed nations on Earth is crucial to further disarmament efforts and to the collective security of the world as a whole.

Current instruments in the field of disarmament recognize the possession of nuclear weapons only until they are completely eliminated and call for action to achieve this objective. However, this basic premise has been increasingly misinterpreted by the pervading notion that those instruments somehow legitimize the exclusive and indefinite retention of such awesome means of destruction and condone the continued postponement of specific measures to abolish them.

In the absence of strong, legally binding commitments to nuclear disarmament with clear timelines, possessor States seem to feel entitled to keep their arsenals at least well into future decades at the same time that they deny any others the same means to ensure their own security.

There is no doubt that an increase in the number of nuclear weapon States would endanger international peace and security. The wide majority of the international community has repeatedly asserted, however, that the very existence of nuclear weapons is the real threat to peace and security, regardless of their possessors. Unequal standards cannot endure forever.

This became clear after the entry into force of the NPT, which limited the number of nuclear weapon States to the five that had acquired such weapons by an arbitrary date. Subsequently, four other countries managed to develop their own nuclear arsenals and a small number have been dissuaded by a variety of means from embarking on the same course.

In some others, sections of public opinion openly advocate the acquisition of independent nuclear forces in order to free themselves from the uncertainties of defensive arrangements. Indeed, the emphasis on nuclear deterrence provides encouragement for such sentiments. Most non-nuclear States, however, firmly believe that their security is better served by not acquiring nuclear weapons.

Over the decades since 1945 [the end of World War II] a number of multilateral agreements sought quite successfully to prevent the unbridled proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and bacteriological. Despite their importance, however, two of those treaties are not yet in force.

The 1996 Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is one of them. Eight key States still hesitate either to sign and/or ratify it, a necessary condition for the entry into force of the instrument. Alone among those eight countries, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has carried out nuclear test explosions into the 21st century, in defiance of the UN Security Council and in spite of repeated and increased sanctions imposed by it. All others are observing voluntary moratoria on such tests.

According to the Nuclear Posture Review, the United States will not seek ratification of the CTBT but will continue to support its Preparatory Committee as well as the International Monitoring System and the International Data Center. Other outlying States are not as straightforward in the statement of their intentions. In any case, the leadership of the major nuclear powers is obviously needed to bring all recalcitrant countries into the fold.

The other important instrument not yet in force is Treaty on The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons leading to their complete elimination. It was adopted on July 17, 2017 by a large majority of States, but the pace of signatures and ratifications has been slower than expected, in part due to the active and fierce opposition of the possessors of nuclear weapons and their allies.

These countries have dismissed the treaty and attempt to portray it as a naïve and futile gesture that may even exacerbate tensions within the existing non-proliferation regime and ultimately undermine efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The supporters of the instrument, for their part, stress that it is not meant to contradict the NPT but rather to provide a path for the fulfilment of the commitment contained in its Article VI. Even if it does not reach the widest adherence possible, – as neither have several existing multilateral instruments in this field, including the NPT itself – the Prohibition Treaty remains a powerful expression of the support of a large number of members of the international community to concrete measures of nuclear disarmament.

Mainstream media in countries with the most powerful military forces, as well as in those that have predicated their security on weapons not under their own control continually publish stories and commentary about the need to counter external threats through the strengthening of their armed forces, but very rarely publicize peace initiatives. A culture of war seems to have taken precedence over a culture of peace. Nuclear-armed States are currently engaged in increasing and modernizing their arsenals, and insist that the current security conditions in the real world do not allow for nuclear disarmament, at least for the foreseeable future. Observers, for their part, point out that their very postures and deeds have the effect of increasing tensions and perpetuating the climate of mistrust and insecurity.

Nevertheless, the growing international awareness of the humanitarian, environmental and social consequences of any use of nuclear weapons may provide opportunities for progress on nuclear-risk-reduction measures in order to prevent disasters caused by nuclear detonations by design or accident.

Experts and prominent former high-level officials from nuclear armed States have revealed multiple near-misses that brought the world to the brink of full-scale nuclear war that were averted by single individuals in the chain of command who took on their own shoulders the responsibility not to press the fatal button.

Civil society organizations and a number of States have been trying to change the status quo by promoting actions aimed at reducing the danger of a nuclear confrontation that could have catastrophic consequences for humanity as a whole.

