Mattis: New, Low-Yield Nuclear Weapon a Bargaining Chip With Russia

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. Screenshot photo.

The Pentagon’s plan to move ahead with a new, low-yield submarine-launched nuclear missile will not only provide a less power nuclear option, it also will push Russia to move back into compliance with a nuclear treaty, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, released Friday, includes a two-fold plan: First, the Navy will adjust some current nuclear weapons to produce a lower-yield explosive, along with a long-term plan to make an entirely new low-yield submarine-launched warhead. The thinking is a lower-yield option will deter an adversary such as Russia from launching its own tactical weapon at the US under the assumption that the US would not respond with a non-proportional, stronger weapon.

“It’s to make certain that no one thinks that they could use a low-yield weapon and put us in a position where we could only respond with a high-yield weapon, with the supposition that maybe we would not,” Mattis said. “And we can say, ‘Well, we know we would,’ but what matters in deterrence is what does the adversary think. And in this regard deterrence is dynamic, and we must recognize that today’s deterrent must keep pace with the thinking of today’s adversaries or competitors.”

The military currently has a low-yield option, the B61 gravity bomb. However, those are carried by fighter jets or bombers that need to be based closer to the target and are susceptible to enemy air defenses, Mattis said. The Pentagon also is investing in more advanced technologies to avoid or attack enemy air defenses, but a new submarine-launched low-yield missile gives the Pentagon a more survivable option.

In addition to the military capabilities this new warhead would offer, its development will also put separate pressure on Moscow. The US has accused Russia of deploying a new nuclear cruise missile, a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The review says the new US missile would meet treaty requirements, and it would give negotiators a “position of strength” and be able to get something from the Russians in talks.

“We have an ongoing issue with Russia’s violation of the INF,” Mattis said. “I want to make certain that our negotiators have something to negotiate with, that we want Russia back into compliance. We do not want to forego the INF, but at the same time, we have options if Russia continues to go down this path.”

Despite the lower yield of a new weapon, Mattis cautioned lawmakers against thinking of its use as anything less than strategic. There isn’t a “tactical nuclear weapon.” Any use is a “game changer,” he said.

Mattis said he went into the NPR process wary about modernizing all parts of the current triad, especially the Air Force’s plan for a new air-launched cruise missile. After reviewing the global situation, Mattis determined that this new long-range standoff missile is needed because Russia has fielded a large number of similar weapons. Mattis said he also has spent time at the Air Force’s missile fields, and insists that these ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are a “stabilizing element” that deters anyone who may want to use nuclear weapons first against the US.