Week of February 7, 2020


The focus this week in Washington was the conclusion of the Trump impeachment trial and acquittal of the president.  This was capped off by the president’s State of the Union Speech made on Tuesday.

This week saw reports that the US Navy was fielding a new, low yield nuclear weapon on its ballistic missile submarines.  The Monitor analysis looks at the new nuclear weapon and the strategy behind it.

Think Tanks Activity Summary
(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)

The Heritage Foundation looks at Trump’s State of the Union Speech and his defense and foreign policy comments.  The Middle East was prominently featured in Trump’s State of the Union speech. The president noted that his administration had made a priority of “combating radical Islamic terrorism” and briefly described his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, which calls for the disarming of Hamas and other Islamic terrorists, as part of that effort. He spent much more time in recounting the progress his administration has made in defeating ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria. He noted the death of ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military operation last year and received one of the longest standing ovations of the night.  Trump ended the Middle East portion of his speech by drawing a distinction between Iran’s long-suffering people and Iran’s oppressive regime. He called on Tehran to end its nuclear weapon ambitions and support for terrorism, while stressing that he remains open to a diplomatic resolution of these issues

The CSIS looks at America’s failure to plan Navy force levels.  They conclude, “Because of the reduced budget, it cannot do what it had done for the last several years of budget growth: expand the fleet while still investing in new technologies. Because of the 355-ship force goal, it cannot cut the size of the fleet to fund new initiatives. Because of the fixed counting methodology, it cannot claim to meet the 355-ship goal by including ships that were previously uncounted. It may be that some combination of delay in meeting the 355-ship goal, small changes to the counting methodology, smaller and more affordable ships, and a bit more shipbuilding money will provide a solution, but getting all parties to agree will be hard.”

The American Foreign Policy Council says Washington needs to anticipate Iran’s next move.  They conclude, “Looking ahead, the question is whether the regime, facing rising domestic discontent and surely worried about its grip on power, will seek to rally public support by again targeting U.S. interests — especially in the aftermath of elections that will likely usher in a more conservative body. We shouldn’t be surprised to see Tehran flex its muscles by increasing its support for terrorist and militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and — in light of President Trump’s efforts to craft an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — in the Gaza Strip as well. Nor should we be surprised to see more direct Iranian regional action of the kind that we’ve witnessed in recent months, such as another attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman or another strike at Saudi oil facilities…Presuming that Washington will continue to tighten the screws on Iran economically, the coming months could prove more dangerous, not less. One hopes that Washington is preparing for all the possibilities.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Trump peace plan and the issues of Jerusalem and borders.  They conclude, “The Trump plan’s parameters on borders and Jerusalem suggest that the administration has moved the U.S. position sharply in the direction of Israel’s current government. In the most hopeful scenario, the combination of a tough new U.S. approach and the initial openness of Arab states to consider the plan as a point of departure could jolt the Palestinians to decide that time is not on their side, perhaps leading the parties to resume talks and find suitable compromises. In a less hopeful scenario, Palestinian anger toward the plan proves too strong to dispel, and unilateral Israeli annexations in the West Bank produce broad international opposition to the plan, essentially ending any near-term prospects of negotiations or a two-state solution. Abbas seemed isolated in the region prior to the plan’s release, but the February 1 Arab League meeting in Cairo and the February 3 Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Jeddah may have changed that somewhat. Going forward, he may be able to paint the administration’s shift on core issues as American overreach, and silence Arab critics who are fatigued by the longstanding paralysis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at the Trump Peace Plan.  They conclude, “Getting the buy-in of these key Arab states is important for the Trump administration’s “outside-in” strategy, which seeks to enlist support from Arab states that already have made peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan) as well as Arab Gulf oil states that fear Iran more than Israel (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait).  It is not clear how hard Arab leaders will pressure Palestinian leaders to accept the plan. Realistically, the plan is unlikely to advance peace talks unless the Palestinians engage on it, and that is not likely. It takes two to tango, but Palestinian leaders have refused multiple American invitations to attend the dance. The Trump peace plan is therefore unlikely to jumpstart the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.  But even if it produces no immediate results, Trump’s initiative will serve as a marker that could encourage Palestinian leaders to take a more realistic approach to negotiations in the future and improve the long-term prospects for peace.”

The CSIS looks at Erdogan’s policy in Libya.  They note, “The international situation Erdogan finds himself in is different to that which prevailed at the time of his third military intervention in northern Syria in October. He was then able to obtain not only the implicit assent of both the United States and Russia prior to the operation but also their subsequent diplomatic acceptance through separate ceasefire agreements. This time Erdogan has not been able to get the understanding he may have expected from either Putin, with whom he discussed the Libyan situation in bilateral meetings in Istanbul, Moscow, and Berlin, or President Donald Trump.”



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.




