Dr. Strangelove returns: The Trump administration’s nuclear posture review

In true Trumpian fashion, nuclear arms are sold throughout the review as a cost efficient, even cheap, means to maintain American strategic dominance in every corner of the world.

Image Credit: Washington Post

On Friday,  February 2nd, the U.S. Department of Defense officially released the Trump Administration’s nuclear posture review (NPR). It’s the first such review since 2010 and was ordered by the current president on January 27th. Like most such documents, there’s a lot of repetition over its 100 pages but, overall, it makes for terrifying rather than boring, reading.

In keeping with the alarmism that permeated the National Security and National Defense Strategies that were released before it, it probably shouldn’t surprise readers that the authors begin from the premise that threats to American citizens are multiplying and that the world becomes more dangerous with each passing day.

Luckily, there are solutions being offered by some of Washington D.C.’s deepest strategic thinkers to deal with the hell-scape we currently live in. An emerging buffet of nuclear options, from the cataclysmic to the merely ecosystem destroying, are being trumpeted in this NPR as an ‘affordable’ option for dealing with a dangerous world.

Early on, in the document’s introduction, under the heading, “An Evolving and Uncertain International Security Environment”, the unnamed authors write, “There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.”

Like the National Security Strategy before it, the document leaves some ambiguity about what circumstances might compel the United States to use nuclear weapons. Both imply that, contrary to long held doctrine, the country might respond to a non-nuclear attack, including certain types of cyber attacks, with these weapons. Although one can’t deny that this provides a strong deterrent to potential adversaries, it opens up a Pandora’s Box in that, even if we trust the United States government to do the right thing, other countries like China, Pakistan or India might adopt a similar approach, making the risk of nuclear escalation in Asia much higher.

The authors manage to minimize the great diplomatic efforts that resulted in reduced nuclear stockpiles between the former superpower rivals during the second half of the last century, and seem to question the logic of the the U.S. eliminating its nuclear weapons arsenal by, “over 85% since its Cold War high.”

The NPR is filled with these kinds of dubious numbers to create the impression that there’s a problem in terms of deterrence when there clearly isn’t one. In fact, the reason why North Korea is so intent on having nuclear weapons is this deterrent power, a rational calculation on the part of a leadership that wants to guarantee its survival.

Rather than a sober assessment of the very real risks of conflict involving one or more of the world’s nine nuclear armed states, the NPR only dwells on four countries (Russia, China, North Korea and, of course, Iran, which doesn’t have nuclear weapons but is included anyway).

Worse, in true Trumpian fashion, nuclear arms are sold throughout the review as a cost efficient, even cheap, means to maintain American strategic dominance in every corner of the world.

There’s actually a section with the title, “Flexible and Secure Nuclear Capabilities: An Affordable Priority”, which breathlessly explains that the maximum cost “to sustain and replace U.S. nuclear capabilities” is just 6.4% of current military budget. Even using the lower 2015 budget as our reference point, this means the proposed changes would cost $37,014,000,000 annually. As a point of comparison, The Atlantic Magazine reported in 2014 that the total tuition paid at public colleges in the U.S. the previous year was $62.6 billion.

And it will be younger people who will bear most of the costs of modernizing and expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a more than trillion dollar process that started under former President Obama. As Alicia Sanders-Zacre, a research assistant at the Arms Control Association wrote on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web-site, “There’s a reason Trump’s nuclear strategy doesn’t size up for many millenials, and it’s not because we’re too young to understand it. Our logic is not distorted by outdated Cold War thinking.”

In its focus on Russia and China as major threats, this NPR seems to return to an even more outdated way of thinking about geopolitics: the 19th century.

The return of great power rivalry

Although the threat of terrorism has been the main talking point of national security professionals since the turn of the century, such dangers don’t really require the vast numbers of nuclear weapons in the hands of the United States (and the same is true of every other nuclear power, including the largest, Russia). Besides a new willingness to use so-called low yield weapons that we’ll return to later, the NPR’s authors revive the idea of great power rivalry as an emerging threat that makes the U.S. nuclear arsenal necessary. This approach must be leading to some sweaty palms in Moscow and Beijing.

The key to great power rivalries in the 19th century were presumed ‘spheres of influence’ centered mostly on colonial possessions. The difference today is that, as the world’s sole super power, the United States sees the whole globe as in its sphere, and this belief seems to keep many people in the Pentagon and U.S. government from recognizing the legitimate concerns of rivals, like Russia’s historical worries over its western borders (the country was invaded twice from this direction in the last century alone).

Rather than striving to understand the motivations of its Russian rival and soberly assess the risks being taken by both sides, the NPR acts as a scold, saying, “Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit first-use threats.”

The first part of this has some truth to it, referring to the annexation of the Crimea after citizens there voted to join the Russian Federation. It must be remembered that Crimea became a part of Ukraine after Nikita Krushchev gave it to them in 1954 and that the region has held referendums in the past that showed a clear majority wanting union with Russia. This desire was ignored by the Kremlin for decades, probably because the country’s leadership didn’t want to risk relations with its neighbor. Unfortunately, that train has left the station.

