The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that has once again increased the salience of low yield theatre or the tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in the US military strategy will not only reverse the gains made in the post – Cold War period but is also likely to influence the nuclear choices of several other nuclear weapon states. The sudden urge to modernize nuclear inventory and visible US abhorrence towards major arms control treaties may encourage some of the nuclear aspirants to give up their nonproliferation obligations and join the nuclear club. A nuclear arms race may have already begun.
Amongst several of the challenges outlined in the US NPR, Russia emerges as the leading threat because of its military expansion and willingness to use TNWs against NATO forces, as part of its ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy. China is seen as a major competitor and a potential threat that could undermine US interests in the Pacific region. The North Korean nuclear program and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are the two other main challenges that the US intends dealing by tailoring its deterrence posture.
The draft US NPR recommends increase in the number of existing B-61 TNWs and replacing it with improved version of TNWs (B 61 -12) by 2021. Modification of the existing nuclear capable submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and development of new submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCM), equipped with low yield nuclear warheads have also been suggested, to enable quick deployment of US non-strategic nuclear capability in the troubled regions, including East Asia but this would allow the US to influence other ongoing regional rivalries such as the South Asia.
The US NPR is a significant departure from the earlier 2010 NPR that had recommended the reduction in the number of US non-strategic weapons from the NATO countries, since Russia was no longer seen as a major threat to NATO’s security after the end of the Cold War. This was also reflected in NATO’s Strategic Concept of 2010, following which the political leaders of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway, called for the removal of non-strategic weapons from Europe, but this move was opposed by some of the Baltic states and Poland, who felt vulnerable against Russia.
Renewed emphasis on TNWs is based on an assumption that the existing US strategic deterrence comprising of long-range ICBMs capability may not be sufficient to deter some of the regional challenges; therefore, deployment of low yield nuclear weapons could discourage the adversary from indulging in nuclear coercion of the US allies. This according to the US thinkers would help raise the nuclear threshold; but it may have the opposite impact with increased possibility of a limited nuclear war.
The recent NPR prepared by the US Department of Defense (DoD) is in contrast to Trump’s presidential statements, in which he had questioned the value of NATO and demanded that the alliance should contribute more towards their defence and pay for the US security guarantees. Instead, the US is now planning to spend $ 1.2 trillion over the next three decades to enhance security of NATO alliance. The renewed eagerness to fight a limited nuclear war in the European heartland may interest some of the younger NATO members who are threatened by the Russian presence in their neighbourhood but would create further strain amongst some of the older NATO states that have shown greater interest in the recent past to negotiate new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
The US desire to re-introduce low yield nuclear weapons in East Asia in the form of SLBMs and the SLCMs would make it difficult for its regional allies – South Korea and Japan to reconcile their moral and security delineations and convince their publics the need to fight a limited nuclear war on their own territories. This is also likely to anger China that considers East Asia as its legitimate zone of influence and the US presence in the region as a mean to contain its natural rise.
Amongst the other issues, the US NPR reiterates the commitment not to target states that are in compliance with their NPT related obligations, while keeping the option of using nuclear weapons against certain NPT signatories that the US considers are not in good standing. There remains some ambiguity about the non-NPT states, as the guarantee of non-use of nuclear weapons remains conditional to the NPT status only.
The draft NPR has also reversed priorities towards most arms control related issues. The US is likely to retain the option of nuclear testing and will not seek Senate ratification for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), thus rendering any hope of its early entry into force. The US will support the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), but without any commitment to honour its disarmament obligations under Article VI. The draft NPR is also critical of the recently concluded Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNWs) by terming it as unrealistic under the existing international environment. It may have also dashed any hopes for the revival of fissile material negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), since the US now plans to build more facilities to meet its expanded inventory requirements.
The NPR is likely to reignite the Cold War nuclear competition, but the new competition may not necessarily be dyadic in nature. It would most likely be multi-tiered with more nuclear powers working to strengthen their respective regional or global deterrence equations. Low yield weapons or the TNWs are likely to assume greater importance in nuclear inventories of all nuclear possessor states. If the US decides to test its new nuclear weapons; others might follow, as has been argued by some in India that this would offer an opportunity to validate its thermonuclear tests.
Notwithstanding the likely negative nuclear trajectory, other major powers, especially Russia and China could help fill the leadership vacuum created by the declining credibility of the US and provide the much needed stewardship; or else, they can entrap themselves in a never ending nuclear arms race.