What you need to know about Trump’s policy proposals

Heritage Foundation

February 5, 2020

The president declared that “our military is completely rebuilt.”  The last three years have indeed been good for the U.S. military, and much of the lost readiness that had dwindled over the years has been restored. Army readiness, for example, is up 55%.  But despite favorable budgets, the military is not yet fully rebuilt. Years of budget cuts and years of over-use have strained the military, postponed necessary equipment refresh, and caused the military to shrink in size. While there are unmistakable signs of progress, there is still work to be done to fully restore the military. Additional investment and attention will still be needed. As noted by the president, the creation of the Space Force is a true step forward for the United States. It will allow our country to better focus its efforts in this critical domain.

Read more at:



Palestinians Miss Opportunity by Rejecting Trump Peace

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

Jan 31, 2020


President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday at a White House ceremony attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump declared that the plan “presents a ‘win-win’ opportunity for both sides, a realistic two-state solution that resolves the risk of Palestinian statehood to Israel’s security.” Netanyahu enthusiastically embraced Trump’s vision, proclaiming, “It’s a great plan for Israel. It’s a great plan for peace.” He then lauded Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”  Indeed, Trump’s vision for peace is the most pro-Israeli peace initiative ever promoted by the United States. It accords a high priority to Israeli security needs, recognizes Israel’s vital interest in retaining control of the border with Jordan, and clears the way for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over many settlements and Jewish holy sites in the disputed territory of the West Bank. Trump’s vision also includes important benefits for Palestinians, who were offered the opportunity to build a state of their own, supported by a $50 billion regional development plan for the Palestinian territories and nearby Arab states.

Read more at:



The Spectacular & Public Collapse of Navy Force Planning

By Mark F. Cancian and Adam Saxton

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 30, 2020


Planning for a 21st century Navy of unmanned vessels, distributed operations, and great power competition has collapsed. Trapped by a 355-ship force goal, a reduced budget, and a fixed counting methodology, the Navy can’t find a feasible solution to the difficult question of how its forces should be structured. As a result, the Navy postponed announcement of its new force structure assessment (FSA) from January to “the spring.” That means the navy will not be able to influence the 2021 budget year much, forfeiting a major opportunity to reshape the fleet and bring it in line with the national defense strategy.

Read more at:



Erdogan’s Libyan Gambit

By Bulent Aliriza

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 24, 2020


After having focused for most of the last quarter of 2019 on northeastern Syria and his declared security imperative of pushing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from the Turkish border, a goal he partially achieved through a military operation launched on October 9, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to Libya. Accordingly, parallel to the worsening of the long-running Libyan civil war, Erdogan has raised the level of Turkish diplomatic and military involvement on the side of the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli headed by Fayez Sarraj against the growing challenge of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar. Erdogan’s decision to insert Turkey more forcefully into the complex Libyan crisis is the product of a number of factors, each of them important from his perspective. To begin with, it fits into Erdogan’s proactive foreign policy, which seeks to establish and expand Turkey’s role in its region, especially in countries with which Turkey enjoys historical, cultural, or religious links, while raising Turkey’s overall international profile.

Read more at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/erdogans-libyan-gambit


Washington needs to anticipate Iran’s next provocation

By Lawrence J. Haas

American Foreign Policy Council

January 30, 2020


Signs are mounting that in Tehran, which faces rising pressures at home and abroad, the country’s powerful hardline conservatives are circling the wagons, raising the odds of still more Iranian global provocations. The question is whether Washington — which continues to tighten the economic screws on Tehran — is ready for what might come next. In the latest conservative effort to solidify power, the country’s Guardian Council recently barred 9,500 prospective candidates (almost two-thirds of the 14,500 prospective candidates) in next month’s parliamentary elections, from running. The 12-member Guardian Council — an unelected body that includes six designees of the nation’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — routinely bars hundreds if not thousands of would-be candidates from elections because they’re not conservative enough or committed enough to the regime’s revolutionary goals. This time, however, the barred candidates include nearly a third of the current parliament. The signal was clear. The Council not only wants to prevent new reformist candidates from winning office; it also wants to purge the parliament of members it considers too moderate.

Read more at:



Continuity vs. Overreach in the Trump Peace Plan (Part 1): Borders and Jerusalem

By David Makovsky

Washington Institute

February 4, 2020



The newly released U.S. peace plan marks a very significant shift in favor of the current Israeli government’s view, especially when compared to three past U.S. initiatives: (1) the Clinton Parameters of December 2000, (2) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “Annapolis Process” of 2007-2008, and (3) Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013-2014 initiative. The message is clear: the Trump administration will no longer keep sweetening the deal with every Palestinian refusal, a criticism some have aimed at previous U.S. efforts. Yet the new plan raises worrisome questions of its own. Will its provisions prove so disadvantageous to the proposed Palestinian state that they cannot serve as the basis for further negotiations? And would such overreach enable Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to sway Arab states who have signaled that they want to give the proposal a chance, convincing them to oppose it instead? If so, the plan may wind up perpetuating the current diplomatic impasse and setting the stage for a one-state reality that runs counter to Israel’s identity as a Jewish, democratic state. This two-part PolicyWatch will address these questions by examining how the Trump plan compares to past U.S. initiatives when it comes to the conflict’s five core final-status issues. Part 1 focuses on two of these issues: borders and Jerusalem.

Read more at: