The Trump administration’s wizards of Armageddon have locked down their vision of the nuclear future. It is, by and large, a rehash of old thinking from previous administrations, but its one key departure is a doozy: It declares a newfound readiness to use U.S. nuclear weapons first and early in a confrontation with Russia and possibly others.
Alarmingly, the wizards have uprooted the nuclear taboo and deluded themselves into believing that nuclear weapons are far more usable than previous presidents held. In a single ill-conceived stroke, they have expressed a readiness to go nuclear first in a conflict with Russia or others that had not yet crossed the nuclear Rubicon. This is needless because the United States possesses ample conventional strength to repulse Russian aggression, and reckless because all it accomplishes is increasing the risk of blundering into a nuclear war.
The new Nuclear Posture Review mostly reiterates previous commitments. It defends spending $1.25 trillion to replace aging nuclear forces with new ones, including building new missiles for emplacement in vulnerable silos, and “protecting” them by preparing to launch them on early warning before incoming warheads destroy them. The wizards thus perpetuate the drill that compels presidents to render a launch decision in six minutes or less.
Where the review goes ballistic is its assignment of U.S. nuclear weapons to deter — and if deterrence fails, to attack Russia if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders a non-nuclear strategic attack against the United States and its NATO allies. This mission is alleged to justify acquiring additional weapons with low-yield explosive power (in addition to the 1,000 already operational or held in reserve) to buttress the credibility of this first-use threat.
What is the feared scenario of Russia aggression that would warrant such escalation? The document points to what it calls non-nuclear strategic attacks against civilian populations and infrastructure: “The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks. Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure.”
Is this scenario realistic? Possibly. There is strong reason to believe that in wartime the Russians have the capability and the intention to attack U.S. and Western European civilian infrastructure (financial, energy, transportation and communications) with cyber and conventional forces (very possibly including ground-launched cruise missiles with non-nuclear warheads). Russia’s plan envisions surgical strikes against infrastructure during a conventional conflict it is losing in a bid to reverse the fortunes of war.
How? Bizarre as it may seem, the Russians appear to believe that paralyzing or even just severely disrupting “normal life” in the West would so inconvenience the populaces that they would demand their governments end the conflict. Depriving civilians of their iPhones and other amenities is viewed as key to coercing the West to stand down. Of course, some of this disruption — say, electrical blackouts — would cause more than inconvenience; it could mean life or death for thousands.
Russia developed this doctrine over the past five years partially to exploit growing infrastructure vulnerabilities stemming from growing Western dependencies on these networks, and partially to reduce Russia’s own strategic reliance on first use of nuclear arms. By focusing on cyberwar and conventional forces, Russia seeks to depend less on its 20-year-old doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” which calls for the early first use of small-yield Russian tactical nuclear weapons to counter Western conventional supremacy. (This Russian option is also cited by the Trump review as a reason for acquiring and using countervailing low-yield U.S. nuclear weapons.)
The West’s Achilles’ heel of infrastructure vulnerability may tempt other adversaries besides Russia to take aim at this weakness in wartime. Indeed, the Trump administration’s document leaves the door ajar for possible U.S. nuclear first strikes against non-nuclear countries if they wreck our critical civilian infrastructure.
But for the U.S. to react to growing threats to civilian networks by proposing to use new low-yield U.S. nuclear weapons is particularly ill-conceived. The administration’s new doctrine reverses roles and puts the onus on the United States to be the first to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has managed to turn the tables on us, increasing U.S. reliance on early first use. The Pentagon has fallen into a trap by boxing itself in this way and almost casually lets Russia off the hook.
The burden of nuclear first use should remain on Russia and not be allowed to shift onto NATO. No American president wants to feel pressure to authorize the early first use of nuclear weapons. The correct approach is for the West to exploit its own cyber and conventional prowess to counter Russia on its own terms, exploiting Western superiority in these areas and leaving the burden of nuclear first use on Russia’s shoulders. We need tighter, not looser rules for using nukes first in a confrontation with Russia. President Trump should expunge this major new creative, but misguided, part of his nuclear review — and fire its authors.