Trump’s Nuclear Posturing: More Weapons, Less Control

On February 2, the United States released its first Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) since the 2010 study commissioned by then-President Barack Obama. The Obama NPR disappointed many disarmament advocates in its doctrinal timidity – it failed to declare the US would never use nuclear weapons first, and only ever use them in response to a nuclear attack on itself or its allies – and strategic conservatism – its re-commitment to a ‘triad’ of land-, sea- and air-launched long-range weapons. It did, though, seek to both diminish the number of warheads in the American arsenal (and, through arms control negotiations, the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states) and limit the role of such monstrously indiscriminate ‘weapons’ to always and only deterring war.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tours the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Kentucky at Naval Base Kitsap, Bangor, Wash., Aug. 9, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tours the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Kentucky at Naval Base Kitsap, Bangor, Wash., Aug. 9, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

In stark contrast, the Trump NPR seeks, at immense cost, new ways to make nuclear war more thinkable, ‘practical,’ and ‘winnable,’ including deploying new, ‘low-yield’ systems blurring the lines between conventional and nuclear conflict, and lowering the ‘threshold’ at which their use becomes ‘acceptable.’ While building on Obama’s ill-conceived, 30-year $1.2 trillion modernization of the triad, the Trump blueprint has been widely denounced (by both champions and critics of deterrence) as a defense of the indefensible, nuclear war as a legitimate exercise of military power, at a time of heightened nuclear danger in the Korean peninsula and beyond.

The Trump Review was drafted, under the supervision of Defense Secretary Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, by a team of veteran nuclear hawks, including Dr. Keith Payne, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in a George W. Bush Administration which also pushed (unsuccessfully) for the development of new, ‘usable’ weapons, ‘mini-nukes’ like the charmingly titled Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. Dubbed ‘Rumsfeld’s Dr. Strangelove’ by scholar Fred Kaplan, in 1980 Payne infamously argued in Foreign Policy that America could prevail in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union at the cost of “approximately 20 million people,” a “level” apparently “compatible with national survival and recovery.” Little wonder that Derek Johnson, the executive director of Global Zero, exclaimed in a February 2 statement that the United States was now saddled with “a radical plan written by extreme elements and nuclear ideologues in Trump’s inner circle who believe nuclear weapons are a wonder drug that can solve our national security challenges.”

According to its authors, the difference between the 2018 and 2010 Reviews reflects the intervening, grave deterioration in international relations in general, and relations between America and a quartet of adversaries – two major powers, China and Russia, and two rogue regimes, Iran and North Korea – in particular. As Mattis states bluntly in his preface, perhaps implying Obama’s efforts to marginalize nuclear weapons had only encouraged America’s rivals and foes: “We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”


The world, though, is arguably in the state it is in part because the biggest state in it has, in its pursuit of global military and political dominance, stunted the growth of a genuinely new, cooperative post-Cold War order. And the NPR itself can be faulted for its tendency to see in nuclear weapons not just a devastating technology but a useful, in fact, indispensable tool in building the world it seeks.

A one-page Pentagon summary tells us much we need to know, identifying no less than five main “roles for nuclear weapons”: 1) to “deter nuclear and non-nuclear attack,” with an expansive definition of ‘non-nuclear’ to include not only the use or threat of use of biological and chemical weapons, or a massive conventional offensive, but also cyber-warfare and attacks on space-based ‘assets;’ 2) to “assure allies and partners” (such as Canada) that American nuclear weapons will be used in their defense, and that they’ll enjoy a greater role in planning such attacks; 3) to “achieve objectives should deterrence fail,” either by repelling a ‘non-nuclear’ attack with nuclear weapons or winning a nuclear war; 4) to “hedge against uncertainty,” i.e. expand the nuclear ‘toolkit’ as much as possible; and 5) to “deter large-scale, catastrophic war against Great Powers in ways non-nuclear capabilities cannot.”

Remarkably, this last, grand claim was undermined by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Elbridge Colby, unveiling the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy (precursor to the NPR) on January 19th. “We’ve been doing a lot of things in the last 25 years,” Colby told reporters, “and this strategy really represents a fundamental shift to get back to basics,” namely “prioritizing preparedness for war, and particularly major power war.” Colby didn’t say such war would inevitably ‘go nuclear,’ but he clearly doubted the capacity of nuclear weapons to prevent such war.

