Trump Seeks New, Smaller, Nukes To Make Enemies Think He'd Actually Use Them

The Trump administration rolled out a new nuclear strategy on February 2, 2018 which focuses on the development of new, smaller nuclear weapons. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Trump administration rolled out a new nuclear weapons strategy on Friday, calling for a batch of smaller nuclear weapons in hopes that less-massive nukes will provide a greater deterrent because enemies might think the U.S. might actually use them.

Russia has a nuclear strategy that includes using smaller, or "tactical," nuclear weapons in the hopes that a small nuclear skirmish might not escalate into all-out nuclear war. The idea is that the U.S. wouldn't be willing to stomach the massive civilian casualties that go along with big bombs.

Pentagon officials said that the new smaller U.S. nuclear weapons would help deter the use of enemies' smaller nuclear weapons, helping avoid a nuclear exchange.

"One of the things is that we want to make sure that we maintain a flexible set of capabilities so that they do not come to the mistaken impression that there would be some ranges of situations where they might deploy nuclear weapons…in a way that we would feel that we would not have credible response options in order to preserve deterrence," Pentagon policy chief John Rood told reporters at a briefing on Friday.

The development of smaller nuclear weapons, and the options they create, has led some analysts to suggest that President Donald Trump would be more likely to start a small nuclear war. Trump has reportedly asked his foreign policy advisers why America does not use nuclear weapons.

"Some will say any additional capability, no matter how measured, increases the chances of using one of these weapons," Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said. "On the contrary, it is the exact opposite."

Shanahan was emphatic that the intent wasn't to make nuclear war, even a small nuclear war, more likely.

"The United States does not want to use nuclear weapons," he said.

The strategy focuses on shrinking the size of the warheads on some missiles fired by submarines, and adding a small nuclear warhead on some conventional cruise missiles. Cruise missiles gained fame during the first Iraq war because of their ability to strike from long distances with high levels of accuracy.

Both would be a repurposing of warheads, so that the military would have more types of weapons to use without increasing the overall U.S. stockpile, officials said.

But critics still took issue.

"The deeper problem is conceptual, and that's where the document is really flawed," Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told Newsweek. "These programs are technical solutions to what is an unsolvable political problem, which is that it will never be in the U.S. (interest) to use these weapons."

Lewis said that the new weapons and strategy won't change the overall security picture.

"It looks at the deteriorating international security situation and says that we need to place more emphasis on modernizing our nuclear forces and use them to deter all kinds of things," he said. "The problem is: why doesn't our existing and very large stockpile of more than 4,000 nuclear weapons already do that?"

A draft of the nuclear posture review was leaked in January, and the final version appeared to hew closely to the earlier draft.

The strategy replaces President Barack Obama's 2010 nuclear plan, reversing its plans to cut the types and numbers of nuclear weapons.

"The NPR (Nuclear Posture Review) places the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation at the top of the U.S. policy agenda, and describes how the United States will reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons," then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in a letter accompanying that plan.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev exchange the signed new START Treaty documents at Prague Castle in Prague on April 8, 2010. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Obama agreed to a deal with Russia in 2010, known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, that was designed to reduce the number of nuclear warheads held by both countries. Although tensions have been high between the U.S. and Russia over the invasion of Crimea and meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, both countries continue to comply with the agreement, which runs through 2021.

The 2010 plan killed one of the types of cruise missiles armed with nuclear tips in the U.S. arsenal. Making cruise missiles nuclear is a particularly controversial concept, because of the possibility that an enemy might confuse a normal cruise missile with a nuclear weapon, and immediately escalate to nuclear war.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has been one of the most outspoken critics of nuclear cruise missiles.

"Because they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants, cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon," Perry wrote in the Washington Post.