The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will be released soon. No significant changes should be expected, as there is little time left until it is officially made public. This is a document of great importance. It is coming out just as arms control is on the verge of disintegration. The draft review was published by HuffPost.
America is planning to upgrade its entire nuclear arsenal. It will replace warheads and modernize its command-and-control systems in order to stay at the “head of the pack.” The potential nuclear scenarios include responding to a “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” that would result in large-scale casualties or target key components of US infrastructure. For comparison, the 2010 review stated that nuclear weapons could be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” No nuclear arms can be used against non-nuclear countries that comply with their non-proliferation obligations. And with only a little stretch of the imagination a “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” could mean anything. Many scenarios might fall into this category. As one can see, the first-use constraints are going to be relaxed. The 2010 review also opted not to develop new warheads. It did not anticipate any new missions or capabilities. In a major policy shift, the new draft document does away with these restrictions.
The 2018 draft review includes a low-yield warhead developed especially for sea-based strategic nuclear missiles. The warhead will include the trigger. The thermonuclear part of the two-stage warhead will be removed. The idea is that submarine-based weapons will serve as the means to “deter” Russia in Europe.
Actually, the plan has been under consideration for some time. Those who follow the latest developments on this topic remember the statement made by Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last August. The official praised the idea of incorporating low-yield warheads into the designs of strategic missiles.
Does the United States really need new weapons to deter Russia, a program that will require a lot of money, time, and effort? What about the low-yield nuclear weapons already in its inventory, such as tactical bombs and air-launched cruise missiles? Are they not enough?
Actually, the only advantage of an SLBM-launched low-yield warhead is its ability to penetrate Russia’s S-400 and S-300V4 theater air-defense systems. They can intercept targets moving at 4,800 or 4,500 meters per second or intermediate-range missiles launched from a distance of about 2,500–3,500 kilometers. But the systems cannot hit a Trident SLBM until Russia’s S-500 air-defense system is operational.
Low-yield warheads will be seen as more usable, lowering the nuclear threshold. The idea of producing new Trident warheads has made headlines, but there is another element to the 2018 review that is even more detrimental for arms control and global stability.
Retired from service in 2013, the Tomahawk TLAM-N, intermediate-range, nuclear-tipped, sea-based cruise missile with variable yield warheads (5 to 150 kt), designed to strike ground targets from a distance of 2,500 km, is to be brought back. Its W80 nuclear warhead is to be upgraded and installed on new LRSO missiles that will be developed sometime after 2025.
The return of the TLAM-N is a highly provocative act. It requires little time to reinstall these weapons on ships and submarines. There is no way for Russia to know if a shipborne missile is nuclear-tipped or not. The possibility of a retaliatory nuclear strike will greatly increase. The return of the TLAM-N will mean the end of the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). Those executive orders made it possible to achieve a spectacular breakthrough without binding documents. In 1991, the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union made reciprocal unilateral pledges to significantly limit and reduce their tactical nuclear arms. All non-strategic nuclear weapons were removed from surface ships and multipurpose submarines and the sea has been free of them ever since. Now the US is going to make the PNIs a thing of the past and abruptly extend the arms race into this new domain.
A US ship launching a TLAM-N from the Baltic, Mediterranean, or Black Seas becomes a strategic weapon aimed at Russia. It makes no difference if a nuclear strike is delivered by an ICBM or a shipborne long-range cruise missile. Russia will respond, putting nuclear warheads on Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles and sending guided missile ships and submarines to patrol North American waters, ready for a retaliatory strike. The idea of resurrecting TLAM-N missiles undermines the entire arms-control regime. Sea-launched weapons cannot be regulated. There is no way to verify whether shipborne cruise missiles are nuclear or not. With the TLAM-N back in service, all the work to control nuclear arms will go down the drain. That’s where the real threat to global stability is coming from.