Trump’s Nuke Plan Raising Alarms Among Military Brass
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), to be released Friday, will include a call for the deployment of low-yield, “more usable” nuclear warheads, a move widely anticipated when a draft of the document was leaked to the Huffington Post on January 11. So while the recommendations won’t necessarily be a surprise, what is less public is the bitter battle during its drafting that pitted senior Army and Navy warriors against nuclear wonks inside the Defense Department. That fight—over the exorbitant costs associated with the NPR, and charges that it could make nuclear war more likely—are bound to continue through implementation.
“It’s one thing to write a policy,” a senior Pentagon civilian privy to the NPR fight told The American Conservative, “and it’s another thing to have it implemented. What the NPR is recommending will break the bank, and a lot of people around here are worried that making nuclear weapons more usable isn’t what we should be doing. The conventional military guys have dug in their heels, they’re dead-set against it. This battle isn’t over.”
In effect, the congressionally mandated review calls for the U.S. to deploy two new types of lower yield nuclear warheads, generally defined as nuclear bombs below a five kiloton range (the one dropped on Hiroshima was 20 kilotons), that could be fitted onto a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and one, yet to be developed, that would be fitted onto a submarine-launched cruise missile. Additionally, the NPR calls for “recapitalizing” the complex of nuclear laboratories and plants, which, taken together with the proposed modernization program of the U.S. nuclear arsenal (the “triad”), will almost certainly cost in excess of the estimated price tag of $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years.
The drafting of the NPR began in April of 2017, when Defense Secretary James Mattis directed that the work be overseen by the deputy secretary of defense and AF General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the actual writing of the document was organized by Dr. Robert Soofer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy and a former powerhouse staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Soofer, in turn, depended on a group of nuclear thinkers led by Dr. Keith Payne, the high-profile president of the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP). Payne was aided by Franklin Miller, an influential defense thinker who, as he confirmed to The American Conservative by email, provided “advice to DoD” on the project. (Payne did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article, while Miller emailed that he would not comment until after the NPR was released.)
The prominence of Payne and Miller set off alarm bells among senior Army and Navy officers, who viewed the two as nuclear hawks. Indeed, Payne and Miller had often teamed up in a kind of traveling road show to present their pro-nuclear views—as they did in September 2014 during briefings of Air Force officers at Minot Air Force Base, home of the 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command. Payne’s team included Miller, along with retired Admiral Richard Mies, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Robert Joseph, a scholar at Payne’s nuclear think tank, and nuclear intellectual Peter Huessy, an outspoken advocate for modernization of the nuclear triad—the combination of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that comprise the U.S. nuclear strike arsenal. The combination of Payne, Miller, Mies, Joseph, and Huessy, many senior military officers believed, meant that the NPR’s conclusions had been “pre-cooked.”
They had good reason for their suspicions: Payne and Miller were not afraid to “break the crockery,” as one senior Army officer told me, in promoting their views, which included taking public whacks at Pentagon icons. Back in October of 2016, Payne and Miller co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing former defense secretary William Perry’s call for President Obama to adopt a policy of “no first use” for nuclear weapons and consider eliminating America’s land-based intercontinental ballistic-missile force. Payne and Miller argued that the proposals would “encourage opponents’ provocations, degrade our ability to deter large-scale wars, undermine the scarcity of already-frightened U.S. allies in Europe and Asia and contribute to the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.” The op-ed implied that Perry (a legend in Pentagon circles) was out-of-touch. “These are naïve proposals,” Payne and Miller wrote, “suited to a benign world that does not exist and offered by activists who have yet to figure that out.”