One opportunity is provided by the current review cycle of the NPT. Another is the forthcoming United Nations High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, scheduled to take place in May in New York.

World leaders attending this conference are expected to take, or announce, a number of concrete actions, many of which suggested by those organizations, that would help facilitate further efforts toward nuclear disarmament, such as taking all nuclear weapons off launch-on-warning and high alert; adopting policies never to initiate nuclear war; agreeing not to develop new nuclear weapons systems; removing all forward-based nuclear weapons; commencing negotiations on the phased reduction and elimination of nuclear stockpiles; and reducing nuclear weapons budgets in order to release resources for climate protection and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

The president of Kazakhstan – a country that relinquished the nuclear weapons it once possessed – recently proposed at the UN Security Council the goal to achieve global elimination of nuclear weapons by 2045, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

On the same occasion UN Secretary-General Guterres warned that “global anxieties about nuclear weapons are the highest since the Cold War” and announced the intention to explore opportunities to generate a new direction and impetus for the global disarmament agenda. He is expected to launch a major initiative on disarmament encompassing several categories of weapons, including new technologies such as cyber warfare.

The translation of proposals made from several quarters into practical arrangements presupposes a considerable amount of political will. Enlightened world leaders know that the supreme interests of their countries involve also the interests of humankind as a whole. No nation, particularly those with large resources and wealth, can devote itself to the satisfaction of its national objectives without taking into account the legitimate needs and aspirations of humanity, of which their own populations are an indissoluble part.

The understanding of this simple, yet undeniable truth is essential for the success of efforts to achieve security for all through the complete elimination of the enormous risk posed by the existence of nuclear weapons. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 February 2018]

Photo: An Airman completes a missile assembly on an F-16 Fighting Falcon during a load crew competition at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., June 30, 2017. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew D. Sarver

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –


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UN chief plans major disarmament push but US skeptical

GENEVA – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is to launch a major push for disarmament talks covering everything from nuclear and cyber war to small arms, braving certain U.S. resistance to such bold initiatives, officials and experts said.

Guterres aims to forestall a new nuclear arms race and get the big powers back into negotiations after two decades of stalemate, according to a Geneva-based expert familiar with the plans who requested anonymity.

The expert said Guterres also wants to end “state-led paralysis” in talks on cyberwarfare and robotics by getting the private sector involved, and to start talks on use of explosives in urban areas and curbing access to conventional weapons, the biggest killer.

Chances of success are uncertain at best. But with nuclear tensions rising, Guterres may be uniquely placed to oil the wheels of negotiations given a 2009 U.N. Security Council pledge to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

“If Guterres is clever he can use that to say, ‘OK, what have you done in the past 10 years?’ ” said Marc Finaud, an expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that nuclear disarmament was an “aspirational goal” only, and it was hard to conceive of it in the near term.

“We don’t believe that it’s time for bold initiatives, particularly in the area of nuclear weapons,” the official said, adding Guterres should also tread carefully in new technologies such as killer robots, known as “autonomous” weapons.

“I worry that the secretary-general may be trying to treat the symptoms and not the root causes of why countries arm and rearm.”

The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, published on Friday, aims to improve deterrence, ensuring Russia, China, North Korea and Iran cannot mistake the U.S. willingness to defend itself, the official added.

The U.S. official said the problem was political will and the fact Russia — with whom tensions have risen over issues ranging from Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine’s conflict to alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election campaign — was not a willing or trusted negotiating partner.

“We have to let them (Russia) know that we are dealing with them from a position of strength. Over the last eight years there’s been a perception of weakness. We want to disabuse them of that notion.”

Guterres’ strategy, to be spearheaded by his disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu, seeks to revive talks across the spectrum despite deepening U.S.-Russian mistrust and heightened tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.

“The path to peace through disarmament does not lie waiting for the right security situation to materialize, while countries increase their military budgets and stockpiles year after year,” she said in a speech last October.

“We should not shy away from bolder thinking.”

The U.S. official said the negotiating forum was “littered” with stalled initiatives aiming to think outside the box.

