So President Donald Trump wants a mini-nuke. At least that is what Politico’s Bryan Bender reports is under consideration in the government’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review, which may propose “smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less damage than traditional thermonuclear bombs — a move that would give military commanders more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely.”
This is hardly surprising. As I wrote in February, it was always clear that Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review “will be, like the 2002 version, a quick and dirty affair that is basically the same wish list as the unpublished December 2016 Defense Science Board study,” which emphasized low-yield nuclear weapons.
Nothing freaked out people more than the portion of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review that leaked to the press calling new “options for variable and reduced yields” one of a series of “desired capabilities” for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.The 2002 NPR, along with George W. Bush administration proposals for “new” nuclear warheads likes the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, met fierce resistance from a number of quarters including Republicans in Congress. When President Barack Obama took office, his NPR stated flatly that the United States would not develop “new” nuclear weapons, a term left undefined.
And nothing was more certain than that once Republicans were back in control there would be new proposals for low-yield nuclear weapons.
But here’s the weird thing: We already have low-yield nuclear weapons. And Obama was developing new ones, no matter what his pretty little Nuclear Posture Review said. The debate in the press isn’t really about tiny nuclear weapons; it is about tiny nuclear weapons in Trump’s tiny hands.
Yes, Virginia, the United States has low-yield nuclear weapons. The B61 family of gravity bombs and W80 cruise missile warheads both have a “variable yield” function that allows them to explode well below their full yield, presumably by just detonating the fission bomb at the heart of a thermonuclear weapon. The B61 Mod 10, for example, was a “dial-a-yield” device that could be set for a range of options from the full yield of 80 kilotons down to about 300 tons. Three hundred tons! The bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was more than 50 times larger.
The W80 has similar setting, with two yield options at five and 150 kilotons. According to Stephen Young at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the…