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Pentagon Adding New Nuclear Capabilities, Keeping Nuclear Triad to Deter Attacks


Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, speaks next to Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, during a news conference on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon, Feb. 2, 2018.

The Pentagon has released its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, adding nuclear capabilities and updating the United States’ current arsenal in order to deter nuclear attacks.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that our diplomats and our negotiators are in a position to be listened to when we say we want to go forward on nonproliferation and arms control,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters ahead of the review’s release Friday. “You have to do that when you're in a position of persuasion, not of hoping.”

U.S. President Donald Trump said he ordered Mattis to conduct the Nuclear Posture Review within days of taking office last year.

In a statement Friday, Trump noted “successive United States administrations deferred much-needed modernization of our nuclear weapons, infrastructure and delivery systems” while other nuclear nations “grew their stockpiles.”

Trump said the 2018 NPR addresses those challenges.

Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks about the National Defense Review, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington.
Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks about the National Defense Review, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington.

The 2018 Nuclear Poster Review released Friday notes the U.S. military will use “tailored deterrence” to prevent aggression and attacks across a spectrum of adversaries.

The Pentagon is adding low-yield, or less powerful, nuclear weapons to its submarine-launched cruise missile arsenal, and it will also bring back the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

Officials say the addition of low-yield weapons will counter Russia’s perceived belief that it could use its own low-yield weapons against the United States in a limited “first-use” basis that would provide an advantage to Moscow in a low-level conflict without causing U.S. nuclear retaliation.

“Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative,” according to the review.

Revamping the U.S. ‘nuclear triad’

The United States’ so-called nuclear triad — the military’s ability to launch and defend nuclear attacks with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles — will remain critical to its nuclear deterrence strategy.

The U.S. has begun to replace aging components in each part of the triad: the Ohio-class nuclear submarine is being replaced by Columbia-class nuclear submarines, land-based Minuteman III missiles will start being replaced in 2029 and a new B-21 Raider bomber jet will start replacing old bombers in the mid-2020s, according to the review.

All of these additions and advancements will slowly raise the cost of nuclear deterrence from 2.7 percent of the Defense Department’s budget today to 6.4 percent of the department’s budget in 2029.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters Friday that the changes provide a “deterrent that is modern and credible.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the NPR will allow the U.S. to remain “flexible and well-prepared for the unique threats we face today. We want to see a world that is free of nuclear weapons, but our nuclear policy needs to be rooted in the reality of the world we live in, where aggressive regimes like North Korea threaten us and our allies with their pursuit of illegal nuclear and ballistic weapons.”

When to use nuclear weapons

In recent years, the United States has reduced its number of nuclear weapons as others, such as Russia and China, have added new nuclear capabilities.

North Korea has continued to pursue nuclear weapons development, and Iran retains much of the capacity needed to develop a nuclear weapon within a year of deciding to do so, according to the review.

The review clarifies the U.S. will use nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances,” but those circumstances could include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.”

Shanahan argued the clarification was "stabilizing" because he said having a nuclear response option to extreme non-nuclear attacks "lowers the risk of nuclear use by anyone."

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, speaks during a news conference on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, at the Pentagon, Feb. 2, 2018.
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, speaks during a news conference on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, at the Pentagon, Feb. 2, 2018.

When asked to provide examples of non-nuclear attacks that the United States considered significant enough to garner a nuclear response, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood declined to respond, saying that the United States needed “to maintain some ambiguity” in order to “reinforce deterrence.”

Mattis told reporters the United States should not put all of its focus into defending attacks because it also needs better offensive options that match other countries’ nuclear abilities.

“No football team only plays defense,” Mattis said. “In a competitive situation, you also have to hold at risk, in this case, what North Korea holds dear, to remind them, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t attack us.' "

ICAN: ‘There are no good nukes’

In a statement Friday, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said the Trump nuclear doctrine “deliberately increases” the risk of nuclear weapons use by taking such weapons “out of the silos and onto the battlefield.”

“There are no good nukes and no such thing as a limited nuclear war. That is a myth the nuclear powers want you to believe. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was ‘low-yield,’ ” the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nongovernmental organization said.

"That's why the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons bans all nuclear weapons, and the threatening of their use. Only that solution will do."

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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