Russia Says New US Policy Could Allow Use of Nukes Even in Low-Intensity Conflicts

By Patrick Goodenough | February 5, 2018 | 4:24 AM EST

The U.S. Navy Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS West Virginia test-fires Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles in 2014. (Screen captures: YouTube)

( – Russia hit out over the weekend at the Trump’s administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review, expressing concern that the document leaves open the option of using nuclear weapons even in response to a non-nuclear attack.

Moscow’s foreign ministry in a commentary called this a “de facto ‘unlimited’ approach to the use of nuclear weapons,” and suggested U.S. military planners could cite almost any use of military force as a pretext to mount a nuclear response.

What the NPR does set down is a reaffirmation that the U.S. will consider using nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners.”

It goes on, however, to make clear that “extreme circumstances” would not apply solely to a nuclear-armed attack or threat.

“Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” the NPR says, adding that these could include “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

Despite that definition, the Russian foreign ministry fretted that “the notion of military scenarios is so blurred that the American ‘planners’ might be enabled to view nearly any use of military force as the pretext for delivering a nuclear strike against those they believe ‘aggressors.’”

The NPR unveiled by the Pentagon on Friday following a year-long review ordered by President Trump, is the first of its kind since President Obama released one in April 2010.

That 2010 NPR did also not rule out altogether the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack. But the Obama document did signal a move away from such scenarios, saying the U.S. would continue to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Lower-yield weapons

The Trump NPR names Russia, China, North Korea and Iran as potential threats, and outlines plans to discourage Russian aggression in particular by deploying smaller, lower-yield nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

Fielding an arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons would challenge the perception that U.S. nuclear weapons are essentially too big to use, and therefore not an effective deterrent.

The aim is to modernize the nuclear triad in part by lowering the yield of existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), “to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses.”

It calls the move a “comparatively low-cost and near term modification to an existing capability that will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.”

The focus is clearly on Russia’s national security policies and strategy.

“Moscow apparently believes that the United States is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons,” the document says.

“Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first-use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first-use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia,” it states.

“Russia must instead understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow,” it says. “Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable.”

The NPR stresses that the low-yield weapons plan is not intended to enable “nuclear war-fighting,” but to present a credible deterrent against regional aggression. It argues that it will make use of nuclear weapons less, rather than more likely.

But the Russian foreign ministry rejected those assertions, saying the temptation to use the smaller-yield weapons would increase dramatically.

“Substantially lowered ‘threshold conditions’ are likely to trigger a nuclear-missile war even amid low-intensity conflicts,” it warned.

Leonid Slutsky, a Russian lawmaker who chairs the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, told reporters the NPR was the work of “American hegemons.”

The Tass news agency quoted him as saying that by deploying smaller-yield, easier-to-use weapons the U.S. strategy “reduces the obstacles for their use and, thereby, increases the threat of a nuclear war.”

A return of sea-based tactical weapons

The NPR also unveils plans to bring back sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles (SLCMs), which the document says “for decades had contributed to deterrence and the assurance of allies, particularly in Asia.”

The move is a reversal of Obama’s 2010 policy finally to retire the SLCM. Nineteen years earlier, President George H.W. Bush had ordered the removal of all tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. surface ships and smaller submarines.

The NPR does leave the door open for the SLCM proposal to be shelved, depending on Russia’s response.

“If Russia returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviors, the United States may reconsider the pursuit of a SLCM,” it says, suggesting the plan may be an incentive for Russia to negotiate reductions of its tactical weapons arsenal.

Like Russia, Beijing reacted negatively to the NPR, with the defense ministry saying it played up the nuclear threat posed by China and urging the U.S. to “abandon its Cold War mentality.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said on Twitter the document’s proposals violated the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “bringing humankind closer to annihilation.”

In his State of the Union address, Trump said the U.S. “must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.”

“Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are not there yet.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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