Air Force Gen. Paul Selva argues that for nuclear deterrence to work in the 21st century, the U.S. may need a little less bang for the buck.
Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, confirmed has confirmed that as part of the Pentagon's ongoing nuclear posture review, it is looking at a new generation of low-yield "mini-nukes" in order to ensure that the threat from America's nuclear arsenal remains credible.
The whole idea behind having nuclear weapons is to ensure they are never used, under the notion that the prospect of worldwide destruction that would come from a nuclear exchange is so horrifying that no sane person would contemplate a war that could destroy the planet.
But that also presents a conundrum: If an adversary knows the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons because they would result in Armageddon, the deterrent becomes less credible, especially for terrorists or non-state actors who can't be dissuaded by the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Enter the variable yield nuclear weapon, such as an upgraded version of the B-61 gravity bomb, which has a "dial-a-yield" feature that can take it down to a fraction of kiloton, small enough to take out, say, the White House, while leaving the Pentagon intact.
"We have stated a requirement across multiple nuclear posture reviews to have variable yield. So, that is a path we're pursuing pretty quickly," Selva told the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute at the Capitol Hill Club on Thursday.
The problem with much of America's nuclear weapons is they are too big to shoot.
"If the only options we have now are to go with high-yield weapons that create a level of indiscriminate killing that the president can't accept, we haven't provided him with an option," Selva said.
"As horrible as nuclear war is, we do still apply some of the rules of war to it. So, a proportional reaction to an enemy's attack is actually a righteous and reasonable thing to do."
Arms control advocates say the logic is faulty. There's a reason so-called "tactical" or battlefield nukes were eliminated from the U.S. nuclear arsenal decades ago.
"We have had 'mini' nuclear weapons since the beginning of the atomic age, including bombs with a fraction of the yields that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and those 15-kiloton bombs are considered small by today's standards," said Joe Cirincione, of the anti-proliferation Ploughshares Fund, who argues making nuclear weapons more usable just makes them more likely to be used.
"Big or small, there has not been a military mission that justified the use of any nuclear weapon in over 72 years," Cirincione said. "The truth is that we can accomplish any military mission with conventional weapons without suffering the negative consequences of nuclear use and running the risk of escalation to a global nuclear war. If you have to use a nuclear weapon, you have already lost."
Selva said he's familiar with that argument.
"I discount it," Selva said. "I don't think a conventional response to a nuclear attack would be sufficient to deter the kind of people that would contemplate a nuclear attack."
Selva, the nation's No. 2 military officer, is heading up the Nuclear Posture Review along with Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, the No. 2 civilian in the Pentagon.
Selva says the goal is to produce a menu of choices that will give President Trump options to deter Russia, China, and the emerging threat from North Korea.
"Everything's on the table" from "conservative strategic approaches to radical new approaches," Selva said.
But for a deterrence to be effective it must be credible, he insists. "It's the will, the capacity, and the capability. If you don't have all of those, deterrence fails."