By Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.

  • Aims to Restore Nuclear-tipped Cruise Missiles on Some Attack Submarines
  • Calls for Low-Yield Submarine Ballistic Missile Warhead Option
  • Ends “Interoperable” Warhead Program
  • Retains 1.2 Megaton Bomb

A leaked “pre-decisional” copy of the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was published this week by Huffington Post. [1]

By-and-large, the new NPR seeks to continue Obama-era modernization programs, with some notable changes.

By itself the NPR does not authorize or fund nuclear weapons programs, build infrastructure, or order deployments. Congress authorizes and funds programs, in addition to these hurdles there have historically been many nuclear weapons programs which were not successfully executed. Even in the purely military sphere the President can only order what is possible, and may encounter stiff resistance from generals and admirals.

The NPR thus has the general status of a set of guidelines, and an outline of a legislative program pertaining to nuclear weapons.

In the limited time available I have not yet seen significant novelty in the statements of policy regarding nuclear weapons employment. Such statements are by their nature volatile and posturing, in any case.

What is new is:

  • The call to deploy nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on some attack submarines, either the Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (Nuclear) (TLAM-N) — or, as it may turn out, a new missile given that there are age-related and reliability issues with Tomahawk missiles, a significant consideration;
  • The initiation of a program to deploy low-yield warheads on some submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs);
  • The conversion of the “Interoperable Warhead One” (IW-1) program into a study of interoperable warheads, with no production dates;
  • Longer-term retention of the variable-yield (up to 1.2 megaton) B83 free-fall bomb, which was to be retired when the B61-12 bomb enters the stockpile in the early 2020s.

The first two of these, especially, will engage the attention of congressional authorization and appropriations committees, as well as the military.

The IW-1 program was to be centered at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). IW-1 was to replace the W78 and W88 warheads, both designed at Los Alamos. LLNL is the primary design laboratory (and current custodian) of the B83 bomb.

For the most part, the Trump nuclear posture review continues the same modernizations and the same nuclear doctrines as in the past — just as the Obama nuclear posture continued the same policies as his predecessors, augmented in 2010 by a massive across-the-board modernization program. Only the deployment of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on attack submarines was ended. Barring adequate resistance in Congress and the military, and barring other technical problems, that deployment may return.

This ‘show of resolve’ will turn out to be an empty gesture which will not be accepted easily by the Navy. Nuclear weapons impose significant costs and restraints on submarine operations.

The low-yield Trident warheads are another gratuitous self-inflicted wound on the supposed rationale of the nuclear mission. What the drafters of this NPR seem unable to grasp is that any use of nuclear weapons — anywhere, against any adversary, with any yield, under any circumstance — will immediately lead to existential dangers for the United States and the world. Nuclear weapons cannot be used — period. The term “weapon” is misleading in the nuclear context.

A strong nuclear posture review — one that would help ‘make America great again’ — would be one that eliminated gratuitous nuclear threats, drawing down the US arsenal, shrinking the institutions and contractors which thrive on existential threats to our own country.

Our missiles are mostly aimed at Congress, because Congress holds the purse strings. Nuclear weapons are very much a blackmail racket perpetrated on taxpayers, enabled by pork-barrel politicians in both parties who stand to gain in the process.

Especially at these huge arsenal levels, US nuclear posture has nothing to do with Russia, China, or any other country. It’s about domestic ‘constituents,’ i.e. defense corporations and the copious campaign contributions they offer. As such, it is a product and symptom of widespread corruption.

Low-yield warheads are not a technical challenge. The slight modification of existing warheads required can be easily accomplished either in Navy maintenance locations or at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant near Amarillo, Texas.

Neither do nuclear weapons have the ‘compellance’ virtues ascribed to them in this document. The use of nuclear threats in world affairs will have only one dead-certain outcome: nuclear proliferation. The outcome of nuclear threats will be nuclear war, sooner or later, which may or may not remain limited and could easily result, without the slightest exaggeration, in the extinction of humanity.

With the demise of IW-1, as we see in this NPR, there are no longer any warheads which require new plutonium warhead cores (“pits”). The rationale for making pits in any but “maintenance” mode has now collapsed. This is a very welcome change.

It is traditional to discuss US nuclear weapons delivery options as a ‘triad.’ Actually there are currently four such options — a quadriad — because air-launched cruise missiles and free-fall bombs are quite distinct modes, from the military point of view. This posture review proposes five delivery modes, a pentad, since submarine-launched cruise missiles are to be added back into the mix.

This NPR, as Obama’s did, explicitly refers to the “upload hedge” — the extra warheads which are being held as potential additions to US ballistic missiles deployed on land and sea. If deployed, given the current number of deployed missiles the US has, these extra warheads would violate the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and bombers. These New START limits are slated to end on Feb. 5, 2021 — 3 years from now — if not extended. The future of this Treaty is very much in doubt. It was and is not a disarmament treaty, but losing it may lead to a numerical arms race on top of the qualitative arms race we are already in.

Contrary to what is stated here, nuclear weapons do not bring peace. They have, if anything, made the planet “safe” for US and proxy wars, while we all remain under the general threat of annihilation. Their effect on our culture and character, and on our social contract, has been profoundly damaging. As Simone Weil put it in her famous essay on the Iliad, ‘Thus it is that those to whom destiny lends might, perish for having relied too much upon it.'”

Note 1: Our information suggests this is the final or all-but-final document, which the same sources say was completed last month and is (or was) to be released a week from today. Obtaining interagency concurrence on any changes will be difficult at this late date, so we are assuming this is the final version.