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Racing Towards a Low-Yield Armageddon

Photo by James Stencilowsky | CC BY 2.0

On February 3 the Washington Post observed that “the United States can deliver a [nuclear] strike anywhere in the world in 30 minutes with astounding accuracy” and questioned the need for “a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons,” quoting the commander of the strategic force, General John Hyten, as saying “I’m very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options.”  But it appears that no matter the quantity and world-destroying capability of the US nuclear arsenal, there is always room for more — and more devastating — weapons of mass annihilation.

General James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, discussed Washington’s recently composed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) with the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives on February 6.  He was attempting to justify the upgrading and huge expansion of the US nuclear arsenal which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated  will cost some 1.2 trillion dollars over the next 30 years, and described in detail some of the projects that have been planned. The entire exercise does not fit well with the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in which it is agreed by almost every country in the world that the nuclear arms race should be halted and that all possible measures should be taken towards achievement of nuclear disarmament.

But Washington’s notions of global nuclear disarmament are curiously ambivalent, as there is unconditional support for Israel’s highly developed nuclear weapons’ capabilities, yet obsessive criticism of North Korea’s program to arm itself with nuclear missiles.  Nobody can defend or approve of North Korea’s wild nuclear fandangos which are beggaring an already downtrodden and poverty-stricken population on the verge of starvation, but Pyongyang’s rationale is that its policy “is the best way to respond with powerful nuclear deterrent to the US imperialists who are violent toward the weak and subservient to the strong.”

The language is straight out of a 1950s propaganda textbook, although the North Koreans are perfectly serious about their perception of US intentions. The Pyongyang government’s perception of the Nuclear Posture Review may be less measured than those of other nations, but there was no mistaking the disapproval of China, Germany, Iran and Russia, all of which condemned it in no uncertain terms. Germany’s then foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel (moved in the recent political reshuffle) reflected the stance of much of Europe when he said the NPR indicated that “the spiral of a new nuclear arms race is already underway,” but France and Britain, with their irrelevant but proudly brandished nuclear weapons capabilities, were non-committal, although the UK’s policy apparently remains  that “we’ve made it very clear that you can’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a first strike.”

As to the body of the Review, one analyst wrote that “the 2018 NPR fully supports the retention and modernization of the current triad of delivery systems; emphasizes the importance of a modernized and strengthened nuclear command, control, and communications system; and reiterates the need to invest in US nuclear weapons infrastructure, primarily in the national laboratories,” which sums up the overall intention to expand the entire systems of procurement and delivery. The BBC noted that the NPR “Low-yield weapons with a strength of under 20 kilotons are less powerful but are still devastating,” and that other proposals include  update of land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and air-delivered weapons, modification of some submarine-launched nuclear warheads to give a lower-yield or less powerful detonation, and reinstitution of sea-based nuclear cruise missiles. Armageddon here we come.

The NPR is an extension of the US National Defense Strategy which advises vast military expansion to supposedly counter “growing threat from revisionist powers” such as China and Russia. The Cold War is back with a nuclear rush, and the US Military-Industrial complex has been given a major boost, with the Review making 62 references to North Korea, 47 to China, 39 to Iraq and — leaving no doubt where it wants to strike first —  naming Russia 127 times, which makes nonsense of the claim by the State Department that “we do not want to consider Russia an adversary . . . This not a Russia-centric NPR.”

Washington now rejects the policies of “sole purpose” (nuclear weapons to be used to deter only nuclear attacks) and “no first use” (nuclear weapons only to be used if another state uses such weapons first). The message to China and Russia is that if the US considers there is a non-nuclear threat to its interests, then there could be a Pentagon nuclear strike.  The example set to nuclear-armed nations such as India, Israel  and Pakistan is unambiguous, in that the deterrence aspect of nuclear weapons has been superseded by what might be called “First Threat”, meaning that the more nuclear weapons that can be deployed by a country, the more assured will be its domonance. In the words of the State Department, “the declaratory policy of the United States [is] that we would consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances.”

The Pentagon has gone right back to the dark days described by Daniel Ellsberg in his memoir The Doomsday Machine. The Financial Times review summed up the threat of apocalypse by observing that “Most terrifying of all, Ellsberg discovered, any US attack, whether prompted by the outbreak of a real war or a malfunctioning system, would follow a stunningly inflexible plan. It would result in the indiscriminate obliteration of not only the Soviet Union but also China.”  And now the inflexibility is the Pentagon’s intention to develop and employ “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the utterly mistaken belief that in some weird way an enemy against whom they are directed will refrain from taking maximum retaliatory action.  “Low yield” weapons do not contribute to deterrence. They add to the probability of worldwide fire and fury.

A nuke is a nuke is a nuke.  No country in the world is going to lie back and do nothing when a US bomber drops a “low-yield” weapon.  How could it possibly know that the attack is not part of a wider foray?  Or that it will not be followed up by, say, a submarine-launched onslaught by mega-nukes directed at its cities?  Ellsberg makes the point that nothing should be taken for granted.  To make this a fundamental part of nuclear policy is lunacy.

The Pentagon and the State Department, abetted by a compliant Congress, try to portray the United States as a peace-loving defender of “vital interests” but when global military spending is examined it is obvious that even without the massive increase in financial allocations for development of yet more nuclear weapons, the US is outlaying staggering sums on maintaining and expanding its military bases and operations around the world.  The military spending increases approved by Congress are astounding, and go well beyond what even Trump wanted. He had asked for 603 billion dollars for “normal” expenditure and 65 billion for the various wars being fought by the US round the world, but Congress allocated 716 billion, and shares in military equipment producers took an upward leap.

The threat to world peace from intensifying US military operations and confrontational nuclear scheming is increasing day by day. The New Cold War emphasis on massive destruction has brought the world closer to Doomsday, as noted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which states that “nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals.”  Since that was written the threat has been increased by Washington’s intentions as laid out in its Nuclear Posture Review.

We are racing towards a low-yield Armageddon.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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