Is Trump taking us closer to nuclear war?

By Carol Turner, London CND.

The Winter Olympics initiative by South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brought an easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and a temporary let-up in the nuclear confrontation between the US and North Korea which dominated 2017. Does this mean Trump is stepping back from threatening nuclear war? Not according to the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review Report published on 2 February.

A draft leaked by the Huffington Post in January prepared the way for shifts in US nuclear policy. They are confirmed by the official report and crucially include:

  • Expanding the conditions under which the United States is prepared to launch a nuclear war.

The report says: ‘For effective deterrence, the United States will acquire and maintain the full range of capabilities needed to ensure that nuclear or non-nuclear aggression against the United States, allies, and partners will fail to achieve its objectives and carry with it the credible risk of intolerable consequences for the adversary.’

  • Making the development of new generation nuclear weapons easier

The report says: ‘There is no “one size fits all” for deterrence… the United States will apply a tailored approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts.’ And: ‘future force requirements for deterrence cannot prudently be considered fixed. The United States must be capable of developing and deploying new capabilities, if necessary…’

Nuclear weapons developments have focussed on so-called low yield weapons. But let’s be clear: low yield does not mean small. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were low-yield. They killed upwards of 250,000 people; and their health effects are still being felt by second and third generation survivors today.

The 2018 report is predicated on an ‘evolving and uncertain’ security environment. It claims, controversially, that the US ‘has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons’ but others have not.

The mantle of legitimacy for a more aggressive nuclear stance by the Trump administration is founded on claims that ‘global threat conditions have worsened markedly’ since the last NPR in 2010. Expectations at the turn of the decade ‘have not since been realised’ according to this latest assessment. Namely: the likelihood of military confrontation with Russia has not declined, and there has not been a reduction in global nuclear proliferation.

The 2018 report claims a more aggressive nuclear stance by the US is merited because:

  1. the actions of Russia and China show ‘the return of Great Power competition’;
  2. there is ‘an increased potential for regional conflicts involving nuclear-armed adversaries’ – of which North Korea is listed as the prime example; and
  3. of the need to prevent proliferation and deny terrorists access to ‘finished weapons, material, or expertise’.

The report genuflects to the notion that US nuclear weapons are a deterrent, but adds a new and chilling caveat:

‘However, deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. Given the diverse threats and profound uncertainties of the current and future threat environment, US nuclear forces play the following critical roles US national security strategy. They contribute to the:

  • deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack;
  • assurance of allies and partners;
  • achievement of US objectives if deterrence fails; and
  • capacity to hedge against an uncertain future.

‘These roles are complementary and interrelated, and we must assess the adequacy of US nuclear forces against each role and the strategy designed to fulfill it.’ [my emphasis]

Improvements in precision targeting and the ability to make lower-yield warheads have put discussions about a ‘winnable’ nuclear war back on the agenda. Euphemisms aside, this is what the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review Report is preparing for.

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