Navy Deploys Low-Yield Nuclear Warhead on Sub For First Time

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(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon said it has deployed a new submarine-launched nuclear warhead for the first time as the Navy seeks to counter Russia’s war chest of smaller tactical nukes.

The Pentagon’s confirmation Tuesday follows a controversial move last week to ease restrictions on the use of land mines, which are banned by more than 160 nations. The Trump administration in recent weeks has been setting the foundation to boost U.S. weapon arsenal in a race against Russia and China.

U.S. military leaders see China and Russia bolstering their nuclear forces and are incorporating that development into their strategic plans as part of the administration’s focus on “great power competition.” The Trump administration’s latest Nuclear Posture Review concluded that the U.S. military’s regional commanders must update war plans to incorporate the use -- in the most dire circumstances -- of nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon’s 2018 report also called for development of a wider range of lower-yield nuclear weapons that can be launched from submarines and ships.

That decision has sharply divided lawmakers on Capitol Hill, partly threatening to upend the annual defense policy bill in the U.S. House last year where Democrats sought unsuccessfully to ban the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. Navy has fielded the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead,” John Rood, the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, said in a statement on Tuesday which appeared to confirm an earlier report by The Federation of American Scientists. The FAS report said that an Ohio-class ballistic missile left Kings Bay, Georgia, for a strategic deterrent patrol at the end of 2019 carrying at least one W76-2 low-yield warhead on a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile.

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” Rood said. “And demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.”

The W76-2 may have a yield of less than 10 kilotons, according to a Congressional Research Service report published in January. By comparison, the “Little Boy” bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II yielded roughly 15 kilotons.

Supporters of the deployment of a low-yield warhead have argued that it would bolster deterrence by convincing Russia that the U.S. could respond with a proportional, limited attack, according to the CRS report.

At the same time, critics contend that the deployment of new low-yield weapons could increase the risk of nuclear war because their existence would make it easier for U.S. officials to consider the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, the report said.

“The deployment of this warhead does nothing to make Americans safer,” House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, calling the decision “misguided and dangerous.”

Nuclear Stockpile

The move won support from Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel.

“This deployment enhances U.S. deterrence and tells Russia that any attempt to use nuclear weapons as part of an ‘escalate to deescalate’ approach will not be successful,” Thornberry said in a statement.

The new weapon is a modified W-76 warhead, already in the U.S. stockpile. The U.S. currently has about 1,371 nuclear weapons, down from a peak of more than 12,000 during the Cold War, and under existing treaties could raise that level to 1,550.

“The idea that ‘low yield’ nuclear weapons bolster deterrence is based on the illusion of usability,” Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Obama administration, said on Twitter today. “But a decision to use nuclear weapons of any kind is the most existential decision any leader can make; none have since 1945. We need to keep it that way.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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