For some senior military officers, the op-ed was predictable. Payne had also been celebrated for writing a 1980 Foreign Policy article arguing that the U.S. could fight and win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, while holding down American casualties to “approximately 20 million people”—what Payne described as “a level compatible with national survival and recovery.” Then in 1999, Payne authored “Nuclear Weapons—Theirs and Ours” (it is no longer available on the NIPP website), which derided anti-nuclear activists and presaged the views presented in the 2018 NPR, calling for the deployment of lower yield nuclear warheads that, he argued, could be used in a conventional conflict. Thus was Payne’s reputation sealed: When he was named by George W. Bush as the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for forces policy, reporter Fred Kaplan dubbed him “Rumsfeld’s Dr. Strangelove.”
So it was that when word got out that Payne and his team were drafting the nuclear posture statement, a coterie of senior military officers descended on both Vice Chief Paul Selva and Lieutenant General Jack Weinstein, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. They came under enormous pressure to “dial back” Payne and his team’s recommendations. The fear was that the NPR would echo Payne’s 2017 briefing on nuclear issues (“A New Nuclear Review for a New Age”), which had been signed onto by over 30 nuclear heavyweights. Army and Navy officers worried that Payne and his team would promote massive new funding initiatives at the expense of badly needed monies for military readiness. They also worried, more urgently, that Payne would put the nation on the slippery slope to nuclear escalation. Or, as one retired senior Army officer who tracked the review phrased it, in recommending the U.S. build and deploy lower yield warheads, Payne and his team were providing Donald Trump with “a kind of gateway drug for nuclear war.”
The pressure brought results, if only in part. The earliest drafts of the review reportedly contained a hodgepodge of ideas that included fielding a “nuclear hyper-glide weapon” and a threat to non-nuclear states that, in extreme circumstances, the U.S. would retain the right to target them. Neither option made the final cut. “I credit Frank Miller for dampening some of these early ideas,” a senior Air Force officer says, “but I have to tell you, some of this stuff was just wacky.” As the review neared completion, those who’d gotten wind of what the final product would contain began to question some of its more controversial positions—most prominently its call for the deployment of lower yield, tactical nuclear warheads.
The ostensible reason for the recommendation takes nuclear thinkers through the looking glass. For nuclear hawks, the fact that the U.S. has to rely on strategic nuclear weapons when faced with a major attack (presumably by the Russians or Chinese) is actually a weakness—our nuclear deterrence force “lacks credibility,” and the Russians know it. By this reasoning, the Russians will use tactical warheads early on in a conflict because they know the U.S. would only have one option—launching strategic weapons, which, as the hawks reason, no president would ever do. So there’s a gap, and deploying lower yield weapons would fill it. For the NPR’s advocates, the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence is everything, and enhancing it is a no-brainer.
“All of this stuff about how the new NPR puts us on a slippery slope to nuclear war is just foolish,” Huessy, who is part of Payne’s Minot roadshow, told The American Conservative in an extended telephone conversation. “In fact, this NPR is very consistent with other reviews, dating back to the Clinton years and including the one under Barack Obama. But things have changed. We have a new suite of threats and they’re serious. We especially need to deter Russia. I don’t think Russia is reckless, but there’s every chance that Putin would threaten to use low yield warheads early on in a conflict because he would calculate that we would have to stand down. That we wouldn’t opt for a strategic nuclear exchange. We need to counter that, and this NPR does, because it provides a lower yield warhead option.”
But to the NPR’s critics, the claim that the U.S. nuclear arsenal lacks credibility is nonsense, as is the claim that, in the case of war, a president would have to escalate to a species-ending nuclear exchange. “The NPR says that the Russians think our nuclear arsenal lacks credibility, but there’s absolutely no evidence that that’s the case,” Adam Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told me. “And you know, the NPR seems to imply that we don’t have non-strategic options when, actually, we do.” In fact, as senior military officers told me, the U.S. has 150 air-delivered tactical nuclear warheads at five NATO bases in Europe (the B-61 gravity warhead), and about 350 more that can be deployed from the U.S. Or, as Mount says, “The review does not present a strong case for why these new capabilities are needed. They are weapons in search of a mission.”
