There’s no such thing as ‘lim­ited’ nu­clear war

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DIANNE FE­IN­STEIN The writer, a Demo­crat, rep­re­sents Cal­i­for­nia in the Se­nate.

Last month, it was re­vealed that a Pen­tagon ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee au­thored a re­port call­ing for the United States to in­vest in new nu­clear weapons and con­sider re­sum­ing nu­clear test­ing. The re­port even sug­gested re­search­ing lesspow­er­ful nu­clear weapons that could be de­ployed with­out re­sort­ing to full-scale nu­clear war. This is ter­ri­fy­ing and de­serves a swift, full-throated re­buke.

The re­port comes from the De­fense Science Board, a com­mit­tee made up of civil­ian ex­perts. The board rec­om­mended “a more flex­i­ble nu­clear en­ter­prise that could pro­duce, if needed, a rapid, tai­lored nu­clear op­tion for lim­ited use.”

Let me be crys­tal clear: There is no such thing as “lim­ited use” nu­clear weapons, and for a Pen­tagon ad­vi­sory board to pro­mote their de­vel­op­ment is ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able. This is even more prob­lem­atic given Pres­i­dent Trump’s com­ments in sup­port of a nu­clear arms race.

As Deputy De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Work tes­ti­fied in 2015, “Any­one who thinks they can con­trol es­ca­la­tion through the use of nu­clear weapons is lit­er­ally play­ing with fire. Es­ca­la­tion is es­ca­la­tion, and nu­clear use would be the ul­ti­mate es­ca­la­tion.”

Nu­clear weapons present us with a para­dox: We spend bil­lions of dol­lars build­ing and main­tain­ing them in the hope that we never have to use them. The sole pur­pose of nu­clear weapons must be to de­ter their use by oth­ers. De­sign­ing new low-yield nu­clear weapons for lim­ited strikes dan­ger­ously low­ers the thresh­old for their use. Such a rec­om­men­da­tion un­der­mines the sta­bil­ity cre­ated by de­ter­rence, thereby in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of spark­ing an un­winnable nu­clear war.

Congress has stopped th­ese reck­less ef­forts in the past. Dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, at­tempts to build a new nu­clear “bunker buster” weapon were halted thanks to the lead­er­ship of then-Rep. David Hob­son (R-Ohio).

To­day, pro­po­nents of build­ing new lowyield nu­clear weapons claim that our nu­clear ar­se­nal is some­how in­suf­fi­cient to meet evolv­ing threats around the globe. That is sim­ply not true.

First, we al­ready have low-yield weapons: One such bomb, the B61 grav­ity bomb, is cur­rently be­ing mod­ern­ized at an es­ti­mated cost of as much as $10 bil­lion. Sec­ond, our ex­ist­ing ar­se­nal of de­ployed strate­gic weapons is more than ad­e­quate to de­ter ag­gres­sion against us and our al­lies.

Our nu­clear ar­se­nal con­sists of ap­prox­i­mately 4,000 stock­piled war­heads, enough to de­stroy the world sev­eral times over. That’s roughly the same num­ber of war­heads as Rus­sia and al­most four times more than all other coun­tries com­bined.

We cur­rently have two war­heads in re­serve for ev­ery war­head de­ployed, a “hedge” of 2 to 1. As we mod­ern­ize our stock­pile, we should strive to re­duce both hedge and de­ployed war­heads. In fact, a 2013 re­port by the De­fense Depart­ment stated that our de­ployed ar­se­nal could be fur­ther re­duced by one-third while main­tain­ing de­ter­rence.

The De­fense Science Board also sug­gested we should con­sider re­sum­ing nu­clear test­ing to have con­fi­dence in our nu­clear de­ter­rent. That is also a wrong­headed po­si­tion.

The En­ergy Depart­ment has en­sured the safety, se­cu­rity and reli­a­bil­ity of the nu­clear stock­pile for decades with­out con­duct­ing nu­clear tests. The depart­ment’s work has taught us more about our stock­pile than we could ever learn from re­ly­ing pri­mar­ily on ex­plo­sive test­ing. In fact, the Na­tional Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­ported that the coun­try is in a bet­ter po­si­tion to main­tain the nu­clear ar­se­nal than it was be­fore the test­ing ban went into ef­fect more than 20 years ago.

Re­sum­ing nu­clear test­ing would only en­cour­age oth­ers to fol­low suit. The world is made far less safe if other na­tions be­gin test­ing and con­tinue to pur­sue new nu­clear weapons and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. In­stead of fol­low­ing the panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions, the Pen­tagon should fol­low its own 2013 guid­ance and fur­ther re­duce our nu­clear ar­se­nal in con­cert with other na­tions.

To start, we can lead the way by work­ing with Rus­sia to de­velop a global ban on nu­cle­artipped cruise mis­siles. Th­ese weapons are par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous be­cause they can be mis­taken for con­ven­tional cruise mis­siles, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of an ac­ci­den­tal nu­clear ex­change.

When it comes to nu­clear weapons, vic­tory is not mea­sured by who has the most war­heads, but by how long we last be­fore some­one uses one. This lat­est pro­posal may lower the thresh­old for us­ing nu­clear weapons, and the sec­re­tary of de­fense would be wise to re­ject it.


A U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber and other air­craft fly over Osan Air Base in Pyeong­taek, South Korea, last year.

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