Implications of the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review

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by Moiz Khan

Under the directives of US President Donald Trump, the Pentagon released the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on February 2, 2018. The new NPR identifies Russia and China as strategic rivals and claims that both countries are modernising their strategic systems. In response to Russian and Chinese nuclear forces expansion and growing threat of the North Korean nuclear deterrent, the NPR commits the US to modernise its nuclear arsenal and enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrent by developing new types of nuclear weapons. The policy argues, “Past assumptions that our capability to produce nuclear weapons would not be necessary and that we could permit the required infrastructure to age into obsolescence have proven to be mistaken.” Such a rationale allows the US to modernise, support and sustain the replacement of its nuclear forces. The new NPR clearly shows that the US has abandoned its past disarmament commitments including ‘reducing number and role of nuclear weapons,’ and is even eager to use nuclear weapons.

The development of the new batch of nuclear weapons includes Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missiles which would replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) and a low-yield nuclear warhead for existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and future SLCMs. The NPR argues that the US required tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to “counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in US regional deterrence capabilities.” Though the policy was applauded by some Republican nuclear experts, it largely received a harsh criticism both at home and abroad. Andrew C. Weber, former assistant defence secretary during the Obama administration, called the NPR’s rationale for new nuclear weapons “a dangerous folly that would make nuclear war more likely.” Having the privilege of overseeing the US’ nuclear arsenal from 2009 to 2014, Weber said that the country’s arsenal includes low-yield nuclear weapons and also that he could not recall anyone ever expressing even the slightest concern about such a “gap,” during his tenure. Currently, the US has 500 TNWs in its arsenal, 2750 in storage and 180 deployed with NATO.

Not only unnecessary, the low-yield nuclear weapons also increase the risk of a nuclear war. The NPR suggests that the US would deploy low-yield nuclear warheads on both SLCMs and modified SLBMs. The major US concern is that Moscow believes the country would not respond to the Russian employment of TNWs with strategic nuclear weapons. Thus, the basic logic behind creating TNWs is to deter Russia from employing its ‘escalate-to-deescalate’ strategy, which the US holds as use of low-yield nuclear weapons early during a conflict making the US to choose between ‘suicide or surrender.’ This implies that, in absence of TNWs, the US would either retaliate with strategic weapons, that would trigger a full nuclear war, or surrender to end the conflict. The NPR stressed that ‘new low-yield nuclear weapons’ would enhance the flexibility and range of US’ tailored deterrence options in order to preserve a credible deterrence against a wide range of nuclear and nonnuclear attacks on the US and its allies.

However, low-yield weapons atop the SLBMs would create a ‘discrimination problem.’ Currently, US’ D-5 Trident SLBMs can carry multiple independently targetable warheads with yields in megatons.  Modifying the SLBMs to carry low-yield nuclear weapons would create a problem for the adversary in assessing whether the missile is carrying a single tactical warhead or multiple strategic warheads. This is because there is no early warning system that can detect the yield of a warhead on a missile. In such a situation, an adversary would consider the incoming US’ SLBM as a strategic attack and may react accordingly. Therefore, the use of low-yield nuclear weapons by the US could easily lead to an all-out nuclear exchange between Russia and the US. Furthermore, development of SLCMs would further increase Russia’s reliance on its TNWs.

Apart from modernisation of nuclear weapons, the NPR also calls for modernising its nuclear Command and Control (C2) system and warning capabilities. However, in enhancing deterrence against attacks on its C2 capabilities, the US has lowered the nuclear threshold as well. The NPR indicated that the US would consider using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear attack on its C2 system by the adversary. Such a threat is a departure from the country’s declaratory policy as it has never explicitly threatened a nuclear strike against non-nuclear attack on its C2 system. Most of the US’ C2 and warning systems serve two purposes; detecting incoming nuclear attacks and intercepting ballistic missiles. For example, in a conventional war an adversary’s attack on the US’ C2 system aimed at thwarting its capability of intercepting a missile carrying a conventional warhead would prompt a nuclear response from the country which would in return lead to total nuclear war.

The increased role of nuclear weapons in the US’ deterrence policy signifies that the country has reneged on its commitments to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and halt nuclear weapons testing. The NPR’s publication coincided with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s (New START) entry into effect. On February 5, 2018, the US Department of State and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation announced that they had met their obligation of reducing their deployed strategic nuclear forces under the New START. The fulfilment of the New START obligations is undeniably a significant achievement that would not only help in restoring strategic stability between the US and Russia but would also reduce nuclear risks. However, this optimistic achievement diminished and did not receive much attention owing to the release of the NPR. The NPR has not taken a position on the extension of the New START for five years after it expires in February 2021, neither has it indicated a new treaty that could replace the New START. Moreover, the policy has reiterated that it would not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); a significant arms control treaty which has been ratified even by Russia, and would otherwise have been a significant milestone for non-proliferation objectives. Though the 2018 NPR is a continuation of the Obama administration’s 2010 NPR, it represents a radical departure from the US’ legal obligation towards nuclear disarmament being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article 6 of the NPT calls upon its signatory states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” By effectively abandoning the quest for nuclear reductions, unfortunately, the US’ 2018 NPR is not only taking the world closer to a nuclear exchange but has become a source of unbridled global arms race.

About Author

Mr. Moiz Khan is a Research Associate at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII). He can be reached at amk.senzer@gmail.com and on Twitter @Senzerkhail

 

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