In all probability, modern major-power conflict would ‘cross the threshold,’ and what makes the NPR so frightening to so many is its emphasis on the need to prepare to ‘prevail;’ its flat rejection of the conclusion drawn long ago by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”


In pursuit of a “tailored nuclear strategy” providing “flexible capabilities,” the Review mandates the deployment, in “the near term,” of a “comparatively low cost” Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) armed with a ‘tactical,’ low-yield warhead “to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses,” and, in the longer-term, a similarly-armed Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) to “provide a needed non-strategic regional presence.” At a highly-charged Arms Control Association briefing on the looming, largely-leaked NPR on January 23, Jon Wolfstal, a senior advisor in Obama’s National Security Council, argued the new weapons were not so much ‘non-strategic’ as strategically nonsensical:

Remember what our subs were designed and built for. These are $5 billion shadows. They are meant to be secret and quiet and we built them that way. … One submarine alone was enough to basically destroy most countries on earth… So, now we are going to take these quiet secret ships that spent their whole lives trying to disappear and we’re going to launch a small tactical nuclear weapon from it, which immediately makes the whole boat vulnerable. We’re basically going to have a giant dinner bell for every Russian attack sub to say, ‘Here it is!’

Soldiers perform self-decontamination procedures during a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center on Fort Polk, La., March 15, 2016. The soldiers are assigned to the 21st Chemical Company. Army photo by Spc. Ashley Marble

Soldiers perform self-decontamination procedures during a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center on Fort Polk, La., March 15, 2016. The soldiers are assigned to the 21st Chemical Company. Army photo by Spc. Ashley Marble

As Adam Mount noted in Foreign Affairs on February 2, because “even ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons are thousands of times more destructive than the largest conventional ones and risk contaminating huge swaths of allied or enemy territory” it “is not at all clear that an adversary would be able to quickly ascertain that a nuclear detonation was a ‘low-yield’ strike,” nor, “even if it could,” that it would “obligingly limit its response.” The US, moreover, already stations tactical nuclear weapons (gravity bombs) in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey), is already in the process of upgrading and enhancing them and is considering reintroducing them to the Korean peninsula. With no ‘capability gap’, therefore, to be filled, Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists is right to describe the sea-launched systems as “consistent with the new emphasis on nuclear war-fighting,” or what the Review bizarrely calls “the goal of reestablishing deterrence following its possible failure” by “limiting damage, to the extent feasible, to the United States, allies, and partners” – presumably by inflicting intolerable damage on the ‘enemy.’

As Gronlund points out, “one of the most disturbing and significant changes to US policy outlined in the NPR is the tighter integration of US nuclear and conventional forces, so US forces can operate in the ‘face of nuclear threats and employment.’ This is the text-book definition of nuclear war-fighting,” and thus “shoots a big-hole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)” by “simply” denying the “US obligation to take steps towards nuclear disarmament.” She concludes:

The NPR is a giant slap in the face of the non-nuclear-weapon states, who are already fed up with the slow progress of the United States and Russia.


As many Spectator readers will know, in July last year, 122 of those states concluded the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT), a political revolt converting angst at NPT double-standards into diplomatic action, a potentially ‘game-changing’ new global stigma against The Bomb. In its brief, last-but-least section on ‘Non-Proliferation and Arms Control’ (not, note, disarmament) the NPR pays lip-service to the NPT and savages the NWPT as “fueled by wholly unrealistic expectations” that the “elimination of nuclear arsenals” can be achieved “without the prerequisite transformation of the international security environment.” In its overt challenge, however, to the seven-decade ‘taboo’ against nuclear use, it is Trump’s new doctrine which threatens to shatter the post-1945 world order, permanently destroying humanity’s hopes, enshrined in the new Ban Treaty, for a peaceful transition to a post-nuclear age.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Given the possibility that that taboo may be broken – by accident, miscalculation or in malice – before long in Korea, it is sobering to review the recently declassified minutes of an emergency US National Security Council meeting in March 1953, as the Korean War staggered to an exhausted standstill. Before lunch, the notes calmly recount, President Dwight D. Eisenhower “raised the question of the use of atomic weapons” in the conflict, something “he felt would be worth the cost if we could…achieve a substantial victory over the Communist forces.” After lunch, civilian consultant Deane W. Malott argued “we ought to use a couple of atomic weapons in Korea.” “Perhaps we should,” Eisenhower conceded, though “we could not blind ourselves to the effects of such a move on our allies.”

Despite this reservation, Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, were in complete agreement that somehow or other the “tabu” [sic] which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed. While Secretary Dulles admitted that in the present state of world opinion we could not use an A-bomb, we should make every effort now to dissipate this feeling, especially since we are spending such vast sums on the production of weapons we cannot use.

Sixty-five years later, Trump’s terrible new posture likewise makes “every effort to dissipate this feeling”: to prepare the home front for another Hiroshima, a new Nagasaki, once again ‘over there’ in Asia.

Featured photo: President Donald J. Trump addresses service members during a Troop Talk at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Nov. 5, 2017. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Juan Torres



Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.







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