This history doesn’t minimize the serious worries of some minority populations on the Crimean peninsula, especially Muslim Tatars, and these concerns should be prioritized at the U.N. and through multilateral diplomacy. In order to address the argument that Russia ‘invaded’ the region, a second referendum could be held with international monitoring to ensure that the will of the people of Crimea, rather than Great Power cynicism, leads to a political settlement.

More disturbing is the latter part of the statement above concerning explicit and implicit threats of nuclear first use. If this is the way that the Russian military and Russian diplomats are talking or this is what they are ‘implying’ in public forums, this is indeed reckless, but, as someone who follows events in that country fairly closely, I haven’t heard any such threats coming from Moscow, even at the height of the explosive hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, who responded to the NPR with “deep disappointment” as reported by the state supported RT network, who further explained that “Russia’s military doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons only in case of aggression involving the use of weapons of mass destruction or where the existence of the nation is at stake.”

Some of the arguments presented in the NPR are more legitimate than others. One ongoing U.S. complaint concerns the Russian Federation’s compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans ground launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310-3417.5 miles). The U.S. accuses the country of violating the INF through its testing of a ground based cruise missile. Russia denies that it’s engaged in these tests and argues that the United States is itself non-compliant because Moscow accuses it of, “placing a missile defense system in Europe that can also be used to fire cruise missiles, and making armed drones that are equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles.”

The INF Treaty is an important milestone that shouldn’t be compromised by either party. These concerns can only be addressed through direct talks but this doesn’t seem likely considering the current climate of Russophobia in Washington, D.C.

In terms of the other Great Power, China, complaints about the country’s actions in the South China Sea (its self declared sphere of influence) should be subject to international arbitration rather than used as an excuse to increase hostility between the PRC and the United States. Other countries that border the sea should have unfettered access to these waters and while the creation of atolls for military purposes by China is alarming, the best way to engage at this point is not through saber rattling but bilateral talks with neighboring countries. Even though they sometimes differ, it’s in the interests of the People’s Republic to have good relations with its neighbors, including long term rivals like Vietnam.

It also struck this writer that the NPR doesn’t even mention India and Pakistan, probably the one area of the world besides North Korea where a nuclear confrontation could conceivably take place in the near future. China and India have also had their problems in the recent past.

Instead of explaining what the United States, which brags throughout the NPR that it has a nuclear umbrella covering thirty nations, is doing to minimize these risks, a whole section is dedicated to Iran, which is under international inspection and will not be able to start a nuclear weapons program until the 2030s at the earliest.

A slippery slope

Almost unremarked upon by most of the corporate English language press are proposed changes to U.S. policy in terms of what are sometimes called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons, which usually have a five or less megaton yield (the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 21 megatons respectively). As part of its 2010 review, the previous administration actually retired some of these weapons, called SLCMs (submarine launched cruise missiles) while leaving a host of others, including so-called gravity bombs launched from bombers to similar effect in the inventory, thus addressing what appeared to be an unnecessary (and expensive) overlap, especially when one considers these weapons aren’t meant to be used.

According to the authors of this report, this was a terrible idea. They propose that SLCMs be brought back, as they are “a comparatively low-cost and near term modification to an existing capability that will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable “gap” in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.”

The idea seems to be that these types of weapons may be necessary to take out underground or hardened targets, ignoring the resulting cloud of radiation that would be released into the air with any use. These types of weapons have also been talked about as a way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure without the need for a full scale war, but Pyongyang’s possible reaction is rarely taken into account in these musings.

This thinking about using smaller nuclear weapons is not new, and may be as much due to the experiences of the generals around Trump as it is to his peculiar interest in the nuclear option.

The question of lower yield nuclear weapons is one that’s been asked by generals and strategists often in the past. On at least two occasions during the war in Vietnam (and in the earlier Korean conflict) some inside and outside of the Pentagon were calling for their use. One proposed example was designed to make the routes used by the Vietcong impassable due to the combination of their destruction and the resulting radiation. These weapons could then be used again if radiation levels decreased to make them inaccessible to the enemy for the duration of the war.

Thankfully cooler heads prevailed, a group of four physicists from what was called the JASON Division of the Institute of Defense Analysis produced a report that explained the possible dangers of such an escalation, “The political effects of US first use of TNW (tactical nuclear weapons) in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic,” they wrote. One of the fears was that once this road was taken, other countries (and possibly non-state actors) would then have an incentive to not only develop but use these kinds of weapons.

The alarm of the JASONs seems to have been taken seriously by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamera and policy makers today would do well to heed this warning from a half century ago.  Like clockwork, the idea of a more limited use of ‘tactical’ nukes comes back every few years, often pushed by the same people, including the armchair generals who populate hawkish western think tanks. The question that needs to be asked is if the views of those who think nuclear weapons should be a part of U.S. strategy in cases other than in response to a nuclear attack are ascendent in this administration, and, judging by the current NPR, this appears to be the case.


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