WASHINGTON — Amid renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula between the U.S. and North Korea, and following a terrifying false alarm in Hawaii of an inbound missile, Pope Francis told reporters that the world was “at the very limit” of nuclear-armed catastrophe.
The Holy Father’s words Jan. 15 were girded by leaked reports of changes in the U.S. nuclear-weapons doctrine known as the “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR). A leaked copy of the doctrine, set to be formally adopted in February, showed President Donald Trump’s Department of Defense was advocating for the development of more “usable” battlefield nuclear weapons and using strategic nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear attacks, such as cyber and biological warfare, or whatever else threatens the U.S. and its allies’ “vital interests.”
The leaked draft shows the Trump administration wants to develop and deploy precision “low-yield” nuclear weapons that could be launched from submarines and target bunkers, armored formations or other military targets. The administration argued that the U.S. needs these weapons to deter the Russians from ever deploying them to gain a battlefield advantage.
The NPR draft leaked in January called efforts at reducing nuclear weapons part of a more “promising time,” but argued the U.S. needed to develop its tactical nuclear arsenal because “the world is more dangerous, not less.”
“Our goal is to convince adversaries that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons,” it stated.
The document has tailored strategies for deterring Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and non-nuclear actors supported by a state.
Ultimately, Congress will have to decide whether it will enable this expansion of nuclear arms in the Nuclear Posture Review by approving the request to increase nuclear deterrent spending to 7% of the Department of Defense budget.
Rebeccah Heinrichs, an authority in nuclear deterrence and counterproliferation and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the Register that her own sources have said the leaked copy will not be substantially different from the officially adopted policy.
She said the U.S. policy of deterrence, affirmed in the forthcoming document, has helped reduce global conflict and the spread of nuclear arms. By covering its allies with the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the U.S. has dissuaded its allies, such as Germany, South Korea or Japan, from seeking their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
The big challenge the U.S. faces, Heinrichs explained, is Russia’s increasing aggressive posture, particularly in Eastern Europe, combined with its decision to violate a number of arms-control treaties in modernizing their nuclear capabilities.
Heinrichs said the Nuclear Posture Review aims at forcing Russia to comply with the 1987 “Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces” (INF) treaty, which bans nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Both Russia and the U.S. have traded accusations that the other is developing missile capabilities in violation of the INF treaty.
Although the Trump administration’s NPR aims to develop more low-yield nuclear weapons, Heinrich said the point is to dissuade the Russians from thinking that deploying their own arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons for tactical advantage on the battlefield would not be met with a similar U.S. response. Russia has an “escalate to de-escalate” military doctrine, and military field exercises currently involve the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in battlefield scenarios involving “mystery country X.”
Heinrichs said the Russians may be hedging that the U.S. would not respond to a low-yield nuclear-weapon attack on military targets with the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, because it would be so disproportionate and involve massive civilian casualties. The Nuclear Posture Review warns the Russians that they may see a nuclear response that could discriminate between military and civilian targets. Because the aim is to dissuade the Russians from ever using a tactical nuclear weapon, Heinrichs said, “[The NPR] is not lowering the threshold — it’s raising it.”
“This report is trying to bolster our credibility,” she said.
Playing Nuclear Hardball
But others are concerned that the U.S. “rattling the nuclear sword” with a broader nuclear-use doctrine is making nuclear conflict more likely.
Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Register that the Nuclear Posture Review was “more aggressive” than its previous version in 2010.
The forthcoming document, he said, does have continuity with President Obama’s plan, which focused on modernizing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But in other regards, the forthcoming nuclear-deterrent doctrine “reverses course” on the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating the use of nuclear weapons.
“It’s a step in the direction of accepting that we’re moving in a direction when nuclear weapons will be used,” he said.
Kristensen said the U.S. seems intent on not adding to the stockpile of 1,550 warheads — down 85% from the height of the Cold War (roughly 1947-1991) — but rather wants to diversify the kinds of warheads in stock so they can be more usable.
