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New breed of weapons spark fears



THE US military wants to overhaul its atomic arsenal and develop a new type of low-yield weapon that experts worry could lead to greater proliferation and heighten the risk of nuclear war.

For decades, the world’s largest nuclear power has stated it would only threaten “first use” of nuclear weapons under very limited circumstances, such as the use of biological weapons against the US.

But the Trump administration wants to change the rules of engagement.

In a draft version of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, military officials have proposed a rethink of the country’s nuclear weapons program.

The new strategy calls for a continuation of the nuclear modernisation program ordered by former President Obama, but includes a call for the increased development of low-yield nuclear weapons.

These devices, also known as “tactical” nukes, are the smaller members of the atomic family but are still extremely powerful and can pack as much destructive punch as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

According to the document, the motivation to pursue a new breed of weapons is to bolster the deterrence factor and to counter adversaries’ “mistaken confidence”.

Policymakers worry that regular, large-yield weapons are essentially too big to ever be detonated, as their use would likely result in large-scale retaliation from an adversary and wipe too much of humanity off the map.



The Pentagon argues that by having more, smaller nukes it will counter adversaries’ “mistaken confidence” that the United States would not respond to another country using its own low-yield bomb.

“Expanding flexible US nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression,” the document states.

The proposed policy says the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration will develop a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile for deployment. Such a capability would ensure “a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defences”.

The document also states that the US should be prepared to use such nuclear weapons in a wider variety of circumstances such as any foreign attack on US soil which seeks to destroy wide-reaching infrastructure, like the country’s power grid or communications network.

Ostensibly, the weapons would be designed to curtail the threat of cyber and military attacks from countries such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China but experts warn that the smaller weapons could blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, and thus be more tempting to use.

“Almost everything about this radical new policy will blur the line between nuclear and conventional,” defence expert Andrew C. Weber told The New York Times.

According to the former assistant defence secretary during the Obama administration, if the policy is adopted, it “will make nuclear war a lot more likely”.

BARBARIANS AT THE GATE

In the document’s introduction, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued that today’s security environment is vastly more complex than in 2010 — the last time the Pentagon published a nuclear review.

“Global threat conditions have worsened markedly,” he said.

The draft document states that the US needs to realign its nuclear policy with a “realistic assessment” of the threats it now faces, including from North Korea, Russia and China.

“We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

In October, US media reported that Trump had told a gathering of high-ranking national security leaders that he wanted what amounted to an almost tenfold increase in the US nuclear arsenal — something the paper does not reiterate.

The US already has a massive stockpile and wide range of nuclear weapons and many experts have rubbished the idea the Pentagon needs more.

Speaking to The Huffington Post, which first published a leaked version of the draft report, a former senior adviser at the State Department and current senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Alexandra Bell, said the US already has plenty of so-called tactical nukes.

“We have 4000 nuclear weapons in our active stockpile, which is more than enough to destroy the world many times over,” he said.

“So I don’t think it makes a convincing case that we somehow lack capabilities. And, in fact, I don’t think you can make the case that this president needs any more capabilities.”

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington, warned that the review contains major steps backward from the goals of previous administrations to reduce the risk of nuclear war and prevent nuclear weapons spreading to additional nations.

The Pentagon has said the proposals remained “pre-decisional” and have been not approved by Trump.



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