January 11, 2018

Trump’s Latest "Low-Yield" Nuclear War Ignition Policy Raises Questions

Just when people were becoming relaxed about mega-death via nuclear war, Trump alarms US allies, again. Trump appears to be stoking talk of low-yield nuclear weapons, which frequently overlap with the tactical nuclear weapon category. Hopefully this is a rather blunt first-strike warning to North Korea (to not even consider hitting South Korea or Japan with nuclear weapons).

This has been reported as "President Trump’s administration plans to loosen nuclear weapons constraints and develop more ‘usable’ warheads" in The South China Morning Post, January 10, 2018. Key parts of that article are:

"The Trump administration plans to loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a new low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident [D5 SLBMs] according to a former official who has seen the most recent draft of a policy review....[This is aimed to deter] Russia from using tactical warheads in a conflict in Eastern Europe.

... Arms control advocates have voiced alarm at the new proposal to make smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons, arguing it makes a nuclear war more likely, especially in view of what they see as Donald Trump’s volatility and readiness to brandish the US arsenal in showdowns with the nation’s adversaries.

...The [Nuclear Posture Review] also expands the circumstances in which the US might use its nuclear arsenal, to include a response to a non-nuclear attack that caused mass casualties.   [It removes] assurances to non nuclear weapons states that the US will not use its nuclear arsenal against them.”


Problems with this new policy include:

1.  making nuclear war against a non-nuclear enemy more acceptable? That is US nuclear weapons
     can be used in a conventional war, not just as nuclear deterrents?

2.  The intended targets of these "low-yield" nuclear weapons won't trust them to be "limited to
     low-yield" or targeted countries won't limit their nuclear response anyway. China, Russia, North
     Korea, or Pakistan could hit the US or US allies (intentionally or in panic) with high yield nuclear

3.  Use them or Lose Them: China, Russia but mainly North Korea, or Pakistan could feel they have
     to use all available nuclear weapons (of any yield) due to the fear they may lose them to further
     US low-yield strikes.

4.  Could another mass casualty 9/11 justify the US responding with low-yield weapons that kill
     vastly more people, cause unintended health effects to US allies and upset the whole global

5.  Would, as yet, only conventionally armed countries be encouraged to develop nuclear arsenals to
     deter Trump's latest low-yield policy? and

6.  Firing even low-yield missiles exposes a submarine to enemy satellite or radar detection and rapid
     destruction. Would the destruction of a US Ohio SSBN, its 23 remaining SLBMs (with say 100
     nuclear warheads total) be an acceptable trade-off if the SSBN was ordered to fire just one "low-
     yield" warhead on one of its Trident D5 SLBMs?



Josh said...


The policy of having lower yield, more usable weapons is completely reasonable in general, though I specifically disagree with using Trident as the delivery system - I think it should be reserved as a strategic system and that US tactical weapons are guided bombs (B61 mod12) or cruise missiles to distinguish strategic launches from tactical ones (so on pt 6 of your post, we agree).

The fact is the UK currently *has* low yield warheads on its Trident missiles. In the case the UK, their sole remaining deterrent is Trident, so it makes perfect sense for them to mount single low yield warheads on a few of their missiles at sea.

Also Russia has a wealth of short range tactical weapons facing Europe, and the US would be hard pressed to counter a Russian first strike with a sufficiently 'tactical' response - google "Russia de-scalatory nuclear strike". The fact that such a concept even exists is bone chilling, but it must be one NATO prepares for.

Finally, while China doesn't explicitly have a tactical nuclear arsenal, it is perfectly capable of mounting strategic warheads on DF-21 type missiles and lobbing them at US carrier groups. This creates a quandary of responding proportionally when there is no equivalent Chinese target*. A low yield weapon gives the US more response options in this case.

To address your points individually:

1). The tactical models of B-61 have selectable yield down to the sub kiloton range. The draw back is that the weapon is extremely 'dirty' for that yield.

2). Irrelevant. The low yield weapons still allow for more options than large yield ones.

3). Already the case today with standard yield weapons; see B-61.

4). Potentially. But I would argue a nuclear response is appropriate for mass casualty even that employed chemical or biological agents.

5). The nuclear threshold is the nuclear threshold. Yield and fallout have little impact on deterrence policy.

6). On this point I agree; I would not attempt to make D5 tactical. The Brits get an out because it is their only system but I don't believe the US should employ it this way.

*(I would actually argue all man made islands in the SCS are equivalent targets that should be 'sunk', but that's off topic)


twitter: @squid_jigger

Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh

Yes I agree Trident low yield warheads might be a disastrously confusing departure from usually medium yield, heavy duty, strategic (mainly second strike) Tridents. Low yield Tridents would interfere with the classic deterrence balance of power of tactical nukes in: NATO vs Russia, and India vs Pakistan.

I’m not sure if the free fall B61s are obsolete? Other than US designed stealth aircraft I don’t know if 3 or 4th generation B61 delivery aircraft would survive?

Yes the UK RN can only rely on Trident missiles for low yield delivery but the US has many alternatives to Trident delivery.

Indeed China also has many current delivery and many developing means.

I reiterate use of low yield on Tridents may result in a (Use Them or Lose Them) all available nukes response from North Korea and Pakistan.

Trident low yield against non-nuclear countries accused of causing mass casualties may be a lasting war crime. For example in 2001 Iraq was considered THE terrorist nation that basically caused or followed 9/11.

The massive Western conventional response against Iraq could have been a more devastating, city blasting, low yield response under this 2018 Trump doctrine. But now few people or countries believe Iraq caused (the mostly Saudi piloted) 9/11 or that Iraq was a nuclear threat in 2001-2.