The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s request for even more nuclear weapons is flawed overkill

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, speaks next to Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette during a news conference on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon on Feb. 2.
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, speaks next to Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette during a news conference on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon on Feb. 2. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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BEFORE PRESIDENT TRUMP took office, the United States had started a large and expensive upgrade of its strategic nuclear forces to replace those from the Reagan era. Modernization was essential, but there had been a failure to make hard choices or set priorities. Yet now comes the Trump administration seeking even more.

The Navy already is designing a new fleet of a dozen ballistic missile submarines, the Columbia class; the Air Force wants a new long-range strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, as well as a new long-range cruise missile and replacements for existing land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Energy Department is modifying and extending the life of nuclear bombs and warheads.

Now the Nuclear Posture Review, unveiled Friday, declares a need for modified nuclear warheads of lower yield than those typically put on strategic weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, and also for a new, nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile. The report argues that the United States needs more "flexible" options to meet possible threats from resurgent Russia and China, and that these supplemental and "tailored" options will enhance deterrence.

Maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent is essential to U.S. national security and will be for the foreseeable future. But this recommendation for additional low-yield nuclear weapons is flawed overkill.

For decades, many people have assumed that a nuclear war would automatically become all-out, catastrophic war, the destruction of humanity. In fact, policymakers and specialists have long envisioned and built nuclear weapons that have less yield, and written nuclear war plans that include limited nuclear strikes. During the Cold War, Henry Kissinger was prominent in the school that argued that all-out war wasn't a credible threat, because no one would actually do it, so limited nuclear options were more credible and should be pursued. They were.

Today, in addition to warheads with massive destructive force, the United States has in its arsenal more than 1,000 gravity bombs of six types and an air-launched cruise missile with lower yield options, and war plans with all kinds of limited options. The flaw in the new report is the idea that somehow there is a weakness in the U.S. nuclear deterrent that more low-yield weapons would remedy. The evidence for this is hard to find. In fact, adversaries know that the United States can deliver a strike anywhere in the world in 30 minutes with astounding accuracy. Deterrent credibility is already strong, and the modernization plans underway are intended to keep it that way. Not much more will be gained with a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons. The U.S. commander of the strategic force, Gen. John Hyten, says, "I'm very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options."

The ambitious strategic nuclear modernization effort now underway will be hard enough as it is without pursuing this unnecessary detour.

Read more on this topic:

Richard A. Clarke and Steven Andreasen: With nuclear weapons, we're getting too comfortable thinking the unthinkable

The Post's View: Trump and the nuclear button

David Ignatius: Our best hope against nuclear war

George F. Will: Will Trump lower the nuclear bar?

The Post's View: Trump's distressing chest-thumping on nuclear weapons