As you will remember from Cold War days, the overarching nuclear doctrine was Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD for short. The idea was to let both side know that a nuclear war was not winnable: it was just a suicide.
Consequently, both the US and Russian nuclear stockpiles largely consist of multiple hundreds of kiloton warheads (Little boy that was dropped on Hiroshima was a 15 kiloton). Every one of them would cause massive destruction and kill a huge number of people.
The MAD doctrine and the consequent NPR was in line with Bernard Brodie's famous dictum after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”The new NPR prepared by the Trump administration is going back to winning wars purpose by introducing three changes.
Low Yield Warheads with Low Collateral Damage
The Trump NPR calls for the development of low yield nuclear weapons which are defined as 20 kiloton or less.
The underlying argument is that America's enemies might think that the US would not use its nuclear weapons in lower level conflicts because of their large scale destructive capacity.
This is intended to address the argument that adversaries might think the United States, out of concern for collateral damage, would hesitate to employ a high-yield nuclear weapon in response to a “lower level” conflict, in which an adversary used a low-yield nuclear device.In other words, instead of MAD doctrine where the goal is to make sure no nuclear power under any conditions could rationally use nuclear weapons, the new NPR is aiming to facilitate their use in certain conflict situation.
And to do so to win non-nuclear conflicts.
Lower Threshold for Nuclear Weapon Use
Previous NPR are did not specifically address the use of nuclear weapons in a conventional war. Sure, the US never gave up its right to use nuclear weapons in a massive conventional attack but the scenarios previous NPRs envisaged were rather extreme like "Warsaw Pact blitzkrieg through the Fulda Gap during the Cold War or a biological or chemical weapons attack in more recent years."
But, given the military superiority of the US, employing nuclear weapons in a low level non-nuclear conflict would have been both unnecessary and indefensible.
That is no longer the case and the threshold for their use has been lowered and the scope expanded.
While the document strives to maintain “some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a U.S. nuclear response,” it explicitly states that the United States could employ nuclear weapons in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” This includes but is not limited to “attacks on U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure.”In fact, New York Times reported in January that the NPR allows the deployment of nuclear weapons in the case of a massive cyber attack.
But three current and former senior government officials said large cyberattacks against the United States and its interests would be included in the kinds of foreign aggression that could justify a nuclear response — though they stressed there would be other, more conventional options for retaliation.To say that this is a very dangerous path would be a yuge understatement.
Imagine a scenario where intelligence agencies blame Iran for a large scale blackout. What might the Orange Man do?
There are already talks of a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea, the so called "bloody nose" option.
Nuclear Sea-based Cruise Missiles
The Trump NPR calls for the development of modern sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles.
This marks a departure from the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which announced the retirement of the previous nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.By itself, this might appear innocuous but when you view with with the other two changes, you realize that this is a belligerent and aggressive NPR.
Understandably, Russia is worried.
Moscow is showing understandable concern over the lowering of the threshold for employing nuclear weapons to include retaliation for cyber-attacks, a change announced on Feb. 2 in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
Explaining the shift in U.S. doctrine on first-use, the NPR cites the efforts of potential adversaries “to design and use cyber weapons” and explains the change as a “hedge” against non-nuclear threats. In response, Russia described the move as an “attempt to shift onto others one’s own responsibility” for the deteriorating security situation.What is worrisome is the difficulty to trace cyber attacks to its origins. It is laughably easy for a state to launch a cyber attack while leaving the footprints of another state.
Netanyahu's bete noire is Iran. Can you not envisage a situation where Israeli hackers attack the US infrastructure and leave clues to implicate Iran?
Under the new doctrine Trump could simply nuke Iran to Stone Age.
Or an independent group of hackers could implicate Russia. Some people believe that the DNC hack was done by third parties who left clues to incriminate Russian hackers.
In any case we have an extremely dangerous combination here: a lower nuclear attack threshold and a volatile, irrational and perhaps senile president.
Yet, no one seems concerned about this major change.