The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019. The W76-2 warhead, which is facing criticism at home and abroad, is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” We’re joined by William Arkin, longtime reporter focused on military and nuclear policy, author of numerous books, including “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for Federation of American Scientists. He also recently wrote a cover piece for Newsweek titled “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” “What surprised me in my reporting … was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world,” Arkin says.
AMY GOODMAN: As the nation focused on President Trump’s impeachment trial, a major story recently broke about a new development in U.S. nuclear weapons policy that received little attention. The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January the U.S. Navy had for the first time deployed a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019, armed with a warhead which is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.
The deployment is facing criticism at home and abroad. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, quote, “This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis.” Smith also criticized the Pentagon for its inability and unwillingness to answer congressional questions about the weapon over the past few months. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by saying, quote, “This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” he said.
We’re joined now William Arkin, longtime reporter who focuses on military and nuclear policy. He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for the Federation of American Scientists. He also wrote the cover story for Newsweek, which is headlined “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” He’s the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.
Bill Arkin, it’s great to have you back.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, to say the least, this has been an explosive week of news in Washington, D.C., and your news, which has hardly gone reported, is — should really be one of the top news stories of these last weeks.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, during the very time when the Iran crisis was at its highest, the United States, last December, deployed a new nuclear weapon, the first new nuclear weapon to be deployed, Amy, since the end of the Cold War. So here we have not just a momentous occasion, but a weapon which is intended explicitly to be more usable — and not just more usable against Russia and China, but to be more usable against Iran and North Korea, as well. It seemed to me that looking more deeply at this weapon, looking more deeply at the doctrines behind it, and then, really, what surprised me in my reporting, looking more at Donald Trump and the role that he might play in the future, was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this — what does it mean, “low-yield” nuclear weapon?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, “low-yield” is actually a little bit wrong. The United States actually possesses nuclear weapons with even smaller yields than five to six kilotons, which is what this is estimated at. That’s 5,000 to 6,000 tons. And so, that would be — if you thought of it in Manhattan terms, it would be probably something on the order of 20 square city blocks obliterated and radiation coming from that area. So, to say “low-yield” is, of course, a little bit wrong. But it is the lowest-yield missile warhead available to the strategic nuclear forces.
And the real reason behind deploying a Trident warhead with this low-yield weapon was that the United States, the nuclear planners, felt that they didn’t have a prompt and assured capability to threaten Russia or threaten other adversaries — “prompt” meaning that it would be quickly delivered, 30 minutes, or even, if a submarine is close, as low as 15 minutes, and “assured” meaning that it isn’t a bomber or an airplane that has to penetrate enemy air defenses in order to get to the target. So, those two things, prompt and assured, is what they really wanted. And putting a warhead on the missiles on the submarines allowed them both covert deployments as well as getting close to the target.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means between the United States and Russia.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, between the United States and Russia, I think it really doesn’t change very much. The Russians can denounce the Trident warhead, but the reality is that they have 2,000 of their own small nuclear weapons of this sort opposite Europe. And one of the justifications for the deployment of this new nuclear weapon, Amy, was that the Russians in fact had, if you will, a numerical advantage against NATO, and there was a desire to have a more “usable” nuclear weapon in order to eliminate that advantage. I think the U.S.-Russian situation is certainly tense, but it’s not really what this weapon is about. What this weapon is about is having a more usable nuclear weapon against countries like Iran and North Korea, where in fact a shocking first use of nuclear weapons, a preemptive use of nuclear weapons, would be used to either stop a war or to destroy a very important target, say, for instance, if there were a missile on a launchpad ready to strike at that United States.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2017, General John Hyten, who’s now vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. already has military capabilities to respond to Russian deployment of nuclear weapons.
GEN. JOHN HYTEN: The plans that we have right now — one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3rd was the flexible options that are in all our options today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So, if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the secretary of defense and the president and the entire staff, which is the attorney general, secretary of state and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options, from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke, that I can advise the president on to give him options on what he would want to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, if you could respond?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Options. That’s what they’re always saying, “options.” They need better options to do this, better options to do that. You have to look at this new weapon and say, “In its most basic terms, what does it give the United States that it doesn’t already have?” And those two things that I already mentioned: a prompt capability, being able to strike at a target in 15 minutes or less, and, second, an assured capability — that is, a missile that’s able to penetrate any enemy air defenses.
That makes it a particularly dangerous weapon in the hands of the current president, because I’ve heard from many people, more than I expected in my reporting, that they were concerned that Donald Trump, in his own way, might be more prone to accept the use of nuclear weapons as one of options when he was presented with a long list of options. One senior officer said to me, “We’re afraid that if we present Donald Trump with a hundred options of what to do in a certain crisis, and only one of them is a nuclear option, that he might go down the list and choose the one that is the most catastrophic.” And that officer said, “In 35 years of my being in the military, I’ve never thought before that I had to think of the personality of the president in presenting military options.”
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about Iran now and what this means for Iran.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, the deployment, it happened very quickly. The decision was made in February 2018. The Trident warhead was already on the production line for the strategic submarines. So, at the end of the run of these warheads, they made about 50 new ones that were of the low-yield variety, because the production line was already operating and hot. So it happened very quickly. Ironically, it happened at the very time that the House of Representatives was debating whether or not the weapon should even be deployed. And by the time that was finished and President Trump had signed the defense appropriations bill on 20th of December, the weapon had already been in the field. So, it shows really a disconnect, as well, in the congressional debate between what’s actually happening on the ground and what it is that they’re talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, for this to have been passed, you know, the House isn’t the Senate. The House is controlled by Democrats, so the Democrats passed this.
