Alarming changes to the US nuclear posture

13.01.2018 - Geneva, Switzerland - International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

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Alarming changes to the US nuclear posture
(Image by Xanthe Hall for ICAN)

On the order of President Trump, the US Department of Defense is currently concluding a sweeping review of the United States’ nuclear policy – a “nuclear posture review” ­– expected to be released at the end of this month. But already now, the text has leaked and shows that the Trump administration will loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop more “usable” nuclear warheads.

The Trump administration’s review makes significant changes to US nuclear policy, both by developing new types of nuclear weapons and expanding the circumstances in which they could be used. “None of the changes will be of any good either for the United States or for the world,” said ICAN’s Executive Director, Beatrice Fihn. “Nuclear weapons are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction with no place in civilised international relations. The United States should endeavour to strengthen the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, not seek to undermine it,” she added.

President Trump’s nuclear posture review widens the circumstances in which the United States might use its weapons of mass destruction. The last nuclear posture review, completed in 2010, ruled out the use of nuclear weapons against “non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT, [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations.” The new review opens for the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks “that caused mass casualties” or were “aimed at critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites”. The relative ambiguity of terms such as “mass casualties” and “critical infrastructure” implies that the United States could consider using nuclear weapons in almost any armed conflict.

“The Trump administration’s loosening of the constraints on the use of nuclear weapons sends a deeply troubling message”, said ICAN’s Network Coordinator Daniel Högsta: “The United States considers the use of weapons of mass destruction to indiscriminately kill enormous amounts of civilians a useful and legitimate tool of statecraft. Not only will this position make it more difficult for the international community to persuade North Korea and other nuclear-armed states that they should give up their weapons, it could also embolden actors that have not yet acquired nuclear weapons to do so in the future.”

The new nuclear posture review also provides for hardware changes. The new nuclear posture review calls for the development of two new types of nuclear weapons, a “low-yield” warhead for its submarine-launched ballistic missiles and reintroduce submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles.

The introduction of such more “usable” weapons could lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and thereby increase the likelihood of nuclear war. “Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences and the radiation would harm people and the environment for a long time.

By expanding the role of nuclear weapons in US military doctrine, the Trump administration is out of step with the international community, since 7 July 2017, when 122 countries adopted a UN treaty unconditionally prohibiting the possession and use of nuclear weapons. This updated Nuclear Posture Review not only goes against the aims and principles of this international agreement, but also undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the US’s own commitments on reducing the role of nuclear weapons and pursuing nuclear disarmament.

In 2010, at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the United States and other nuclear-armed nations solemnly agreed to “diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies” and to pursue negotiations for further reductions of nuclear arsenals.

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