There is no such thing as a small nuclear war

By Deverrick Holmes, Policy Intern

This week, as Congress considers the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Members will vote on whether the United States needs a new small or “low-yield” nuclear weapon.

The specific policy that was hotly contested by Members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and eventually defeated, provided funding for the deployment of low-yield W76 warheads (otherwise known as W76-2) on a handful of Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Those in favor of the proposal argue that such capability is needed to deter Russia, which has more than 2,000 low-yield weapons. Opponents have argued that putting low-yield weapons on SLBMs is destabilizing and lowers the threshold for nuclear war. 

During the HASC debate on the policy, Republicans made some noteworthy comments in favor of deploying this new capability, particularly in regards to how nuclear deterrence works.

For instance, take this quote from Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI-10):

 “Deterrence is based on believability; your opponent has to believe that if they deploy a low-yield nuke that our nation will take out multiple cities. How many people believe that is the case?”

Republicans repeatedly hammered home the point that the United States’ current nuclear deterrent cannot deter a low-yield attack because no U.S. president would ever kill millions of innocent people over a “small nuke.” These comments reveal a misunderstanding of deterrence and escalation.

In order for nuclear deterrence to work, we must be willing to kill millions of people. That is a grisly proposition, but it is the possible end state of a policy on which we rely. Leveling cities and evaporating humans on an unimaginable scale is an uncomfortable thought, as it should be. However, by communicating that the United States would hesitate to respond to a low-yield nuclear attack because we didn’t have one specific type of nuclear weapon weakens our entire deterrence strategy. Further, positing that we could manage the exchange of a few small nuclear weapons actually increases the chances that such an exchange could happen.  Rather, than build a new low-yield weapon, the United States should make it clear that using a low-yield nuclear weapon is never acceptable.   

That’s because there is no such thing as a small nuclear war.

Indeed, embracing the concept of limited nuclear war is folly to the highest degree, and we fool ourselves if we think using low-yield nuclear weapons will somehow help halt the escalation to all-out destruction.

We already know this; we have tested the proposition before.

In 1982, the Reagan administration organized a war game known as “Proud Prophet” involving high-level defense officials. During the exercise, which played out over two weeks, the United States wanted to test the theory of limited nuclear strike. What they found was that the Soviet Union perceived even a low-yield nuclear strike as an attack, and responded with a massive missile salvo.

“The result was a catastrophe,” said Paul Bracken, a political scientist and Department of Defense advisor. “…A half-billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation. NATO was gone. So was a good part of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Major parts of the Northern Hemisphere would be uninhabitable for decades.”

Post-Proud Prophet, the rhetoric and policies coming out of the Reagan administration shifted dramatically. Bracken writes, “Launch on warning, horizontal escalation, early use of nuclear weapons, tit-for-tat nuclear exchanges — these were banished conceptually and rhetorically.” The exercise brought to light the inherent flaws of using nuclear weapons to maintain stability, and the Reagan administration stopped working to respond to nuclear escalation, instead focusing on reducing risks altogether.

Nuclear war doesn’t start on its own.

One of the primary reasons this debate has been so contentious is, those in favor of deploying low-yield warheads on SLBMs seem to contend that Russia is willing to use low-yield nuclear weapons in a conflict with the United States or NATO, regardless of circumstances. Take this quote from Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH-10) for example:

“The BBC just recently did a program on WW3 and you know how they started it? They started it with Russia nuking one of our aircraft carriers with a low-yield nuclear weapon.”

While it is troubling that a Member of Congress is making arguments based on a foreign network television movie, it does bring to bear an interesting aspect of the low-yield nuke debate. Those arguing for the low-yield weapons are doing so in a vacuum, as if Russia would cross the nuclear threshold unprompted.  

The typical scenario used to justify the need for more low-yield nukes is during a conflict that breaks out in NATO’s east. Russia, outmatched conventionally, uses a low-yield weapon as a counter to NATO’s superiority, or to create conditions to pursue an end to the conflict on the most favorable terms. However, what is missing is an explanation of how the United States and Russia found themselves at the brink of nuclear war in the first place, and what is at stake moving forward.

This debate needs context; without it, one can justify the use of a nuclear weapon for any number of hypothetical scenarios. Another approach would be for policymakers to explore the strategic environment and gain a better understanding of how these crises may begin in the first place. By doing so, they can then work to ensure the circumstances that may lead to nuclear use never materialize.

The United States has a role in preventing escalation, not just managing it. It is not a passive actor simply reacting to what the “bad guys” are doing. By recognizing how our actions play a role in escalation, leaders in the United States will be better positioned to address a crisis well before nuclear weapons become a factor.

In the famous words of Ronald Reagan “A nuclear war cannot be won and must be never be fought.” It would be beneficial for Congress to keep that fact in mind.