Another issue raised by opponents of the NPR is that its proposed supplements to America’s nuclear arsenal will be ineffective. “The NPR says that it addresses nuclear ambiguity, but it actually increases it,” Kingston Reif, the Director of Disarmament & Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association notes. “If we were to put low yield warheads on our submarine launched missiles, as the NPR recommends, and actually fire them, how would the Russians actually know they were low yield warheads? The answer is that they wouldn’t—and they’d respond strategically. The truth is, even launching a ballistic missile is a huge escalation.” A number of influential Air Force officers, it seems, agree. When the U.S. said it was considering deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Korea, Air Force General John Hyten pushed back: “I think it [the term tactical nuclear weapon] is actually a very dangerous term to use, because I think every nuclear weapon that is employed is strategic.”
And senior Air Force officers weren’t the only one to push back. When the draft NPR was leaked in January, Navy officers weighed in hard with Selva and Soofer. “I’m not surprised, they must have gone nuts,” Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says. “This isn’t high on the Navy’s list of things to do, and they were overjoyed about getting rid of nukes on their [surface] ships. And, you know, these guys on their boomers [nuclear armed subs] are nervous about anything that puts at risk their ability to hide. So now they’re going to be asked to fire off a tactical warhead at an enemy who won’t know that it’s tactical—which gives away their position. The NPR is asking them to commit suicide.”
But the core problem with the NPR, its critics say, is that it signals weakness. “The NPR claims that Russia has adopted the mistaken impression that our nuclear arsenal lacks credibility,” Adam Mount notes. “But that doesn’t make sense: if the Russians are operating under a mistaken impression, why would we need to correct anything? In fact, by adopting the programs that the NPR recommends, we’re actually confirming the Russian misperception. The NPR’s thinking is shoddy, its analysis is shoddy, and its conclusions are shoddy. It makes mistake after mistake.”
Mount has a point. On the day prior to its roll-out at the Pentagon, a map included in the review mistakenly showed the Korean Peninsula—but without any South Korea.
In the end, whether the NPR’s recommendations will actually be implemented might well come down to money. “Deploying Tac nukes is a labor to capital replacement,” a senior Army officer says. “You are substituting things for people, and that’s the key mistake of the NPR. You want a credible deterrent? Well-trained soldiers are a credible deterrent, tac nukes aren’t. We don’t have enough people, people who are really ready, and that’s the shortfall, the real shortfall. So now we’re going to rob our soldiers of weapons we really need in order to buy nukes that we don’t need? You go tell that to the guys in the front lines, they’ll tell you where to stick it.”
Or, perhaps, whether the NPR’s recommendations will actually be implemented will come down to politics—and Donald Trump. “Listen,” a senior nuclear thinker and NPR critic told The American Conservative, “the story you won’t hear is how this really came about. And here’s how it happened. One day, Sean Hannity got on television and talked about how we need more nuclear weapons and Donald Trump heard this and went over to the Pentagon and presto, we got Keith Payne and his crew. That’s the truth, and that’s what got us to where we are.”
The last word in this debate comes from Huessy, who pushes back hard against the “Sean Hannity nuclear program” claim. “Accusing Trump of running around the world threatening the use of nuclear weapons is simply not true, and it’s unconscionable to say so,” he told The American Conservative in a wide ranging interview. “This NPR is in line with what three previous presidents have done. Upgrading and modernizing wasn’t Trump’s idea, it was Obama’s. And I understand the problem with funding. And I even agree with it. These budget caps have to go, and if they don’t, we’re not only not going to be able to implement the NPR, we’re not going to be able to address our readiness gap. And that’s the truth. The danger here is that in making the choice between one of the other, addressing readiness or building a credible nuclear deterrent, we’re in danger of ending up with neither.”
Maybe or maybe not. But this, at least, is clear. The battle over the Nuclear Posture Review and what it recommends isn’t over. It’s only beginning.
Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst, a contributing editor to The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars, which was released in late 2017. He tweets @markperrydc