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“Mini-Nukes” Would Promote, Not Deter, the Use of Nuclear Bombs in Conflict

Hiroshima is proof that “mini-nukes” are no deterrence.

Activists of the non-governmental organization International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons wear masks of Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un while posing with a mock missile in front of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea embassy in Berlin, on September 13, 2017. (Photo: Britta Pedersen / AFP / Getty Images)

A recently released “pre-decisional draft” of the Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for the development of a new generation of “low-yield” nuclear bombs — weapons that are better known by the endearingly cute sobriquet: “mini-nukes.”

According to the Posture Review — a joint Pentagon/Department of Energy endeavor — the goal is “to ensure that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

The Pentagon claims a new line of fashionable, well-tailored mini-nukes would provide the military with “more options” and “greater flexibility.” Instead of facing the terrifying specter of engaging in all-out nuclear war with 400-kiloton thermonuclear planet-killers, mini-nukes would free Washington’s military planners to whack at its enemies with smaller, more “palatable” blasts of atomic threat that would obliterate practically anything within a mile of Ground Zero.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared this atomic conundrum with a defense industry group in August 2017. “If the only options we have now are to go with high-yield weapons that create a level of indiscriminate killing that the president can’t accept,” Selva explained, “we haven’t provided him with an option.”

“Not needed!” anti-nuclear critics reply. Lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons only increases the likelihood of a wider conflict. A mini-nuke here, a mini-nuke there, and sooner than you can say “Armageddon,” the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers (and outliers like Israel) could all be going ballistic.

Besides, as a critique in Roll Call notes, one-third of the Pentagon’s current arsenal of atomic weapons is already “low-yield” or are “flexible systems” capable of being “dialed back.” The B61, for example, is a nuclear changeling with a blast that can be adjusted from less than a kiloton to a whopping 340 kilotons, while the W80 warheads attached to air-launched cruise missiles can be ratcheted up from five to 150 kilotons.

The Pentagon last tried to raise a new crop of mini-bombs back in the days when George W. Bush was in office — but Congress wouldn’t take the bait. There’s only one role for nuclear weapons, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and that’s deterrence. “We cannot, must not, will not ever countenance their actual use.” That’s the way deterrence is supposed to work: The nukes need to be big enough that everyone remains scared to death of using one. (Ironically, the actual possession of nuclear arsenals has failed to deter other countries from wanting to build their own atomic weapons. Instead of acting as a deterrence, the presence of even a single nuclear weapon invites proliferation.)

Meanwhile, the irrepressible souls at Trump’s Defense Science Board (a Pentagon advisory team consisting of retired military/industrial types) are not deterred. In February 2017 they once again raised the prospect of “going small” and, six months on, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs also climbed aboard the mini-nuke bombwagon.

Fox News joined the pro-mini campaign in November 2017 with an appeal that made the proposed use of mini-nukes appear almost civilized.

“Each mini-nuke could be tailored to the specific, necessary scale of destruction,” Fox reporter Allison Barrie rhapsodized. They could “target and annihilate say a square mile — without the areas outside that mile being hit.”

Of course, Barrie conceded, “radiation and other related threats would still expand well beyond the blast radius.” But, not to worry: the resulting atomic blast would be “far more restrained” and “variable-yield mini-nukes could potentially provide more flexibility and options.”

True, Barrie notes, a 100-kiloton-baby-bomb blast could “potentially destroy a city,” but not, mind you, in an irresponsible way. With an “adjustable mini-nuke,” the US could “discriminate by specifically targeting perpetrators and reducing civilian casualties.”

The suggestion that a single malevolent “perpetrator” could be taken out by a well-placed mini-nuke may have been a bit hard for even Fox to swallow. Barrie quickly proposed a substitute scenario: “Rather than unleashing a nuclear weapon that could kill a country’s entire population” Barrie wrote, “Trump would have the option to use a tailored mini-nuke to target a dangerous military installation instead.”

Politico notes that modern nuclear weapons, like the W88 warheads attached to sub-launched missiles, are capable of delivering a serious 475-kiloton atomic punch. (The warhead that North Korea detonated in September 2017 reportedly weighed in at 140 kilotons.) But back in the early Wild West days of nuclear bomb-slinging, the Pentagon already had a host of small-arms weaponry at its disposal.

These early mini-nukes included a nuclear artillery shell dubbed the “Honest John” and a bazooka-fired atomic bomblet called the “Davy Crockett,” with an explosive equivalent of 10-20 kilotons.

And then there were the Pentagon’s hush-hush “atomic demolition munitions.” These atomic devices were so small that an Army soldier could walk one behind enemy lines stuffed inside his backpack. “It was a very heavy backpack,” Pentagon Weaponeer Philip Coyle told Politico. “You wouldn’t want to carry them very far.”

So why is there a new budget-busting mega push for mini-nukes? The answer is the same as the reason behind the Obama/Trump call for “modernizing” the US nuclear arsenal — at a cost of $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

“This is nuclear pork disguised as nuclear strategy,” Joe Cirincione, president of the antiwar Ploughshares Fund, told Politico. “This is a jobs program for a few government labs and a few contractors…. It would lower the threshold for nuclear use. It would make nuclear war more likely. It comes from the illusion that you could use a nuclear weapon and end a conflict on favorable terms. Once you cross the nuclear threshold, you are inviting a nuclear response.”

And now we come to the strongest argument of all for shunning the charlatans of mini-nukery. It involves the claim that detonating these smaller weapons — with an explosive range of 10-20 kilotons — would somehow represent a lessening of damage and a lowering of the risks of a wider nuclear war.

Yes, a “mini-nuke” with a blast profile of 10-20 kilotons would be a lot less destructive than the 15,000-kiloton Castle Bravo device the Pentagon detonated over the Marshall Islands in 1954. But there is another critical comparison that puts the whole “mini-nuke” argument into a new light:

Hiroshima, Japan, was destroyed by a single 15-kiloton bomb. Yes, a “mini-nuke.”

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