As military suspicions between the US and Russia escalate to levels last seen during the Cold War, both countries are trying to bolster their defenses and their military readiness to hedge against a plethora of geopolitical risks, from nuclear war on the Korean peninsula to a direct military confrontation between China and the US, or possibly Russia and the US.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin was accused of provoking NATO by marshaling 10,000 Russian and Belarusian troops along Russia’s western border with the Baltic states for their “Zapad” military exercises - something that prompted an outcry from NATO.
Putin has vigorously defended Russia’s right to carry out military exercises and ballistic missile tests, arguing that both the US and NATO have been "accelerating build-up of infrastructure in Europe" in violation of the 1987 treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles. In a similar vein, the US has accused Russia of violating the same treaty with missile tests of its own.
Meanwhile, as the US and its allies have accused Russia of meddling in Western elections, the number of NATO troops deployed near the Russian border has tripled in recent years as tensions have percolated.
With tensions at a fever pitch, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the Pentagon is developing two new nuclear missiles that would be capable of deployment from a nuclear submarine.
It’s also seeking to reauthorize a nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile, a system that was retired from the American arsenal in 2010.
The development of the two weapons is among a broad range of recommendations in the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly made his “moron” comment about the president during a meeting at the Pentagon that was intended to review the US’s nuclear policy.
All of this is part of a major reassessment of US nuclear strategy and programs that was commissioned about a year ago by President Donald Trump. According to WSJ, the Pentagon is expected to formally unveil its comprehensive new plan later this month. But in the meantime, it has leaked some tantalizing details to the WSJ’s Pentagon reporter, even though the final draft of the policy hasn’t been approved by the president.
The Pentagon has dismissed an unclassified draft of the strategy that was published last week by HuffPost - which claimed that Trump wants to build a lot more nukes - as “predecisional.” Meanwhile more updated drafts are also circulating. But the plans to field the new nuclear systems have strong support in the Pentagon and are expected to go forward, according to people familiar with the review.
The plan as it stands represents a shift away from de-nuclearization and returning instead to a Soviet-era arms race mentality.
However, critics say that the development of low-power nukes is almost as dangerous as hydrogen bombs because they lower the threshold to possible use.
A major question at the heart of the Pentagon review is how to respond to military strategy and programs in Russia and China, which American officials say provide a more prominent role for nuclear weapons. In effect, the Pentagon argues that since adversaries have failed to follow the US in de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons, Washington needs a greater range of nuclear options to counter its potential foes, especially for carrying out limited strikes.
Russia’s decision to develop and deploy that system is described by the review as part of a Russian doctrine that calls for threatening the limited use of nuclear weapons, or perhaps even carrying out a limited nuclear strike, to end a conventional war on terms favorable to the Kremlin.
By developing a new American “low yield” system, the Pentagon review argues the US will have more credible options to respond to Russian threats without using more powerful strategic nuclear weapons, which the Kremlin may calculate Washington would be reluctant to use for fear of unleashing an all-out nuclear war. Because the new weapons it is proposing would be based at sea, the US wouldn’t need the permission of other nations to deploy them and their deployment wouldn’t violate existing arms-control agreements.
The draft doesn’t precisely define what “low yield” nuclear weapons might be, but the new Trident system might have a warhead of one or two kilotons, compared with the current system which has an explosive yield that ranges from 100 kilotons to 455 kilotons, depending on the warhead it carries. By comparison, the U.S. nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II was about 15 kilotons.
Critics of the Pentagon’s strategy claim that the adoption of “low-power” nuclear weapons could lower the threshold for launching a nuclear strike.
“We should be doing everything to reduce the risk that nuclear weapons are going to be used, not expanding the ambiguity of when we might use nuclear weapons,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a senior official for arms control on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
Regardless, the review has drawn support from conservative lawmakers and pundits. “This is not about making weapons more usable; this is about strengthening deterrence so that nuclear weapons are not used in the first place,” said Robert Joseph, a senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration. "We have to think what would be credible in Russian eyes."
According to the WSJ, the review makes clear that the US could suspend its plans to revamp its nuclear arsenal if Russia fixes alleged violation of the 1987 treaty banning U.S. and Russian land-based intermediate-range missiles and also reduce its formidable arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia and China aren’t the only threats cited in the nuclear review. It also asserts that upgrading the US nuclear arsenal will add to the country’s ability to deter North Korean aggression.
“North Korea relies on hardened and deeply buried facilities to secure the Kim regime and its key military and command and control capabilities,” the review says. "Consequently, the United States will continue to field a range of conventional and nuclear capabilities able to hold such targets at risk."
Despite the debate over the proposed “low yield” Trident missile and sea-launched cruise missile, many of the other weapons recommended by the review also were advocated by the Obama administration, including the development of a new strategic bomber and an air-launched cruise missile.
But even if the plan is approved by Trump, carrying out the modernization will require 6.4% of the Defense Department budget, up from 2% to 3% today. If the Pentagon doesn’t secure the spending increases it anticipates - something that Republicans are fighting to include in a long-term spending bill - this could heighten the competition for funds.
But as Russia continues to test powerful ICBMs that it claims can overcome NATO’s missile-defense systems - and North Korea and Iran continuing ballistic missile tests of their own - the urgency to pass a plan to upgrade US weapons systems hasn’t been this intense in years.