There had been a long fight with fiery speeches, long-winded discussions presenting opposing views, publications and statements in support of “resolute steps” on the one hand as well as the calls for carefully weighing pros and cons on the other. Finally, the concept of “racing headlong into the unknown” has prevailed. On May 23, the US House of Representatives turned down a measure that would limit the fiscal 2019 funding for the new 6.5 kt W76-2 low-yield (LY) or “flexible” nuclear warhead. The ordnance is to be installed on Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which normally carry 100 kt W76 warheads. The nuclear weapon (NW) is to be developed in accordance with the provisions of Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
Before the vote, 32 former top security officials opposed the idea of low-yield nuclear warhead in a letter sent to the members of Congress. The appeal failed to influence the outcome of the vote in the House. With the funding approved, the W76-2 could be in service during the current presidential term.
The proponents, including General John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, believe that incorporating a “more usable” submarine-launched warhead into the defense posture would deter Russia from using LY nukes, decreasing the likelihood of the nuclear war. The tit-for-tat philosophy boils down to the idea that if a battlefield NW is used in Europe, the US won’t have to stay idle or respond with a powerful strategic strike. The W76-2 will provide the opportunity to calibrate responses on the escalation ladder with low-yield nukes, preventing an all-out nuclear conflict. This way the deterrence gap will be plugged. It’s all premised on the notion that NW could be used in a limited way in Europe with the continental USA not threatened. Basing at sea allows avoiding diplomatic problems related to deploying American nukes on other states’ territories. But a launch will reveal the position of the submarine to make it vulnerable to attack.
The new flexible warhead dangerously lowers the nuclear threshold. Any commander-in-chief would feel less restrained from using LY ordnance in a crisis. The temptation might be too strong to resist. Actually, the very idea that a limited nuclear war is possible appears to be erroneous as there is no way to draw the line and prevent escalation.
If Russia sees a US strategic nuclear missile flying into its direction, it will have no choice left but launch an on warning response. It has no reason to assume the best-case scenario. There is no way to know if it’s low-yield weapons or eight powerful thermonuclear warheads launched as part of a wider foray.
Evidently, the very idea of mixing low-yield and powerful strategic weapons on the same missile atop the same platform is very damaging and provocative. Instead of de-escalation, the low yield concept will trigger a nuclear exchange.
Russia (the Soviet Union) and the US have concluded 9 major arms control agreements during the recent 50 years. The W76-2 is destabilizing enough to make all the arms control long standing efforts go down the drain.
Now, a few words about the need to fill the deterrence gap. The US is going through an upgrade of its nuclear arsenal. The 2019 draft defense budget allocates funds for all the nuclear weapons programs, including the development of new nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missile to strike land targets. When in service, it’ll become an addition to strategic forces. The US has aircraft-based cruise missiles and gravity bombs. The military is upgrading B61 air-to-ground munitions to the B61-12 version, which is a guided weapon. 180 of them will be deployed by 2021 to carry out the same missions as long range strike systems. This is an essentially new system to strike with high accuracy (under 100 feet) at great distances.
But no, that’s not enough. The proponents say the B61-12-capable aircraft are not fast and stealth enough and their range is limited. The list of “shortcomings” can go on, leading to the conclusion that more and more nuclear weapons are needed. Nothing is ever redundant. The concept of limited nuclear war is back again, the constrains on the use of nukes are loosened and the circumstances in which nukes could be used are broadened. This is a very dangerous turn of events, being watched by Moscow very attentively.
The bill is going to Senate this month. This is the last hurdle. Over 20 NGOs have sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which contains arguments against the new weapon. Hopefully, the issue would be given serious consideration and “cool heads” will carry the day. It’s not too late to stop the dangerous sliding down to an unfettered nuclear arms race.