America Fields New
Low-Yield Nuclear Weapon
It was announced this week that the US has fielded a new nuclear weapon on its ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBM). The warhead, model W76-2, is a low yield weapon that has been wedded to the Trident missile and according to reports is currently on the USS Tennessee (SSBN 734), which is on patrol in the Atlantic.
According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, only one or two of the 20 missiles on the submarine are tipped with the new weapon. They reportedly have a yield of about five kilotons – about one third of the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. The other missiles onboard either have the 90 kiloton W76-1 or 455 kiloton W88. Each missile can carry up to 8 warheads.
The more powerful W88 is designed to target hardened underground command facilities, while the W76-1 is the nuclear weapon for other targets.
Despite the controversy of building the new warhead, the Rational presented by proponents is that America’s nuclear arsenal was due for a modernization. Nuclear weapons contain radioactive elements, and these degrade over the years – especially the tritium, which has a half-life of about 11 years. That meant the nuclear weapons were aging and had to be modernized if they were expected to be reliable.
This was what happened with the W76 class of warheads, which received congressional approval for modernization late in the Clinton Administration. The production of the W76-1 started in 2008 and extended the life of the warheads by 20 years.
The W76-2 warhead design was added to the W76-1 production, since the design was similar. Some speculate that the only major difference is that the new design doesn’t have the secondary fusion package that provides much of the yield.
Many critics claim the new low yield weapon increases the chances of a nuclear exchange. They also claim that there is already an assortment of low yield nuclear weapons that are already fielded on cruise missiles, air launched missiles and gravity bombs.
Critics also note that the Russian detection of a submarine launched ballistic missile could cause a catastrophic misunderstanding. The Russian high command wouldn’t know if the missile contained a low yield warhead, or one of the larger, more destructive warheads. As a result, Russia might very well launch a major counterattack.
Despite the criticism of the low yield weapon, the history of nuclear weapon development over the past 60 years is the development of smaller, more accurate weapons. Since the 1950s, the nuclear powers have gone from the development of 100 megaton bombs to neutron bombs that have the explosive yield of as little as one kiloton.
As missiles became more accurate, it made sense to develop smaller, lighter warheads that destroyed the target, without damaging and contaminating the surrounding area. Arguably, it made the idea of a nuclear exchange more likely because the potential damage was less.
On the other hand, a nuclear exchange that caused less damage to civilian areas is not a bad idea.
What worried American strategists was that the physics of small yield nuclear weapons was known to the Russians and Chinese and it was quite likely that they had already fielded them. This left the US in a quandary. If Russia used a low yield nuclear weapon in a conflict, what would be the US response if they didn’t have a low yield option? Either the US escalated the war by using its more powerful ballistic missiles, tried to penetrate Russian airspace with the more vulnerable nuclear tipped cruise missiles or air launched missile, or responded with less powerful conventional weapons.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review saw a need for a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable gap in US regional deterrence capabilities.”
Nuclear strategists argued that Russia had developed a “escalate to deescalate” or “escalate to win” strategy, where they could use tactical nuclear weapons if a conventional attack stalled. The thinking was that the US wouldn’t respond to a tactical nuclear attack with the more devastating strategic nuclear weapons.
In fact, this was a strategy that had been “war gamed” by the Russians when looking at conflict scenarios in Europe.
What was needed was a “prompt” and usable nuclear capability that could counter and deter Russian use of tactical nuclear capabilities.
Unlike gravity bombs, air launched missiles or cruise missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles were harder to intercept and could be launched at Russian targets in minutes, which was a faster response than what it would take for cruise missiles, air launched missiles, or gravity bombs to hit their target. Ballistic missiles would also be more likely to penetrate Russia’s new air defense systems.
Although much of the strategy rests on retaliating against Russia, these weapons also have a use against other nuclear powers like China, North Korea, and potentially nuclear Iran.
It is perceived that American war planners have explored options against Iranian and North Korean missile sites, these are known to the US and they aren’t as “hardened” against attack as Russian missiles are. Advocates of these weapons asserts that it could be used without the collateral damage that larger nuclear weapons would cause. And, since they have a lower yield, they are more likely to be used and sometimes as a preemptive strike.
Another concern is the Israeli nuclear strategy. Since the science of low yield nuclear weapons is well known, it is very likely that Israel has developed them too. And, since the Middle East is a relatively smaller theater of war than Europe, the idea of low yield nuclear weapons is much more attractive.
What’s important to remember is that the evolution of smaller yield nuclear weapons has been going on for over 60 years. And, there is little likelihood that it will stop soon. The nuclear powers are already working on 4th generation nuclear weapons that are smaller, lighter, and less powerful than anything that has been fielded yet. Scientists are already designing thermonuclear devices the size of an egg, with the explosive yield of a few tons of high explosives.
Given these advances, one must assume that there will come a time when nuclear explosives become a likely choice for war.
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