They include China and Russia’s thrust for a treaty on weapons in space and Russia’s hope for a treaty to stop Islamist militants obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Nakamitsu is expected to invite key officials, including diplomats from the United Nations’ five veto-wielding powers, including Washington and Moscow, to a retreat near New York later this month for discussions.

Guterres hopes to unveil his initiative in Geneva at the end of February, when foreign ministers, including Sergei Lavrov of Russia, are expected at the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Conference on Disarmament, before a full launch in April.

Richard Lennane, head of the nonprofit Geneva Disarmament Platform, said it was the right time for what appeared to be an unprecedented and ambitious move, and encouraging that Guterres was launching it early in his tenure.

“The tensions between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader have frightened a lot of people, and for the first time in a long time people have realized that there’s an imminent prospect of a nuclear war starting. So I think that is fertile ground to try an initiative like this,” he said.


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UN chief plans major disarmament push

GENEVA (Reuters) – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is to launch a major push for disarmament talks covering everything from nuclear and cyber war to small arms, braving certain US resistance to such bold initiatives, officials and experts said.

Mr Guterres aims to forestall a new nuclear arms race and get the big powers back into negotiations after two decades of stalemate, according to a Geneva-based expert familiar with the plans, who requested anonymity. The expert said Mr Guterres also wants to end “state-led paralysis” in talks on cyberwarfare and robotics by getting the private sector involved, and to start talks on use of explosives in urban areas and curbing access to conventional weapons.

“If Guterres is clever he can use that to say: ‘Okay what have you done in the past 10 years?’” said Marc Finaud, an expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

But a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said nuclear disarmament was an “aspirational goal” only, and it was hard to conceive of it in the near term.

“We don’t believe that it’s time for bold initiatives, particularly in the area of nuclear weapons,” the official said.

“I worry that the Secretary-General may be trying to treat the symptoms and not the root causes of why countries arm and rearm.”

The US Nuclear Posture Review, published on Friday, aims to improve deterrence, ensuring Russia, China, North Korea and Iran cannot mistake the US willingness to defend itself, the official added.

The US official said the problem was political will and the fact Russia was not a willing or trusted negotiating partner.

Mr Guterres’ strategy seeks to revive talks across the spectrum despite deepening US-Russian mistrust and heightened tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.


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Has Trump Launched a New Nuclear Arms Race?


Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy Lawrence Wilkerson’s last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.


ARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Pentagon has released its new Nuclear Posture Review. It calls for a major upgrade of the nuclear arsenal to confront Russia and China. And for the first time, it would permit the use of nuclear weapons even in response to a non-military attack, like the cyber hacking of US infrastructure.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel.

So, we’re speaking on a day when just after this Nuclear Posture has come out, but also the new START Treaty, which is the aim to reduce the arsenal of both the US and Russia, is taking full effect today after it was signed eight years ago under President Obama. Many analysts are now saying that this new Posture Review, this Nuclear Weapons Posture Review from Trump, heralds the end of that era and the start perhaps of a new nuclear arms race. Your thoughts?

LARRY WILKERSON: They may well be right. I see this as partly a continuation of what the Obama administration had put in motion, which was a modernization of our nuclear stockpile to ensure that it was effective, that is to say, they would work. When you leave a nuclear weapon on the shelf for a long time, sometimes you need to check it. It’s called surety, and to modernize as I said and to ensure that the arsenal was best shaped for what threats might be envisioned in the future. They were going to spend lots of money on this over the next decade or so. I thought that was even far too much in terms of money. It’s mainly to keep the nuclear weapons part of the military-industrial complex alive and well, the scientists, the facilities, and so forth, as much as it is to protect America’s security.

Now we have the Trump administration, particularly in this Review, orchestrated mostly by the Pentagon, saying, “That’s not enough, really.” And they’re saying that based on some things that the Russians are doing in their exercises and in their doctrine as well as on what the Chinese are doing but in many cases, it is our efforts that have propelled the Russians and the Chinese to do what they’re doing. So, this is another form of what you might call Cold War-like competition starting up to keep our military-industrial complex alive and well prospering, as well as to deal with what might be potential threats in the world.

