Last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced that the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear-weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas. That warhead, the W76-2, is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile, a weapon with a range of more than 7,500 miles. By September, an undisclosed number of warheads will be delivered to the Navy for deployment.
What makes this particular nuke new is the fact that it carries a far smaller destructive payload than the thermonuclear monsters the Trident has been hosting for decades—not the equivalent of about 100 kilotons of TNT as previously, but of five kilotons. According to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the W76-2 will yield “only” about one-third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Yet that very shrinkage of the power to devastate is precisely what makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured. Fulfilling the Trump administration’s quest for nuclear-war-fighting “flexibility,” it isn’t designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it’s designed to be used. This is the weapon that could make the previously “unthinkable” thinkable.
There have long been “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, including ones on cruise missiles, “air-drop bombs” (carried by planes), and even nuclear artillery shells—weapons designated as “tactical” and intended to be used in the confines of a specific battlefield or in a regional theater of war. The vast majority of them were, however, eliminated in the nuclear-arms reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, a scaling-down by both the United States and Russia that would be quietly greeted with relief by battlefield commanders, those actually responsible for the potential use of such ordnance who understood its self-destructive absurdity.
- The W76-2 is a small, tactical nuclear warhead designed to counter enemy tactical nuclear weapons.
- The warhead is actually derived from the existing W76 warhead, each of which is large enough to flatten a city.
- Arms control advocates warned that the new nuclear weapon was not needed.
Ranking some weapons as “low-yield” based on their destructive energy always depended on a distinction that reality made meaningless (once damage from radioactivity and atmospheric fallout was taken into account, along with the unlikelihood that only one such weapon would be used). In fact, the elimination of tactical nukes represented a hard-boiled confrontation with the iron law of escalation, another commander’s insight—that any use of such a weapon against a similarly armed adversary would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point was barely imaginable. One side was never going to take a hit without responding in kind, launching a process that could rapidly spiral toward an apocalyptic exchange. “Limited nuclear war,” in other words, was a fool’s fantasy and gradually came to be universally acknowledged as such. No longer, unfortunately.
Unlike tactical weapons, intercontinental strategic nukes were designed to directly target the far-off homeland of an enemy. Until now, their extreme destructive power (so many times greater than that inflicted on Hiroshima) made it impossible to imagine genuine scenarios for their use that would be practically, not to mention morally, acceptable. It was exactly to remove that practical inhibition—the moral one seemed not to count—that the Trump administration recently began the process of withdrawing from the Cold War–era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, while rolling a new “limited” weapon off the assembly line and so altering the Trident system. With these acts, there can be little question that humanity is entering a perilous second nuclear age.
That peril lies in the way a 70-year-old inhibition that undoubtedly saved the planet is potentially being shelved in a new world of supposedly “usable” nukes. Of course, a weapon with one-third the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, where as many as 150,000 died, might kill 50,000 people in a similar attack before escalation even began. Of such nukes, former secretary of state George Shultz, who was at President Ronald Reagan’s elbow when Cold War–ending arms control negotiations climaxed, said, “A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there.”
HOW CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT?
Until now, it’s been an anomaly of the nuclear age that some of the fiercest critics of such weaponry were drawn from among the very people who created it. The emblem of that is the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a bimonthly journal founded after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by veteran scientists from the Manhattan Project, which created the first nuclear weapons. (Today, that magazine’s sponsors include 14 Nobel Laureates.) Beginning in 1947, the Bulletin’s cover has functioned annually as a kind of nuclear alarm, featuring a so-called Doomsday Clock, its minute hand always approaching “midnight” (defined as the moment of nuclear catastrophe).
In that first year, the hand was positioned at seven minutes to midnight. In 1949, after the Soviet Union acquired its first atomic bomb, it inched up to three minutes before midnight. Over the years, it has been reset every January to register waxing and waning levels of nuclear jeopardy. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, it was set back to 17 minutes and then, for a few hope-filled years, the clock disappeared altogether.
It came back in 2005 at seven minutes to midnight. In 2007, the scientists began factoring climate degradation into the assessment and the hands moved inexorably forward. By 2018, after a year of Donald Trump, it clocked in at two minutes to midnight, a shrill alarm meant to signal a return to the greatest peril ever: the two-minute level reached only once before, 65 years earlier. Last month, within days of the announced manufacture of the first W76-2, the Bulletin’scover for 2019 was unveiled, still at that desperate two-minute mark, aka the edge of doom.
To fully appreciate how precarious our situation is today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists implicitly invites us to return to that other two-minutes-before-midnight moment. If the manufacture of a new low-yield nuclear weapon marks a decisive pivot back toward jeopardy, consider it an irony that the last such moment involved the manufacture of the extreme opposite sort of nuke: a “super” weapon, as it was then called, or a hydrogen bomb. That was in 1953 and what may have been the most fateful turn in the nuclear story until now had just occurred.
After the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the United States embarked on a crash program to build a far more powerful nuclear weapon. Having been decommissioned after World War II, the Pantex plant was reactivated and has been the main source of American nukes ever since.