Say WHAT? — A case of low-yield nuclear thinking

By Thomas Gaulkin | February 14, 2019

Can a small nuclear weapon really make the world safer?

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed the Trump administration’s commitment to the broad (and costly) modernization of the nuclear weapons complex. But it also introduced two new weapons, one of which, the W76-2, is rolling off the assembly line in Texas right now.

That so-called “low-yield” nuclear warhead may soon be carried on some or all of the 14 active US Navy nuclear ballistic submarines that form one leg of the nuclear deterrence triad (the two other legs being US Air Force bombers and ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles). Former Secretary of Defense Mattis told Congress last year, “I don’t think there is any such thing as a ‘tactical nuclear weapon.’ Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer.” And a long list of experts, including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, say these kinds of “small” warheads increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used—and full-scale nuclear war will follow.

RELATED: Why, in nuclear weapons policy, sometimes fewer options are better

So why is the United States building them?

In this installment of “Say WHAT?”—the Bulletin video series that casts a clear eye on fuzzy policy—we ask nuclear weapons expert Sébastien Philippe what he thinks about the latest nuclear craze. Watch above and subscribe on YouTube.

RELATED: Watch now: The brain-computer interface is coming and we are so not ready for it

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Victor Gilinsky
Victor Gilinsky

The move to much smaller yields is indeed worrisome, but some of the things said about it don’t exactly cast a clear eye on the problem. Yes, smaller yields probably increase the chance of use, although we have no idea by how much. What if instead the move had been to increase yields by a large factor? Critics would be saying that the administration was increasing the horror of nuclear war. That would also be true, although by the same logic it would be reducing the chance of nuclear war. Should we conclude that we now have warheads with exactly… Read more »


You ask “Can a small nuclear weapon really make the world safer”; This question is passable among lay people. This question is inexcusable on a specialist site like “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists”! Thus proving that America loses critical thinking skills by the minute. The empire is doomed if there is only group think and blind acceptance of press releases from on high. As to the question, ask yourselves: you have all lived through “cold-war detente” as Rand consultants have coined the phrase. What improved? Russia still has nuclear weapons, US still has nuclear weapons. Is the world safer? While Russian… Read more »

bob slentz
bob slentz

If one believes we would use a low yield device against Russia they are deluded. These devices are being created and directed toward two current targets, North Korea and more to the point Iran. These devices could be deployed with little collateral damage to neighboring countries. These devices would be used against Iran to destroy their perceived program and their weapons research facilities. This deployment against Iran would send a strong message to North Korea without the fear of escalation with China. the lower yield devices will reduce size of warhead and enable it to be deployed in hypersonic missiles… Read more »

Ian Oxford
Ian Oxford

The world as gone mad, it’s just a matter of time before someone presses the big red button, then it’s back to Me cave man.


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