Let’s just look at what the Russians have been doing and they’ve incorporated in their doctrine. In their field army exercises of late, 2013 at least, 2014, they have been saying that one of the things they will do to counter NATO’s supposed superiority in precision-guided munitions, conventional weaponry, is use small-yield nuclear weapons as if that would not be escalatory. I’ve had conversations to this effect. “Don’t you know that would be escalatory and that we would use them back, and so forth?” So, we’re sort of trying to counter that with regard to Russia with this Review.

With China, it’s probably more serious because China’s always had the theory that Mao Zedong gave them that nuclear weapons were basically useless. I kind of like that theory. The Chinese thought, “Well, we’ll only build enough nuclear weapons so that we deter anyone from ever using them on us.” Mao, of course, used rhetoric like, “You shoot me with them and you might kill 300 million but I’ll have 400 or 500 million left. I’ll shoot Los Angeles and New York with mine and you won’t shoot any more, or you’ll sue for peace, or whatever.” So, Mao’s theory persisted for a long time.

Now the Chinese are thinking differently. With North Korea having created nuclear weapons, and with Japan and the potential for Japan to become a full-up nuclear power, which could happen overnight, with all of that going on, the Chinese are re-looking at their nuclear policy. They’re thinking that they better build enough weapons in order to survive a first strike and to retaliate majorly. This is perturbing and changing the entire nuclear weapon portfolio, if you will, around the world for a lot of countries. Not only that, the proliferation is hurting us.

We’re looking at a brave new world for sure in terms of nuclear weapons, and things like the START Treaty which you mentioned, and the cooperation that went along with that, and the Moscow Treaty, and other such arms limitation treaties, are probably going to fall by the wayside. We’re going to see another arms race, and in particular, one in nuclear weapons. That’s going to be I think very dangerous for the world. I think the Atomic Bulletin, which moved the Doomsday Clock I think to two minutes or so from midnight, it hadn’t been that close since the Cuban missile crisis, in my knowledge. I think they’re right. I think we’re probably approaching a threshold where we’re going to be closer to a nuclear exchange than we’ve been since 1945.

AARON MATÉ: That’s right, Colonel. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the highest point it’s been at since 1953 when the US tested a hydrogen bomb.

LARRY WILKERSON: Was it ’53? I was thinking about ’62. I think they didn’t have a chance to react to the Cuban missile crisis. It unfolded so quickly.

AARON MATÉ: Right. So, you mentioned how Trump is in many ways continuing Obama’s more than 1 trillion dollar nuclear upgrade but in terms of what’s new here, what about the leeway that he is offering in terms of the grounds for using nuclear weapons? The Review talks about using it in response to a non-military attack, something that cripples US infrastructure. That is unprecedented.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah. That’s frightening. I don’t discount the nature of the new threats, particularly this one, cyber warfare and so forth. I don’t discount that at all but I don’t, at the same time, think that a nuclear response is necessarily how we should be thinking about it. I particularly don’t think that given what Senator Risch, for example, of Idaho, Republican of Idaho, my political party, said in the Bob Corker SFRC hearing recently, talking about that debating in the Congress, as they well should debate, whether or not the president had the right first to use nuclear weapons without consulting the Congress and second to do so in a first-use capacity.

And Senator Risch essentially described the constitution as an anachronism, the war power as silly if it were exercised as the constitution says, and as the War Powers Resolution, US Code title 50 chapter 33, says, the War Powers Resolution codified it into the law that the Congress must be consulted. He essentially said that’s poppycock, that in these modern times the president has to have the right to push the button.

You put those things together, the deterioration of arms control treaties, and the whole deterioration of the nonproliferation regime, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and this laissez-faire attitude by the leading world power with nuclear weapons, the United States and it becomes a really dangerous world.

AARON MATÉ: Finally, Colonel, there was a recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News that said that showing that more than half of Americans are concerned that Trump will launch a nuclear attack without justification. This deterrent we hear often about where his military leadership wouldn’t obey an unlawful order, can we trust that?

LARRY WILKERSON: That’s a very important question. It’s a question I’ve asked myself since Mr. Trump was elected. I’ll have to be honest and tell you it’s a question I’ve asked myself a couple of times before, in various usually Republican administrations. Richard Nixon comes to mind immediately. Richard Nixon actually threatened on more than one occasion to use nuclear weapons. I think he was just doing that rhetorically but it is a matter of concern, and I must say, this concern on my part and I think a lot of my colleagues has been deepened profoundly by this administration. I say that because this administration seems to have so little experience and yet such a big ego. You put those things together and you’ve really got a situation that’s perilous. And just having John Kelly, and Jim Mattis, and H.R. McMaster, and perhaps even Rex Tillerson in there to advise the president is not as comforting as some think it should be. So, I’m worried. I’m deeply worried.

AARON MATÉ: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary, thank you.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks, Aaron. Take care.

AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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EDITORIAL: New US nuke strategy a blow to progress made to denuclearize

The new U.S. nuclear strategy unveiled on Feb. 2 by the administration of President Donald Trump has splashed cold water on the world’s hopes for a future without nuclear weapons.

The strategy pushes back the progress that has been made in nuclear disarmament and could pose a new, serious threat to the safety of the world.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review by the Trump administration is a report that lays down guiding principles for U.S. nuclear policy for the next five to 10 years.

The new nuclear policy sharply veers from the course set by the previous administration of President Barack Obama in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

The new strategy has effectively scrapped the Obama administration’s commitment to reduce the role and the number of nuclear arms.

On the contrary, the Trump administration has made clear its intention to expand the roles and capabilities of America’s nuclear arsenal.

The report stresses the security threats posed by Russia, China and North Korea and argues that “global threat conditions have worsened markedly” since the last Nuclear Posture Review in 2010.

But the notion that national security can be maintained only by overwhelming nuclear firepower is hopelessly anachronistic.

The Cold War era, when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a dangerous and futile arms race, is already history.

The threat of nuclear arms has become far more complex and diversified and now include those related to international terrorist groups and cyberattacks.

If it keeps maintaining a massive stockpile of ready-to-use nuclear weapons, the United States will contribute to increasing the risks of accidental nuclear war due to human error and theft of nuclear material, exposing the entire world to the danger.

That is why a nonpartisan group of four elder U.S. statesmen, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Defense Secretary William Perry, wrote a newspaper opinion piece in 2007 proposing steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Their call led to Obama’s efforts to reduce the size and scope of the U.S. arsenal.

The Trump administration should learn from the long history of debate on the issue.

What is particularly worrisome about the report is the administration’s plans to develop “low-yield” nuclear warheads to be mounted on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

Thinking that building up smaller nuclear weapons that are easier to use would be more effective in deterring attacks by enemies seems to signal a lack of good sense.

If the border between nuclear and conventional weapons blurs, the likelihood of accidental nuclear war would rise.

The new policy also warns that the United States could use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks. Potential scenarios of such nuclear responses apparently include large-scale cyberwarfare. But this thought indicates a dangerous willingness to choose nuclear options.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which the United States has signed, requires nuclear powers to pursue nuclear disarmament.

As a leading nuclear power, the United States should bear an especially heavy responsibility.

By also applying its America First principle to nuclear strategy, the Trump administration is acting in an irresponsible way that could deliver a heavy blow to the international regime to prevent nuclear proliferation.

In his State of the Union address to Congress last month, Trump said, sarcastically, “Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons.”

Trump’s apparent inability to imagine the terrifying destruction nuclear arms could wreak and his desire to secure America’s military superiority over others constitute the largest concern for the future of the world.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 4


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Pentagon reveals new nuclear weapons strategy, reversing Obama-era policy

The Pentagon released its new nuclear weapons strategy on Friday afternoon, announcing that two new types of weapons will be made and effectively reversing the Obama administration’s policy to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal and de-emphasize nuclear warfare as a defense strategy.

The policy update was intended to “look reality in the eye” and “see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” said Defense Secretary James Mattis. It calls for the introduction of “low-yield nukes” on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and the resumption of the nuclear-submarine-launched cruise missile (SLC-M) whose production stopped during the George W. Bush era and which Obama removed from the nuclear arsenal.

President Obama had made nuclear disarmament a goal of his administration and said the U.S. had a “moral obligation” to lead the world by example. The Trump administration disagrees in the wake of threats from Russia and North Korea.

The new low-yield nukes are intended to answer an overseas attack by Russia, the “Washington Post” reported. Russia has a large arsenal of small nuclear weapons, which the U.S. does not. The Pentagon worries that Putin’s army could take control of a U.S. ally and detonate a small nuclear weapon to prevent U.S. troops from responding. Low-yield nukes would provide a proportionate method of response, forestalling a larger nuclear conflict or one with weaker weapons.

