14 September 2017

Mini-nukes: The attempted resurrection of a terrible idea

By John Mecklin

Like vampires and cats, low-yield nuclear weapons are hard to kill. At any rate, the idea that mini-nukes provide a capability the US military needs is an extraordinarily resilient one. During the 1950s, the United States deployed a variety of smaller nuclear weapons—from nuclear bazookas and artillery shells to demolition charges often called “backpack nukes”—in Europe to deter invasion by Soviet troops. Most of the tactical weapons were withdrawn after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990s. Now, however, The Trump administration is considering plans to produce modern mini-nukes, a move that, as Politico reports, “would give military commanders more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely.”

The Politico article takes a fairly standard approach to the issue; it quotes unnamed administration sources who support a move to build small nukes and a balancing set of sources opposed to the move. Both sides provide their reasoning. As a result, the piece is a prime example of false balance and a real misrepresentation of reality. The argument against a new generation of small nuclear weapons—an unnecessary, expensive, and strategically insupportable move that would greatly increase the likelihood of worldwide thermonuclear war—is overwhelming.

But don’t take my word for it. Read Jim Doyle’s analysis of the Defense Science Board report that was the genesis of the effort to resurrect “a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use” now being considered as part of a Nuclear Posture Review President Trump ordered in April. A former longtime technical staffer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Doyle clearly lays out all the reasons why new tactical nukes make so little sense, and why their use is so likely to lead to escalation to full-scale nuclear war that “beginning in 1977, NATO began to drastically reduce its inventory of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons to the minimum number necessary for deterrence.”

Publication Name: 
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists