The Trump administration’s encouraging nuclear brinkmanship, not deterrence

[I was thinking of publishing an op-ed somewhere about these issues, but I decided to just post my thoughts in the form of a blog post here.]

President Trump recently signed a massive defense bill, and of the whopping $716 billion bill, $65 million goes to new submarine-launched “low-yield” nuclear weapons.

At a time when we’re supposed to be leading the way on cutting back on nuclear arms, this comes across as a “Do as we say, not as we do” policy. The low-yield warheads are likely to backfire by contributing to another arms race with Russia that lowers the bar to nuclear war.

The name’s misleading: such nukes are about half as devastating as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed some 100,000 people. They’re still weapons of mass destruction. They’re also redundant, considering that the military already has plenty of “dial-a-yield” weapons that can be adjusted to release the same degree of explosive power.

Philip Calbos of Trump’s National Nuclear Security Administration thinks the Obama administration was weak on nuclear deterrence, according to comments he made that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He believes that these new weapons will somehow deter nuclear rivals like Russia and aid nonproliferation efforts at the same time.

This new array of weapons is supposedly part of the nuclear “modernization” program, which began under Obama and actually replaces and upgrades the nuclear arsenal to the tune of more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years. It also includes new bombers with new cruise missiles, new earth-shattering gravity bombs, new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and new nuclear submarines.

Are thousands of nukes in ever more varieties really necessary? Does they even accomplish what they’re ostensibly for — deter a nuclear first strike? It’s more realistic that Russia, China, and other nuclear powers will see these new weapons not as merely defensive but as something that themselves could even be used as a first-strike option. This growing supply of missiles, subs and bombers doesn’t benefit any of us, except perhaps the stockholders of Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman.

If we seems to have a military advantage, surely our nuclear adversaries will try to bridge that gap — and then just as surely nuclear advocates in the Pentagon and Congress will come back asking for even more weaponry, escalating the nuclear brinkmanship. The US, Russia and China are already developing hypersonic missiles that travel three times the speed of sound, as well as new missile-defense systems, and adding more kinds of nukes would just encourage others to follow suit.

“We are at our busiest since the Cold War,” Calbos said. We shouldn’t take comfort in that.

Furthermore, in a relic of the Cold War, the US military still keeps hundreds of nukes on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch from silos and subs on a moment’s notice. A false alarm or ambiguous signals from early warning sensors could lead to Dr. Strangelove-style irrational retaliation from President Trump.

More low-yield warheads will just obliterate the distinction nuclear weapons and conventional ones. The Pentagon even reserves the right to respond to non-nuclear attacks, like to the electric grid, with nukes, and low-yield weapons just makes it more conceivable for a small conflict — or a mistake or misread intelligence — to turn into a nuclear one.

This completely reverses efforts to gradually reduce nuclear stockpiles. If the Trump Administration and Congress are serious about nonproliferation in the Middle East and East Asia, they should resist adding to our own arsenal.

Many Congressional Democrats — though not California’s senators — voted for the huge military bill, despite including investments in these new low-yield nukes, which could find their way onto subs at sea within the next few years. But Democrats have the chance to redeem themselves if they retake Congress during November’s election and stop this dangerous weapon from being deployed.