The SLC-M would reassure Japan and South Korea against the nuclear threat from South Korea,” the “Post” said.

Anti-nuclear advocates were alarmed to see that cyber attacks were included in a list of non-nuclear strategic threats and accused the Pentagon of lowering the bar for nuclear warfare. The new policy “calls for more usable nuclear weapons with low yields, and for their first use in response to cyber and conventional strikes on civilian infrastructure such as financial, transportation, energy and communications networks,” said Bruce Blair, co-founder of the anti-nuclear-weapons group Global Zero. “It makes nuclear war more likely, not less.”

The Pentagon denies this, saying the new policy reiterates that the U.S. would only use nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances.”

On the campaign trail and as president, Donald Trump has vowed to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal and has occasionally spoken flippantly about nuclear warfare. NBC News reported that in a July meeting at the Pentagon, he asked for the nuclear stockpile to be increased tenfold; it was after this meeting that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly called the president a “moron.” Earlier, MSBNC’s Joe Scarborough reported that Trump asked an adviser, “What’s the point of having nuclear weapons if you can’t use them?”


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Will Trump go nuclear over cyber warfare?

Anyone who has been feeling nostalgic for the 1970s and 80s will have had their flare and electronica-filled dreams rudely interrupted this month by a less welcome visitor from the past – the threat of nuclear war.

To be fair, this particular mushroom cloud has been looming on the horizon for a while: towards the end of last year, US president Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un entered into a very public ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ missile-waving contest.

The State of the Union Address this week also offered further insight into just how enamoured Trump is with becoming Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, with a promise to bolster the country’s nuclear arsenal.

But it was the suggestion that the US could launch a nuclear first-strike against a country that causes a serious cyber attack on national infrastructure that really caught my eye.

It was the Huffington Post that first reported on a leaked official paper that suggested the country could retaliate against a non-nuclear strategic attack with nuclear weapons, expanding the remit of the “nuclear deterrent”.

“For US deterrence to be effective across the emerging range of threats and contexts, nuclear-armed potential adversaries must recognize that their threats of nuclear escalation do not give them freedom to pursue non-nuclear aggression,” the document reads.

“The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances … [which] could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks. Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

What does this mean? Well, historically this has included things like biological or chemical attacks, meaning if a nation state used chlorine bombs on the US population, the US could (and perhaps would) retaliate with nukes.

The New York Times suggests, however, that this could now include “devastating” cyber attacks, citing several national security experts.

Could the nuclear deterrent legitimately be used as a cyber-deterrent, then? I’m not convinced.

First, let’s acknowledge that cyber attacks, particularly those carried out by nation states, are potentially devastating. The BlackEnergy malware attacks on Ukraine were sophisticated, but even more low-tech incidents, such as a DDoS attack, can have a significant impact – just ask the citizens of Lappeenranta.

But using a nuclear weapon to retaliate against such an attack is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Yes, cyber attacks can be extremely disruptive, but they are generally speaking not destructive and don’t result in mass casualties.

Nuclear attacks, by contrast, are designed to inflict the greatest amount of damage as possible, which also means killing as many people as possible. If anything, they’re the opposite of the quiet sabotage caused by cyber attacks.

What’s more, attribution is a really difficult subject when it comes to cyber attacks – do you really want to lob an ICBM at another country thinking they carried out an attack when you can’t be sure? Of course, said country and/or their allies would likely retaliate in kind, leading to a global nuclear armageddon and I’m pretty sure we all decided we didn’t want that way back at the height of MAD.

As much as cyber warfare gets sexed-up, the truth is it’s subtle, non-destructive (at least not on a mass scale) and is frequently refersable.

There’s a type of person who prefers – perhaps even yearns for – the imposing silhouette of a shining, heavy duty conventional weapon. When they think of protection and retaliation, they think of launch countdowns and explosions and it seems the US is fully onboard with this vision, which is odd for a country that has been thwarted again and again by asymmetric warfare. But the reality is that cyber weapons are more strategic and can be extremely disruptive, without culminating in open warfare with millions dead.

