Leaked Pentagon paper reveals urge for new nuclear weapons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 10:17pm

A leaked draft of the Pentagon’s forthcoming nuclear weapons review shows that senior defence officials are keen to not only modernise the ageing US arsenal, but add new ways to wage nuclear war as Russia, China and other adversaries bolster their own arsenals.

Among the new weapons proposed are supposedly “low-yield” nukes that could be mounted to existing Trident missiles and launched from submarines. Despite the nickname, the warheads would still probably pack a punch larger than the explosions that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war, killing tens of thousands of people.

The draft says smaller nuclear weapons are necessary due to the “deterioration of the strategic environment”. The Pentagon’s thesis: if an adversary has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that are not controlled by existing treaties, the United States should have one to match and retaliate if necessary.

“These supplements will enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies,” the draft said.

The concept seems especially focused on Russia, which the Pentagon accused of violating the New START Treaty last year by deploying a new nuclear cruise missile that is seen as a threat to Europe, where the US has deployed as many as 240 nuclear weapons. The Pentagon claims that Russia thinks launching a limited nuclear strike first may offer an advantage, in part because it has a variety of small nuclear weapons at its disposal.

“Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative,” the draft insists.

The Pentagon also calls for a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile, typically called a SLCM (“slick-em”) in the military. The Obama administration sought to phase out a similar cruise missile in a nuclear review it released in 2010, but defence officials now argue that it is necessary.

The new weapons could add additional costs to what already promised to be a very expensive bill to modernise the nuclear arsenal, most of which is decades old. An assessment by the Congressional Budget Office released last fall found that it will cost US$1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to build new weapons and maintain them.

US President Donald Trump directed Defence Secretary Jim Mattis early last year to launch the review to assess the state, flexibility and resiliency of the existing arsenal to deter modern adversaries. In a statement on Friday, the Pentagon did not deny the draft document is legitimate but said it is Defence Department policy not to comment on “pre-decision” documents.

“Our discussion has been robust and several draft have been written,” the statement said. “However, the Nuclear Posture Review has not been completed and will ultimately be reviewed and approved by the President and the Secretary of defence.”

The Pentagon is expected to release the nuclear review after Trump’s State of the Union on Address on January 30, though it is not clear whether the timeline has been altered by the leak. A variation of the review was carried out by each of the last two administrations, and typically shapes strategy for years to come.

Critics argue that the US should not be building new weapons. Jon Wolfsthal, a former Obama administration official who worked on nuclear issues on the National Security Council, said the Trump administration is sending a strong message that America will tolerate the use of nuclear weapons, but “runs off the rails” in arguing that new capabilities are needed.

Congress has rejected previous Pentagon efforts to add new submarine-launched warheads, in part because it isn’t clear how Russia would react if a missile is launched at it and the size of the warhead could not be determined, Wolfsthal said.

“These are familiar debates for people in the nuclear community,” Wolfsthal said. “We’ve had them for many, many years, and some of them were considered and rejected under the Obama administration. Some of them were considered and pursued.”