National Security

The Re-Emerging Threat of Nuclear Weapons

May 24, 2018  • Matthew Miller

In anticipation of the 2018 Aspen Security Forum, we will be publishing a series of explainers on topics that will be discussed at this year’s event. Visit the Forum’s website for agenda updates and more.

On February 5, the Trump Administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review was released both as an effort at modernization of the ‘nuclear triad’ and the introduction of new weapons systems. On March 1, during the Russian State-of-the-Nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with the unveiling of what he referred to as “invincible” nuclear weapons programs. These new nuclear capabilities are purportedly capable of defeating, or usurping, missile defense systems worldwide. The early months of 2018 beg the question of whether the United States and Russia are in a new era of a nuclear arms race, or, and possibly more concerning, a new nuclear era. Are weapons such as hypersonic systems, 100-megaton nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear powered and armed cruise missiles, indicative of a new generation of nuclear warfare altogether?

Although no US Nuclear Posture Review is without controversy, one aspect the Trump Administration’s draft called for was the development of “low yield” or variable yield nuclear weapons, ostensibly for the tactical battlefield. The argument for these variable yield warheads is the Russian doctrine of ‘escalate-to-deescalate’ on a conventional battlefield. This idea revolves around Russia’s willingness to use ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapon in a conventional support role to force the West to negotiate or withdrawal from a conflict, lest risk nuclear war. The controversy over this argument emerged over the lack of a formal ‘escalate-to-deescalate’ strategy in the Russian military doctrine. In a world where the idea of mutually-assured-destruction has been credited with keeping the peace for 70 years, is it time for the nuclear tacticians to return to the drawing board to build new strategies around the use of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons? Or better yet, can the great powers afford not to?

There have been significant changes in both geopolitics and technology since the US Nuclear Posture Review in 2010. New capabilities in the cyber-domain that were unimagined during the arms race of the Cold War, such as the internet-of-things, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, now pose future risk to nuclear arsenals. With the US and Russia announcing new and more diffuse applications of nuclear weapons, will these new nuclear cruise missiles and underwater drones be more vulnerable to accidental use, or fall vulnerable to cyber-predators? Even more disconcerting are the nuclear powers that have not joined the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Would new nuclear weapons of a ‘great powers’ arms race proliferate to non-signatory countries and would they offer greater incentive for use? Could these governments secure these weapons from cyber-predators?

From ‘great power’ competition to a potential new era of proliferation and nuclear security, the re-emergence of the threat of nuclear weapons is back, and it is more geopolitically complicated and technologically sophisticated than ever.

Matthew Miller is the InfraGard National VP for Special Projects.

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