A final thought: of all the countries that should know the power of cyber weapons over conventional ones when it comes to achieving geopolitical aims, it’s the US. While there’s never been any official confirmation (and there probably never will be), it’s widely thought that the Stuxnet virus was crafted as a joint enterprise by US and Israeli special forces. It damaged nuclear centrifuges in a way that was so subtle it took years to be detected – peacefully achieving the desired outcome of stymying Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium. The irony that the US would retaliate against such an effort on its own soil with a nuclear bomb isn’t lost on me.


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Leaked US Defense Doctrine Outlines Nuclear-Weapons Strategy

WASHINGTON — Amid renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula between the U.S. and North Korea, and following a terrifying false alarm in Hawaii of an inbound missile, Pope Francis told reporters that the world was “at the very limit” of nuclear-armed catastrophe.

The Holy Father’s words Jan. 15 were girded by leaked reports of changes in the U.S. nuclear-weapons doctrine known as the “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR). A leaked copy of the doctrine, set to be formally adopted in February, showed President Donald Trump’s Department of Defense was advocating for the development of more “usable” battlefield nuclear weapons and using strategic nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear attacks, such as cyber and biological warfare, or whatever else threatens the U.S. and its allies’ “vital interests.”

The leaked draft shows the Trump administration wants to develop and deploy precision “low-yield” nuclear weapons that could be launched from submarines and target bunkers, armored formations or other military targets. The administration argued that the U.S. needs these weapons to deter the Russians from ever deploying them to gain a battlefield advantage.

The NPR draft leaked in January called efforts at reducing nuclear weapons part of a more “promising time,” but argued the U.S. needed to develop its tactical nuclear arsenal because “the world is more dangerous, not less.”

“Our goal is to convince adversaries that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons,” it stated.

The document has tailored strategies for deterring Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and non-nuclear actors supported by a state.

Ultimately, Congress will have to decide whether it will enable this expansion of nuclear arms in the Nuclear Posture Review by approving the request to increase nuclear deterrent spending to 7% of the Department of Defense budget.

Rebeccah Heinrichs, an authority in nuclear deterrence and counterproliferation and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the Register that her own sources have said the leaked copy will not be substantially different from the officially adopted policy.

Defending Deterrence

She said the U.S. policy of deterrence, affirmed in the forthcoming document, has helped reduce global conflict and the spread of nuclear arms. By covering its allies with the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the U.S. has dissuaded its allies, such as Germany, South Korea or Japan, from seeking their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves.

The big challenge the U.S. faces, Heinrichs explained, is Russia’s increasing aggressive posture, particularly in Eastern Europe, combined with its decision to violate a number of arms-control treaties in modernizing their nuclear capabilities.

Heinrichs said the Nuclear Posture Review aims at forcing Russia to comply with the 1987 “Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces” (INF) treaty, which bans nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Both Russia and the U.S. have traded accusations that the other is developing missile capabilities in violation of the INF treaty.

Although the Trump administration’s NPR aims to develop more low-yield nuclear weapons, Heinrich said the point is to dissuade the Russians from thinking that deploying their own arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons for tactical advantage on the battlefield would not be met with a similar U.S. response. Russia has an “escalate to de-escalate” military doctrine, and military field exercises currently involve the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in battlefield scenarios involving “mystery country X.”

Heinrichs said the Russians may be hedging that the U.S. would not respond to a low-yield nuclear-weapon attack on military targets with the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, because it would be so disproportionate and involve massive civilian casualties. The Nuclear Posture Review warns the Russians that they may see a nuclear response that could discriminate between military and civilian targets. Because the aim is to dissuade the Russians from ever using a tactical nuclear weapon, Heinrichs said, “[The NPR] is not lowering the threshold — it’s raising it.”

“This report is trying to bolster our credibility,” she said.

Playing Nuclear Hardball

But others are concerned that the U.S. “rattling the nuclear sword” with a broader nuclear-use doctrine is making nuclear conflict more likely.

Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Register that the Nuclear Posture Review was “more aggressive” than its previous version in 2010.

The forthcoming document, he said, does have continuity with President Obama’s plan, which focused on modernizing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But in other regards, the forthcoming nuclear-deterrent doctrine “reverses course” on the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating the use of nuclear weapons.

“It’s a step in the direction of accepting that we’re moving in a direction when nuclear weapons will be used,” he said.

