Due to Russian cheating on the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiative, the U.S. retains only about 180 aged tactical nuclear gravity bombs bunkered in Germany and Turkey.
Gone are virtually all 15,000 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, dismantled more or less unilaterally.
Today, Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons is overwhelming, outnumbering the U.S. by at least 10-to-1, and perhaps much more. (While most U.S. analysts assume Russia has 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, others estimate 7,000 or more, giving Russia an advantage of 35-to-1.)
The U.S., to address this crisis, plans deploying the W76-2 tactical nuclear warhead on Ohio and future Columbia ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
The Heritage Foundation’s Michaela Dodge, in her excellent report "New START and the Future of U.S. Nuclear Strategy," notes the very grave implication of using the W76-2 to convert SSBNs into a tactical nuclear weapons platform:
"To understand the seriousness of the issue, one must realize that uploading a low-yield warhead on a Trident II D5 SLBM means that the United States is not able to use these particular missiles for its higher-yield nuclear warheads, thus trading off part of its strategic nuclear weapons capability for tactical nuclear weapons. Yet, the Trump administration judged the developments in Russia’s doctrine to be so serious that it was willing to make that trade."
Currently, U.S. Ohio-class SSBNs each carry 20 missiles (reduced from 24 missiles), with a mix of high-yield strategic warheads, some missiles armed with the W76-1 warhead (100 kilotons) and some with the W88 warhead (475 kilotons).
Their yield/accuracy combinations can hold at risk hundreds of adversary highest-value targets, including hardened underground bunkers, military bases, and industrial targets.
The capability of U.S. SSBNs to threaten adversary highest-value targets deters nuclear war.
In the event of nuclear conflict, our high-yield W-76-1 and W88 warheads would deter attack against U.S. highest-value targets — including U.S. cities and 330 million American lives.
The W76-2 tactical nuclear weapon is just the primary of the W-76-1, reducing its yield by 95% from 100 kilotons to 5 kilotons. W76-2 also thereby continues the extremely unwise U.S. unilateral moratorium on developing new design, advanced nuclear weapons.
The W76-2 is an act of desperation, dangerous to U.S. national security:
Every W76-2 that replaces high-yield W76-1 and W88 warheads reduces U.S. capability to threaten adversary highest-value targets and puts at greater risk U.S. highest-value targets, including U.S. cities.
Launching a tactical nuclear weapon like the W76-2 from a ballistic missile submarine runs very high risk the adversary will assume the worst, that he is under attack by a high-yield W76-1 or W88, and escalate to a massive preemptive strategic strike against the United States.
On Jan. 25, 1995, Russia nearly did exactly this when Moscow mistakenly thought a Norwegian meteorological rocket was an incoming U.S. submarine missile performing an EMP attack (see my book "War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink").
W76-2 tactical effectiveness, given its ballistic trajectory, accuracy, and time-on-target (launched from an SSBN perhaps thousands of kilometers away) is dubious. Unlike Russian advanced tactical nuclear weapons having adjustable yields that are "clean" making little or no radioactive fallout, W76-2’s yield is not adjustable to the tactical situation and being plutonium is very "dirty."
Presidents and especially NATO allies may be loath to explode over Europe even one W76-2, 5-kilotons of radioactive fallout, enough to irradiate the territories of smaller NATO European states. Every W76-2 used would be a self-inflicted Chernobyl, and for that reason may prove unuseable.
Most importantly, the W76-2 tactical nuclear mission threatens the far more important strategic mission of SSBNs by risking submarine destruction. The most plausible scenarios entail launching only one or a few W76-2s early in a conflict—giving enemies a golden opportunity to locate and destroy our submarines.
The late great James Schlesinger (former defense secretary under two U.S. presidents, CIA director, and one of our nation’s most profound strategic thinkers) once warned, "As soon as you fire, you expose the boat."
The W76-2 is attributed to the Trump administration because it appeared in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review. But I wonder if this bad idea originated in the Obama administration and is advancing through Obama-holdovers in the Pentagon?
The Obama administration’s policy was to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear forces, hoping eventually to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons."
They surely noticed Britain’s adoption of a tactical nuclear mission for their Vanguard ballistic missile submarines contributed, by accident or design, to Obama’s anti-nuclear agenda.
Britain’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review began the U.K. on a slippery slope toward unilateral nuclear deep reductions in U.K. warheads from 560 to 120-160.
Consolidating tactical and strategic nuclear missions on Britain’s SSBNs provided a rationale to eliminate nuclear-armed aircraft and turn the UK’s nuclear deterrent into an SSBN monad. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, advised by such international anti-nuclear groups as Ploughshares, has proposed eliminating U.S. strategic nuclear bombers and ICBMs, and relying on an SSBN monad reduced to 6 boats.
The U.S. needs advanced new generation tactical nuclear weapons, like Russia has, not the W76-2.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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