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John Raby and Jennifer Smith: The madness of low-yield nuclear weapons



For the Monitor
Thursday, December 13, 2018

A recent op-ed by Jon Kyl and Michael Morell (Monitor Opinion, Dec. 10) argued that America needs low-yield nuclear weapons now. Their argument recalls the missile gap alarm raised during the 1960 presidential campaign that rested on shaky assumptions and was later proven false.

They push the dangerous notion that low-yield nuclear weapons will be the ultimate national security guarantee. But ever since 1945, each new development in the nuclear arms race has brought only momentary advantage, speedily erased by the opponents’ response.

They also reference the current U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which postulates that tactical nuclear weapons are usable on the battlefield, and that such warfare could be limited and winnable. That is a nonsensical proposition.

Consider the W76-2 warhead currently under development. Its yield is roughly 40 percent of a Hiroshima-size bomb. A single one would lay Concord flat, wipe out its medical facilities and leave a radioactive landscape behind. Most of the slain and injured would be non-combatants. By any functional or moral standard, any contrast between use of such tactical nuclear bombs and strategic nuclear ones is a distinction without any practical difference.

Another “nuclear modernization” proposal is the long range standoff weapon, or LRSO, an air- or sea-launched cruise missile. It can carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead. Its targets would never know which was coming. In their fear and anger, they might immediately use their nuclear weapons. This is why former defense secretary William Perry calls the LRSO “uniquely destabilizing.” All such weapons perilously lower the threshold between conventional and nuclear war. For that reason, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Sam Nunn have joined Perry in warning against the dangers of a new nuclear arms race.

Kyl and Morell also propose that developing tactical nuclear weapons is affordable. They posit that it will be only 6 percent of the military budget. But that enormous and growing budget is already the major cause of budget problems.

When the current nuclear weapons modernization program began in 2014, its projected cost was $1 trillion. By 2016, it was $1.2 trillion. It’s now $1.7 trillion. Further increases will certainly come. Meanwhile, the national debt keeps growing, and basic human needs remain unmet. One-fifth of America’s children lack an adequate diet, and increasing numbers of them are born without a home in which to live. Along with those troubles, the opioid epidemic remains critical and our public works lie in disrepair.

Of all American presidents, George Herbert Walker Bush did more than any other to lift the weight of nuclear weapons off the world’s back. He sharply reduced the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. He negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which has been updated and remains in force. He withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and destroyed the associated warheads in the United States. He removed nuclear weapons from our attack submarines, surface warships and land-based naval aircraft, and put them in central storage, all with the endorsement of Colin Powell, the Army and the Navy. Bush also established the Open Skies overflight program to verify nuclear arms reductions. The Russians responded in kind. This opened a genuine chance at eventual nuclear disarmament.

Now this work is being undone. Responding to U.S. bellicosity, the Russians have backed out of the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty. Rather than renegotiate it, we may soon do likewise. And the START treaty expires in 2021, and won’t be renegotiated unless we reverse course.

The world is already perched on the edge of nuclear catastrophe. We must not allow the suspect motivations of the military-industrial complex to lead us to an even more dangerous cliff edge.

(John Raby of New London and Jennifer Smith of Pembroke are members of the New Hampshire Nuclear Weapons Working Group, based in Concord.)