This week sees the release of the latest - and already leaked - US nuclear posture review. These reviews can be a powerful indicator of a president’s intentions and this one will, no doubt, be a taste of things to come. The 2002 version included President Bush’s demand for contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries – not only the so-called Axis of Evil, but also Russia, China, Libya and Syria. It also revisited some of the ideas of the early 1990s, calling for the development of bunker-busters and mini-nukes for use in ‘regional conflicts’, understood at that time - in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the developing narrative around oil and resources – to mean the Middle East.
The advent of President Obama knocked the project on the head for a number of years. His 2010 review ruled out the development of new nuclear weapons, including bunker-busters. It also renounced nuclear weapons use against non-nuclear states that the US considered compliant with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the time anti-nuclear campaigners hoped for more, having heard Obama’s passionate Prague speech in 2009, outlining a vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.
But we are a world away now, even from those modest steps. Citing nuclear modernization by Russia and China – not to mention ‘provocations’ from North Korea and the ‘ambitions’ of Iran – the new review ‘realigns’ US nuclear policy in line with current threats and calls for a ‘flexible, tailored nuclear strategy’. What does that actually mean?
Essentially, the lid is being taken off the restraints on both new-build and nuclear weapons use. The most significant element of the review is commitment to a whole new generation of nuclear weapons, with the emphasis on low-yield, often described as ‘usable’. It should be pointed out here that the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are technically low-yield in today’s parlance, so we are not talking about something small. The excuse underpinning this approach is supposedly that there are no real options between conventional weapons and all-out nuclear war, and that there should be more rungs on the ‘escalatory ladder’. Personally I would rather see more rungs on the de-escalatory ladder.
In fact, the US nuclear arsenal already includes over 1,000 nuclear warheads with low-yield options. In this context one speculates about industrial factors driving this policy. As Hans M. Kristensen reveals, a retired Admiral - a board member of Raytheon that makes the recently retired nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile - has now co-authored an article urging Trump to bring the nuclear missile back. No prizes for guessing the motivation there.
So the increase in stated circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used is a cause for significant concern. This includes against a group that ‘supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices’, as well as against ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,’ including attacks on ‘civilian population or infrastructure’.
Presumably the review’s authors are aware of the consequences of nuclear use and would prefer to avoid it. But the idea that having more nuclear weapons and more potential targets makes use less likely is simply bizarre. Whatever their motivation, this is an exceptionally dangerous game.