Current tensions with Iran, and President Donald Trump’s impulsive decision-making in a very volatile environment, create an increased risk of actual use of nuclear weapons that should be sobering to all Americans. The U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Feb. 5 that the Navy has deployed a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead. Bill Arkin and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists first disclosed the deployment a week before that.
“The administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 warhead remains a misguided and dangerous one,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, adding, “The deployment of this warhead does nothing to make Americans safer.”
This low-yield warhead gives the United States a weapon its advocates say is more “usable,” and thus more effective as a deterrent. The U.S. National Security Strategy now describes a role for nuclear weapons against “non-nuclear strategic attacks and large-scale conventional aggression,” explicitly saying that the W-76-2 is intended to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks.”
It is this new posturing for the low-yield Trident warhead that makes the potential for use of nuclear weapons much more likely. Though articulated as a counter to Russia, government officials today agree that this new warhead was all along intended to fill a niche of providing a weapon to counter imminent North Korea or Iranian attacks. Given the recent precedent-breaking strike against Iranian top military commander Qassem Soleimani, this should sound alarms.
As U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., rightly pointed out, “There is no such thing as a low-yield nuclear war.”
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein made a similar point in a 2017 Washington Post Op-Ed. Any nuclear war would result in one of the worst human catastrophes imaginable.
That’s why our organization, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, joined dozens of organizations in opposing funding for deployment of the low-yield W76-2 Trident warhead in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Chairman Smith led a concerted effort on the House side to defeat multiple attempts to fund the weapon. Unfortunately, the Senate’s version of the NDAA, which included funding for deployment of the warhead, ultimately prevailed.
To an adversary, a submarine-launched missile with a low-yield nuclear warhead would likely be completely indistinguishable on radar from missiles armed with high-yield bombs. Therefore, an adversary may respond to such a launch with a full attack, immediately escalating the conflict to full nuclear war. This dramatically increases the chance of a nuclear exchange due to miscalculation or human error. (We’ve narrowly avoided such conflicts before, perhaps most famously on Sept. 26, 1983, when Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov made a split-second decision not to trigger a nuclear war with the United States when he deemed a supposed incoming ballistic missile alert to be an error.)
The term “low-yield” is also misleading and could at some future date mislead a commander-in-chief. At 6.5 kilotons, these low-yield warheads are 591 times more powerful than the largest conventional weapon the United States has ever used, the GBU-43/B “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” (MOAB) bomb and 2,600 times more powerful than the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb. The W76-2 “low-yield” nuclear weapon can have up to 43% of the yield of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945. According to the Columbia University Center for Nuclear Studies, that bomb killed between 90,000 and 166,000 people.
Deploying this weapon was a serious mistake, increasing the likelihood of a catastrophic nuclear war. With a motto of “prevention is the only cure,” and recognizing there is no relevant medical “treatment” for the human carnage from nuclear war, Physicians for Social Responsibility urges all nine nuclear-armed countries to negotiate an agreement for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Here in Washington state, we can push for that change by passing SJM 8006/HJM 4008, “Requesting that Congress establish more checks and balances to reduce the possibility of nuclear war.”