In February 2018, Donald Trump’s Department of Defense released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a comprehensive document that describes the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, as seen by the incumbent administration. The previous NPR was released by Barack Obama back in 2010, and it is safe to say that President Trump’s version sees a rather different nuclear future for the United States to that of his predecessor.
The foremost aspect of the 2018 NPR is its push for more nuclear, specifically low-yield, weapons. The given rationale for this policy is as follows: Russia has a greater number and variety of these low-yield weapons than the U.S., which supposedly creates a Russian advantage at lower levels of conflict. In other words, American weapons are too destructive to deter an attack by smaller nuclear weapons. By this logic, it makes sense for the U.S. to add a variety of low-yield weapons to its nuclear arsenal, whose potential use would be more likely.
However, the above logic is based on a weak assumption – the notion that the acquisition of low-yield nuclear weapons is necessary to counter a Russian threat. To make this assumption more convincing, the NPR includes and omits factual information as appropriate in order to support its agenda. For example, it claims that Russia has been making “nuclear threats against [American] allies” (p. I) without citing any convincing evidence, but does not give importance to the fact that the U.S. has nuclear weapons in five European countries, in close proximity to Russia. Also emphasized is the 85 per cent reduction in U.S. nuclear weapon stockpiles since the Cold War, whereas a similar reduction on Russia’s part is ignored. In fact, whilst the policies presented in the NPR are not inadequate per se, the bulk of their true justifications are shrouded with the expected noble rhetoric of “we are responding to threats from Russia/North Korea/China”. Quite how one can argue that North Korea’s nuclear proliferation cannot be matched by the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is inexplicable.
This brings me to my next point, which is that the United States already has over 1,000 nuclear warheads with low-yield options. This fact is omitted in the NPR, a move that raises more questions than it provides answers. Further, the document argues that adding more low-yield weapons will raise the nuclear threshold, a claim that is understandably controversial, though not necessarily misguided.
Lastly, as we learnt earlier in the course, nuclear weapons of lower yield are more efficient in their usage of fissile material than higher-yield weapons. So, whilst it is easy to view low-yield weapon proliferation as less threatening than high-yield advancement, the opposite may well be true. It is also worth remembering that “low-yield” means under 20 kilotons, which would classify the Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima as a low-yield weapon. No fewer than 70,000 people died in Hiroshima.
I will not scrutinize the NPR’s policies themselves, but I do have time to blast their justifications. My key question is this: to where should we trace the true motivations for the new, proliferating direction of the 2018 NPR? The following is my best guess (please read with some levity).
In his first year as president, Donald Trump made clear his determination to dramatically increase the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This was unsurprising given his usual bad-boy demeanor. However, when the time came to discuss the plan with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Trump’s radical ideas fell on deaf ears. Nonetheless, Mattis, Tillerson and Dunford could not entirely ignore the president’s vision, so they agreed on a compromise which eventually materialized through the NPR. The emphasis was chosen to be on low-yield weapons as they appear less threatening, but Trump would have been advised of their high efficiency and tactical capabilities. As for policy motivations, the true reasons of maintaining world hegemony and political status were shrouded by exaggerated, but believable threats from Russia, China and North Korea. In the end, nobody could surely have been surprised.
I would love to hear your versions of the motivations behind Trump’s NPR policies. If you have the time, please do leave a comment. — Sergei