If Biden Reviews Nuclear Weapons Plans, Focus on New & Low-Yield Weapons

By Christine Parthemore

Over the past week, there has been a flurry of news reporting that President-elect Biden will likely review U.S. nuclear weapons programs with the aim of reducing some of the excess of current plans. Articles consistently start by mentioning that Biden will seek to extend the New START treaty with Russia. Yet reporting seems to indicate that he may agree with what I and Andy Weber wrote in 2018, that this extension is “necessary but not nearly sufficient.” 

There are two themes emerging in this recent reporting about how the Biden administration may improve U.S. nuclear weapons that are worth emphasizing.  

First, many articles point to a focus on changing course for new nuclear weapons. Though a few examples are given, which weapons this means in practice is less clear. We defined new nuclear weapons in a 2019 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article called “Smarter US modernization, without new nuclear weapons” to include:

  • Two new capabilities: the new LRSO, or long-range standoff nuclear air-launched cruise missile, which follows on a current version but exceeds its capabilities in ways that introduce new risks; and a low-yield-capable nuclear warhead for use on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
  • One resurrected old capability, with the Trump administration’s move to bring back nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles that were pulled out of use and then fully retired from the George H.W. Bush to Obama administrations. 

The development of new nuclear weapon capabilities is problematic for several reasons. They are often designed to introduce characteristics or have uses that will alter the strategic calculations of others. The LRSO, for example, would for the first time have a stealth, extended range cruise missile launched from a stealth aircraft—a move meant to signal capability for the U.S. to launch deeply into adversary territory without warning. This is read as upsetting strategic stability by some nations as it could decapitate their nuclear response capabilities more easily and with greater surprise than previous weapons systems. 

In a global security environment already plagued by confusion, disinformation, and distrust, the added risks of such new nuclear weapons dynamics far outweigh any purported benefits.

The United States developing new nuclear weapons also signals even further movement away from obligations of nuclear weapons states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to make progress toward their reduction and elimination. This also puts many U.S. allies that have anti-nuclear public sentiment shaping their policies in a tough spot.  

Ending these two new and one new-ish nuclear weapons programs would show enormous progress in the right direction (though as we’ve noted, such change is hard and requires specific presidential-level instruction early in the first term). They are highly problematic, and are not required for meeting U.S. security needs. 

A second, important area of emphasis growing more common in reporting the what-ifs of Biden administration nuclear plans is on so-called low-yield nuclear weapon capabilities. This is a misnomer that is too often used to downplay the severity of potential use of nuclear weapons in conflict. Such weapons are also frequently described as more usable by future presidents—a dangerous mindset that may actually undermine U.S. deterrence.

While further reporting focuses on plans to replace current intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are overly expensive and can be altered, focusing instead on reshaping or ending plans for new and low-yield nuclear weapons makes more strategic sense at this time. They represent changes that can be reasonably directed by the President, whereas cuts to the new land-based strategic deterrent program would meet even more extensive challenges from Congress.
Moreover, focusing a Biden administration review on new and low-yield nuclear weapons fits with his interest in pursuing a policy stating that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is for deterrence and to respond to nuclear strikes. Put together, all these steps would form a coherent and smart new path for nuclear weapons policy and help reset U.S. leadership in international security issues.

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