As the government’s mind-set shifts from waging counterterrorism and counterinsurgency wars to a return of great power competition with Russia and China, nuclear weapons must continue to maintain their deterrent effect.
Both Russia and China have engaged in large-scale nuclear weapons modernization programs and have kept their respective nuclear workforces up to speed on skills required for building new nuclear warhead designs. They have also increased the role and prominence of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. They have not followed America’s lead in diminishing the role and number of nuclear weapons.
Russia routinely practices nuclear attack scenarios in military exercises. It possesses a large and diverse tactical nuclear weapons arsenal and deploys intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles in material breach of its international commitments. Russia has coupled these capability developments with a nuclear doctrine that appears, from Russian statements and military exercises, to endorse the pre-emptive use of a nuclear weapon in a conventional conflict to signal Russian resolve and force the United States to back down. In other words, “escalate to de-escalate.”
In this way, Russia is intent on exploiting what it perceives as a U.S. nuclear capability gap on the lower levels of the escalatory ladder. That is because a high-yield, long-range U.S. response to Russia’s first, limited use of a low-yield nuclear weapon against a military target is not credible. The Russians believe we are not likely to risk a global thermonuclear war in response to a “tactical” nuclear attack by them.
We must change that calculation; we must close the credibility gap. To convince Moscow that there are no possible benefits to limited nuclear escalation, the United States needs to diversify its nuclear delivery system options on the lower levels of the escalatory ladder, including adding submarine-launched missiles and sea-launched cruise missiles with low-yield nuclear warheads. We must let the Russians know that there will be unacceptable consequences if they ever use such weapons.
The low-yield nuclear options proposed in the 2018 National Posture Review and endorsed by the National Defense Strategy Commission fill this gap in ways that are consistent with U.S. nuclear weapons policy and past practices — and in ways that are fully consistent with America’s treaty obligations.
These are not novel nuclear weapons. The short-term fix includes a relatively simple modification of an existing nuclear warhead for a submarine-launched ballistic missile. In the long run, the National Posture Review proposes developing and deploying a sea-launched cruise missile. The United States had such capability for decades but retired it at the beginning of this decade when the nation’s assumptions about international security were more optimistic — in hindsight too optimistic.
Some argue that such weapons would make nuclear war more likely, but the truth is just the opposite; Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is more likely if we don’t develop submarine- and sea-launched low-yield weapons. Others argue that the development of such U.S. weapons would lead to a nuclear weapons arms race. But the race is already in progress and America is playing from behind, hindered by self-imposed constraints. Yet another group of advocates argues that the weapons are too expensive, but nuclear weapons would account for only about 6 percent of the defense budget at a peak of nuclear modernization — a wise investment, given that they are the ultimate national security guarantee.
Successive defense secretaries from both Republican and Democratic administrations have identified nuclear deterrence as the department’s top priority. That’s because U.S. nuclear capabilities make essential contributions to the preventing both nuclear and nonnuclear aggression and to maintaining the confidence of America’s allies. These capabilities are essential to fulfilling the government’s constitutional obligations. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said, “America can afford survival.”