Kristensen said the U.S. seems intent on not adding to the stockpile of 1,550 warheads — down 85% from the height of the Cold War (roughly 1947-1991) — but rather wants to diversify the kinds of warheads in stock so they can be more usable.

The NPR explicitly mentions that the U.S. does not have a “no-first-use” doctrine like China, when it comes to firing nuclear weapons. It states the U.S. needs to be able to deter both nuclear and non-nuclear attacks, such as biological or cyberwarfare, in order to protect the “vital interests” of the nation and its allies.

Heinreichs stated that the U.S. could inadvertently incentivize a non-nuclear attack, such as chemical, biological or even cyber warfare, which could be similarly catastrophic in its effect, if it adopted a no-first-use policy.

However, Kristensen countered that cyber attacks, which can be grave and lethal in their own right, do not approach requiring the assured and lasting devastation of nuclear weapons.

According to Kristensen, the Nuclear Posture Review sends the message the U.S. will “play hardball” with potential adversaries. But Kristensen called it an “armchair strategy” that was not likely to incentivize the Russians to stop modernizing their nuclear capabilities or the North Koreans to give up their own strategic nuclear deterrent. He argued the past 70 years of nuclear-weapons history shows nations do not back away from acquiring nuclear weapons the more they feel threatened or vulnerable.

The real-world evidence for the Russian reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, Kristensen explained, is that Russia’s conventional forces cannot compete with the conventional forces possessed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Kristensen said a tit-for-tat “calibrated” nuclear approach would likely backfire catastrophically. There is no reason that a nuclear nation would calibrate its reaction to a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb detonating on its soil any differently than it would a 100-kiloton bomb.

“They’re not going to sit back and say, ‘Let’s measure the size of the mushroom cloud first,’” he said.

The Catholic Perspective

The new Nuclear Posture Review also strongly objects to the U.S. joining a United Nations global treaty banning nuclear weapons backed strongly by the Vatican.

In 1982, St. John Paul II told the U.S. that nuclear deterrent remained only morally acceptable as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament” — the U.S. and Soviet Union seemed on the verge of an agreement in 1986 to eliminate their strategic nuclear arsenals until negotiations fell apart over the U.S. plan to develop a space-based missile defense shield.

And Pope Francis, in 2016, condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons, not just threatening their use, on the basis that the world is not moving toward nuclear disarmament, but proliferation.

Catholic just-war theory only allows states to defend themselves and others by use of arms as a true last resort to stop an unjust aggressor when every non-lethal means of restoring the peaceful and just order has been exhausted.

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, in war, “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” (2309).

Bradley Lewis, a professor of moral philosophy at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that Catholic moral teaching on nuclear weapons centers on the principle of “the wrongness of intentionally taking human life.”

Lewis said nuclear weapons fall under the Church’s teaching about the morality of decisions taken in warfare, or jus in bello. This includes principles of proportionality, and discrimination, in order to protect noncombatants.

Nuclear weapons fall into two different general types, Lewis noted. Tactical nuclear weapons generally (with some exceptions) have lower explosive yields and are used at “counterforce targets,” which consist of the opposition’s military forces, such as armored divisions or fleets, or other legitimate military targets.

Strategic nuclear weapons, which generally have high explosive yields, aim to destroy an adversary’s capacity for waging war, such as arms factories, air bases or naval shipyards, as well as command and control centers. But Lewis said strategic nuclear weapons as a deterrent have “countervalue targets,” meaning they are also aimed to destroy what countries value, such as civilian population centers, and leave high levels of radiation that would last well beyond the conflict. The U.S. strategic nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, for example, wiped out the Japanese military base there, but also inflicted widespread catastrophic civilian losses.

Lewis said the development of far less powerful and highly accurate low-yield nuclear weapons that could discriminate between military and civilian targets makes it conceivable in theory that they might have a place in the just-war scheme. But he doubted it would have a place in the real world, given the likelihood of escalation if such weapons are employed.

Once human beings cross the “nuclear stigma” that has been in place since Hiroshima and Nagaski in 1945, it makes it “more likely” that their leaders will use them to the point where nuclear conflict breaks out, contended Lewis.

He said, “Once that gets started, it is hard to control.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.


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