The USS Tennessee was the first US nuclear-armed submarine to go on operational patrol with the new low-yield warhead. Photo credit: US Navy.

Biden should rethink US policy on low-yield nuclear weapons

By David N. Zikusoka, January 12, 2021

At the end of 2019, US ballistic missile submarines went to sea carrying a new nuclear warhead, the W76-2. A so-called “nonstrategic nuclear weapon” with a yield of less than 10 kilotons, the W76-2 is intended to disabuse Russian and Chinese leaders of the belief that they could successfully “escalate to deescalate” a conventional conflict through first use of a similarly low-yield nuclear weapon (US Defense Department 2018). The Trump administration has chosen this weapon system (and an as-yet undeveloped stealthy sea-launched cruise missile) as a flexible, tailored response to nuclear aggression. But the W76-2 has been deployed at a time when advances in conventional technologies for both offense and defense are reshaping the strategic landscape.

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President-elect Joe Biden should interrogate this issue by asking a simple but penetrating question of offense and defense: Can a W76-2 “survive” until it reaches its target? As the Biden administration assesses the nuclear arsenal, the broader national defense program, and the fiscal tradeoffs of a post-COVID government, it should consider shelving the W76-2 in favor of more advanced, flexible, and precise emerging conventional capabilities. The process of assessing the W76-2 could present an opportunity for Biden to rebalance the US portfolio of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and, in turn, alter nuclear competition with Russia and China.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

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