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Pentagon Wants To Deploy 'Low-Yield' Nuclear Weapons To Deter Russia From Similar Ones


There's a new push by the Pentagon to deploy a more usable nuclear warhead. Proponents say a submarine-launched, low-yield nuke is needed to make Russia think twice about using similar weapons. And this week, Congress will take up possibly funding this warhead. Critics say a more usable nuke is a very bad idea. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Throughout most of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union deployed thousands of so called low-yield nuclear weapons. These bombs are considered tactical - big enough to destroy military targets but far smaller than so called strategic warheads which are subject to arms control treaties. Still, after the Cold War, the U.S. withdrew most of its low-yield nukes from Europe even though Russia has many still deployed. Last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress the time had come for a new low-yield nuclear warhead.


JIM MATTIS: This is because we have uncovered - and Russia has been rather out front with the idea that they could escalate to de-escalate. What that means is use a low-yield nuclear weapon in a conventional war to compel surrender basically, and our point is to say you can't do that.

WELNA: The man who'd oversee the launch of any American nuclear weapon is General John Hyten. He's the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command. Russia's calculation, Hyten tells NPR, is that the U.S. would be stuck choosing between doing nothing - should Russia fire a low-yield nuke - or replying with an immensely powerful nuclear weapon that would risk atomic Armageddon.

JOHN HYTEN: We need the capabilities to respond to that with a low-yield nuclear weapon. It actually raises the nuclear threshold. It doesn't lower the nuclear threshold.

WELNA: That threshold being the point where using nuclear weapons becomes a real possibility. The Pentagon's argument is that having low-yield nukes deters Russia from using theirs. Former Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz disagrees.

ERNEST MONIZ: Saying that we have some kind of a tit-for-tat philosophy - if you use a lower yield weapon, we'll use a lower yield weapon - I think that is an invitation for the blundering into a miscalculation that most likely would lead to escalation - not de-escalation - of a conflict.

WELNA: The U.S. already does have some 200 low-yield nuclear bombs deployed in Europe. They're unguided, though, and would have to be dropped from aircraft vulnerable to enemy fire. The Pentagon wants a new crop of low-yield nukes to be warheads on trident missiles fired from submarines. MIT political scientist Vipin Narang says that could cause a serious miscalculation by the Russians.

VIPIN NARANG: If they ever saw a trident coming, they would have no idea what's on it. And I think that's a really dangerous proposition, especially if your aim is to target assets deep in Russian territory. You're buying yourself a strategic nuclear war potentially.

WELNA: Here's what the U.S. Strategic Command's General Hyten had to say in February at a National Defense University forum when asked about the Russians not being able to tell what's coming at them.


HYTEN: If the Russians employ a low-yield nuclear weapon on the battlefield, and they see something coming out of the trident coming their direction, it's nuclear. They just went nuclear, and now there's a nuclear response coming back. The question is, how big is that response? And they will find out in about 30 minutes.


HYTEN: They will.

WELNA: Thirty minutes is about the longest it would take for a trident missile to reach Russia. All this talk about the U.S. actually using nuclear weapons has strategic deterrence expert Negeen Pegahi worried. While she directs a research program at the U.S. Naval War College - in her personal capacity, Pegahi warns that the U.S., whose conventional forces far surpass Russia's, is deliberately and mistakenly playing into its adversary's hands.

NEGEEN PEGAHI: Why on earth would we be lowering the nuclear threshold when we overwhelmingly dominate the conventional portion of the conflict spectrum? Makes perfect sense for the Russians to try that or for the North Koreans to try that. It's the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

WELNA: Congress later this week begins deciding whether to authorize the $65 million the Pentagon wants for outfitting submarines with low-yield nukes. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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