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Opinion Biden sends Putin a muddled nuclear message

President Biden fields questions from reporters at the White House on March 31. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
5 min

Joe Biden campaigned in 2020 as a nuclear arms-control enthusiast, declaring that “the United States does not need new nuclear weapons” and embracing a “sole purpose” policy that would narrow the circumstances in which he might direct the military to use one. Fourteen months into his presidency, he has been forced to abandon both commitments.

Two intervening events explain the change. First, in 2021, satellite images made public the construction of as many as 300 silos, apparently for intercontinental ballistic missiles, in western China. The extent of Beijing’s nuclear ambitions could no longer be ignored.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine while rattling its nuclear saber. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used, but they’ve already set the terms for the conflict: It’s only because of these weapons that Russia’s military can fight a conventional war in Ukraine without a credible threat of direct Western intervention.

Specifically, Vladimir Putin’s war has highlighted Russia’s yawning advantage over the United States in nonstrategic, or “tactical,” nuclear weapons, which have shorter ranges and smaller yields. Moscow’s military doctrine exploits its roughly 10-to-1 advantage in the smaller weapons, and greater diversity of delivery systems, by contemplating their use on the European battlefield in a conventional war with NATO.

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If an American president has fewer options for a proportionate response to a limited, tactical nuclear strike, such a strike might look more attractive to Russia. It could gamble that the president (no matter America’s official policy) would back down rather than risk escalating toward a full-fledged, or “strategic,” nuclear exchange.

The administration has responded to the changed circumstances. Biden reportedly told European heads of state last week that he would not formally weaken the United States’ nuclear-use policy, as some of them feared. Meanwhile, his fiscal 2023 defense budget released this week funds several nuclear weapons programs initiated in the Trump administration that are under attack from disarmament advocates.

Unfortunately, it may not be enough. The budget still terminates the Pentagon’s development of a tactical nuclear weapon delivered by a sea-launched cruise missile (or SLCM, sometimes pronounced “slick-em”). This decision, announced in the middle of Putin’s war on NATO’s doorstep, could needlessly create doubt in Moscow about Washington’s will in a nuclear standoff.

Putin has a huge advantage in the kind of nuclear weapon he would be most likely to use

The commander of U.S. forces in Europe is already sounding the alarm. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Gen. Tod Wolters said the United States should continue developing the SLCM. “Having multiple options,” Wolters said, “exacerbates the challenge for the potential enemies” probing for ways to circumvent our nuclear deterrent.

Multiple options means more than one type of low-yield weapon for a president to choose from to respond to a limited Russian nuclear strike on a NATO ally. The aim would be to restore deterrence without unduly escalating. The defense budget wisely doesn’t seek to dismantle the W76-2, a submarine-launched low-yield weapon that Biden opposed when it was first deployed in 2019.

In an email, a senior Pentagon official cited “the deterrence contribution of the W76-2,” as well as cost constraints, to explain the cancellation of the SLCM. But the W76-2 is delivered by a long-range ballistic missile, which means it can’t be carried on most Navy submarines and would look like a “strategic” weapon on enemy radar. The Pentagon fielded it as a second-best alternative to the SLCM only because it could be ready earlier.

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To Biden’s credit, the budget maintains funding to develop the planned Long-Range Standoff Weapon, a nuclear cruise missile launched from an Air Force bomber. But planes are easier to detect than submarines and might take longer to get into position. The SLCM — which was also deployed late in the Cold War — is a powerful complement to the Air Force’s planned weapon.

It’s true that NATO’s conventional firepower could overwhelm Russia’s military. But consider that early in the Cold War, the roles were reversed. The Soviet Union had the more powerful land army in Europe, while the United States, under its doctrine of “massive retaliation,” planned to use nuclear weapons to meet a conventional attack.

There is nothing especially irrational, then, about Russian threats of nuclear force in a conventional war against a superior opponent. The solution is to show Moscow that it has no hope of victory from a limited nuclear escalation because of NATO’s ability to match it at every step.

Nuclear deterrence can be debated endlessly because there’s mercifully little empirical evidence against which to test theories of how it works (or doesn’t). But China’s nuclear rise and the simultaneous return of war in Europe have shattered, at least for the foreseeable future, any claim that unreciprocated American nuclear disarmament is a realistic path to peace.

If the SLCM could create even marginally more certainty in the minds of adversaries that the United States could — and would — respond in kind to any use of nuclear force against allied territory, it’s worth funding. In a destabilizing world, even perceived gaps in America’s guarantee of deterrence make the unthinkable more likely.