Mattis: New U.S. Nuclear Capabilities Needed to Deter Moscow

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis defended the administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as the right response to Russia’s rising nuclear capacity and its failure to abide by international treaties, in comments to the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

The NPR calls for the creation of two new submarine-launched nuclear weapons: a low-yield nuclear warhead to be carried by ballistic missiles, and a nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The argument for low-yield nuclear warheads:

  • Russia is building low-yield, or “tactical” nuclear weapons at a high rate, as part of what the Pentagon calls Moscow’s “escalate-to-de-escalate” strategy.
  • Mattis, at the hearing: “We don’t want someone else to miscalculate and think that because they are going to use a low-yield weapon, somehow we would confront what [former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger] calls ‘surrender or suicide.’”

  • No such thing as a ‘tactical’ nuke: “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,” said Mattis.

As longtime national security reporter Walter Pincus recently pointed out on The Cipher Brief, the U.S. nuclear arsenal already has operational low-to-intermediate-yield nuclear weapons, known as B-61s, stationed across NATO countries.

The administration makes two arguments for re-introducing a sea-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile (SLCM), the last iteration of which were withdrawn from active service in the 1990s and retired in 2011:

  • The administration calls it leverage to be used in negotiations with the Russians, to force them back into compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The U.S. argues that Russian deployment of a ground-based cruise missile has put them in violation of the treaty; Russia disagrees.
  • Mattis: “The idea is, once again, to keep our negotiators negotiating from a position of strength… I don’t think the Russians would be willing to give up something to gain nothing from us.”

Is this NPR de-emphasizing arms control?

  • The document says relatively little on the subject, noting that “progress in arms control is not an end in and of itself.”
  • Mattis insisted that the nuclear weapons buildup outlined in the 2018 NPR is ultimately part of arms control efforts: “The United States remains committed to its global leadership role to reduce the number of nuclear weapons…We must recognize that deterrence and arms control can only be achieved with a credible capability.”
  • Andy Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs under the Obama administration, wrote in The Cipher Brief that a “generous interpretation” of the nuclear weapons buildup outlined in the NPR would be to emulate President Ronald Reagan, “whose buildup facilitated the 1987 negotiation of the historic INF Treaty.”

At a press availability following the rollout of the 2018 NPR, Greg Weaver, deputy director for strategic stability on the Joint Staff J5, framed the document as a response to Russian buildup:

“Were Russia to agree to return to verifiable arms control measures to address that imbalance in nonstrategic nuclear forces, the U.S. might agree to limit or forgo [acquiring] a nuclear SLCM,” he said. “This is a response to Russian expansion of their capability and the nature of their strategy and doctrine.”

Weaver’s next two statements seem almost contradictory:

“The United States is not arms racing. We are responding to Russian initiative.”

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