The Pentagon plans to build two new nuclear weapons to keep up with the modernizing arsenals of Russia and China, according to a comprehensive Department of Defense review on the U.S. military’s nuclear capabilities, sparking heated debate about the strategy: Will it bolster the U.S. military's ability to deter threats, or make a nuclear war more likely?
"While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction," an unclassified draft of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) states. "The United States must be capable of developing and deploying new capabilities, if necessary, to deter, assure, achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedge against uncertainty."
One of the proposed weapons is a “low-yield” nuclear weapon for the Trident missile, a powerful submarine-launched ballistic missile designed to destroy entire countries. The Trident, which is capable of carrying multiple re-entry bodies equipped with nuclear warheads, is currently being deployed aboard Ohio-class submarines. This could be available to the military within the next two years, according to experts.
The Pentagon is also looking to develop a new nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile in the "longer term," the report said.
The Department of Defense contends that developing low-yield systems gives it more flexibility for responding to Russian threats and also increases the nuclear threshold––the point at which countries use or would use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
“Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression,” the draft of the NPR states. “To be clear, this is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’" The draft said this would make the deployment of nuclear weapons "less likely."
Critics of the plan contend it has contradictory goals by aiming to increase nuclear first-use options for deterrence while also endorsing ambiguity as a nuclear strategy.
Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a senior official for arms control on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, described the NPR as a “schizophrenic document.”
“At the core of the strategy in this NPR are two elements: First is deter countries that are threatening to use nuclear weapons against the U.S., such as Russia and North Korea. That’s not really the problem,” Wolfsthal told Newsweek. “The second thing at the core is a desire to achieve to deterrence by making America’s threat to use nuclear weapons first more credible.”
This lowers the nuclear threshold in the U.S., Wolfsthal said, by giving the Pentagon “more options to use nuclear weapons that wouldn’t be as devastating, which in some ways makes them more tempting” to use. The NPR “definitely makes the nuclear risks greater,” Wofsthal contended. The plan increases "the risk of nuclear first-use and increasing the cost and consequences of a nuclear arms race with Russia," he said.