The NPR explicitly mentions that the U.S. does not have a “no-first-use” doctrine like China, when it comes to firing nuclear weapons. It states the U.S. needs to be able to deter both nuclear and non-nuclear attacks, such as biological or cyberwarfare, in order to protect the “vital interests” of the nation and its allies.
Heinreichs stated that the U.S. could inadvertently incentivize a non-nuclear attack, such as chemical, biological or even cyber warfare, which could be similarly catastrophic in its effect, if it adopted a no-first-use policy.
However, Kristensen countered that cyber attacks, which can be grave and lethal in their own right, do not approach requiring the assured and lasting devastation of nuclear weapons.
According to Kristensen, the Nuclear Posture Review sends the message the U.S. will “play hardball” with potential adversaries. But Kristensen called it an “armchair strategy” that was not likely to incentivize the Russians to stop modernizing their nuclear capabilities or the North Koreans to give up their own strategic nuclear deterrent. He argued the past 70 years of nuclear-weapons history shows nations do not back away from acquiring nuclear weapons the more they feel threatened or vulnerable.
The real-world evidence for the Russian reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, Kristensen explained, is that Russia’s conventional forces cannot compete with the conventional forces possessed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Kristensen said a tit-for-tat “calibrated” nuclear approach would likely backfire catastrophically. There is no reason that a nuclear nation would calibrate its reaction to a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb detonating on its soil any differently than it would a 100-kiloton bomb.
“They’re not going to sit back and say, ‘Let’s measure the size of the mushroom cloud first,’” he said.
The Catholic Perspective
The new Nuclear Posture Review also strongly objects to the U.S. joining a United Nations global treaty banning nuclear weapons backed strongly by the Vatican.
In 1982, St. John Paul II told the U.S. that nuclear deterrent remained only morally acceptable as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.” The U.S. and Soviet Union seemed on the verge of an agreement in 1986 to eliminate their strategic nuclear arsenals until negotiations fell apart over the U.S. plan to develop a space-based missile defense shield.
And Pope Francis, in 2016, condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons, not just threatening their use, on the basis that the world is not moving toward nuclear disarmament, but proliferation.
Catholic just-war theory only allows states to defend themselves and others by use of arms as a true last resort to stop an unjust aggressor when every non-lethal means of restoring the peaceful and just order has been exhausted.
And the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, in war, “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” (2309).
Bradley Lewis, a professor of moral philosophy at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that Catholic moral teaching on nuclear weapons centers on the principle of “the wrongness of intentionally taking human life.”
Lewis said nuclear weapons fall under the Church’s teaching about the morality of decisions taken in warfare, or jus in bello. This includes principles of proportionality, and discrimination, in order to protect noncombatants.
Nuclear weapons fall into two different general types, Lewis noted. Tactical nuclear weapons generally (with some exceptions) have lower explosive yields and are used at “counterforce targets,” which consist of the opposition’s military forces, such as armored divisions or fleets, or other legitimate military targets.
Strategic nuclear weapons, which generally have high explosive yields, aim to destroy an adversary’s capacity for waging war, such as arms factories, air bases or naval shipyards, as well as command and control centers. But Lewis said strategic nuclear weapons as a deterrent have “countervalue targets,” meaning they are also aimed to destroy what countries value, such as civilian population centers, and leave high levels of radiation that would last well beyond the conflict. The U.S. strategic nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, for example, wiped out the Japanese military base there, but also inflicted widespread catastrophic civilian losses.
Lewis said the development of far less powerful and highly accurate low-yield nuclear weapons that could discriminate between military and civilian targets makes it conceivable in theory that they might have a place in the just-war scheme. But he doubted it would have a place in the real world, given the likelihood of escalation if such weapons are employed.
Once human beings cross the “nuclear stigma” that has been in place since Hiroshima and Nagaski in 1945, it makes it “more likely” that their leaders will use them to the point where nuclear conflict breaks out, contended Lewis.
He said, “Once that gets started, it is hard to control.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.