WILLIAM ARKIN: That’s correct. But in the end, the Senate turned down the House recommendation that the weapon not be deployed. And really, the tragedy here is that all of this occurred while the Tennessee was being loaded with a new missile, while the Tennessee was being prepared to go out on a new patrol, while the Tennessee actually went out into the Atlantic Ocean.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk again about Iran, exactly.
WILLIAM ARKIN: So, Iran is important because in June, when the drone was shot down, the president declined to retaliate militarily. And I think he got a lot of criticism from his party, from his wing, that he had made the wrong decision, that the United States should have retaliated against Iran. I think that stuck with Donald Trump. And I think, in the end, when it came to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in Baghdad, killed on the 2nd of January, that strike, people have told me, specifically was approved by Donald Trump, enthusiastically pushed by Donald Trump, because it kind of erased the mistake of him not retaliating in June.
At the same time, the United States was also increasing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, in the Iran area. B-52 bombers were flown to Qatar. The USS Abraham Lincoln was sailed into the region. And there was a general buildup of defensive forces in places like Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia.
At this very moment when U.S.-Iranian relations are at such a deep, I think, divide and at a time also when Iran is free — and it’s not clear that they will, but free — to continue to pursue the development of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, I think that we see maybe the beginning of a little bit of a creation of an argument that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction and that the United States is going to have to take action against that. And you’ve seen now from the president a number of very blunt statements that have said, “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.” That’s not necessarily what anyone I’m talking to in the military is focusing their attention on. They’re much more concerned about Iran in Syria, Iran in Yemen, Iran’s role in Iraq. But in terms of war planning, I think at the highest levels within the U.S. government there’s a general consensus about Iran as being still one of the “axis of evil,” still being in pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the Trump administration, particularly if it’s re-elected, is going to make Iran, I think, the centerpiece of a new defense strategy.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it is President Trump that set that situation up by pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord and decimating it.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Yes, that and also the second decision that was made, which was designating the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. This, ironically, in kind of the bureaucracy of terrorism, triggered a number of decisions and a number of actions, one of which was, with foreign terrorist organizations, the U.S. military then begins the process of targeting their leadership. And that’s what resulted in their starting to track Qassem Soleimani and then ultimately killing him. So it seems to me that we have these two separate tracks kind of converging at the same time: a foreign terrorist organization designation, on the one hand, and weapons of mass destruction, on the other.
AMY GOODMAN: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently advanced the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight, the clock a symbolic timekeeper that tracks the likelihood of nuclear war and other existential threats. It now stands closer to catastrophe than at any time since its creation in 1947. This is Mary Robinson, former Irish president, former U.N. human rights chief, speaking last month as the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight.
MARY ROBINSON: The Doomsday Clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence. It’s a striking metaphor for the precarious state of the world, but, most frighteningly, as we have just heard, it’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is no mere analogy. We are now 100 seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats: the climate crisis and nuclear weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: Former Irish President Mary Robinson. The significance of the Doomsday Clock, Bill?
WILLIAM ARKIN: I think the real significance is the lack of public interaction and public activism on the question of nuclear weapons. Really, that’s the missing ingredient today, Amy. We have a situation where the United States and Russia are engaged in multi-hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear modernization, at a time when the United States is at a high level of crisis with Iran and North Korea. And where is the public? Where is the public? And where is the anti-nuclear movement? And where even is any candidate speaking up about this subject?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of the anti-nuclear movement, the nuclear-armed submarine we’re talking about was deployed from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. This is the same base where seven Catholic peace activists were recently found guilty on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the base on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth [sic], on April 4th, 2018. This is Plowshares activist Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. It was actually the anniversary of his assassination. But this is Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, speaking after she was convicted.
MARTHA HENNESSY: The weapons are still there. The treaties are being knocked down one after the next. But we are called to keep trying. And we will do this together. And we have no other choice. Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, one of the seven who were found guilty when they went onto that nuclear base. So, Bill, in this last comment, if you can talk about the significance of their action? And also, when you say “low-yield” nuclear weapon, it must calm people. But this is a third of the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima?
WILLIAM ARKIN: So, “low-yield” is merely the title. It’s like saying that a Hummer is a small truck. I think that what’s important for people to take away from this development is that the United States has a new usable nuclear weapon, what the military itself considers to be more usable. That’s the change. And it’s also a weapon that can be stealthily and covertly deployed in the oceans. And that’s a change. And we do it at a time when, at least against Russia and North Korea and Iran, the United States is engaged in nuclear brinksmanship, at a time when it seems to me that the Congress is out to lunch, and there isn’t really an anti-nuclear movement in the United States, a mass movement, that could take up arms against this.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Martha Hennessy, Liz McAlister, the peace activist and widow of Phil Berrigan, and others getting convicted on their protest at the base?
WILLIAM ARKIN: I started writing about nuclear weapons in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. I believe that’s about the time when we met. And then we had marches in which hundreds of thousands of people were in Central Park and in Europe and around the world. And today we have nothing of the sort. So, yes, it’s important that these peace workers continue to do their work and continue to do their important attention operations and exercises, their own, if you will, actions against nuclear weapons. But it’s not enough. The public has to be more engaged. And I believe that the Democratic Party candidates for president need to speak up and say something about nuclear weapons, as well.