The Department of State on Friday framed deployment of a low-yield warhead aboard U.S. submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles as a means of preventing a nuclear arms race.
The agency’s 10-page, election-year publication is part of a series of Arms Control and International Security Papers and takes aim at most critiques against the low-yield warhead leveled by Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, which is now drafting the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
In the 10-pager, State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance said U.S. deployment of the W76-2 warhead — the first of which the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) took on patrol in December — prevents reliance on a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to a relatively lower-yield nuclear attack by Russia against a NATO target, along with the need to arms-race back toward Cold War-levels of forward-deployed tactical weapons in Europe.
“The United States has no need for a massive buildup,” the State Department paper reads.“The United States does not need thousands of non-strategic nuclear weapons for our strategy because we are explicitly rejecting the notion of a war of attrition via short-range nuclear weapons.”
State also refuted critics’ idea that the United States built the W76-2 to become its one and only response to an adversary’s limited nuclear strike, saying “[t]he United States has no such doctrine” as automatically responding to limited nuclear war with limited nuclear war.
The State Department said the W76-2’s ability to strike any target at any time precluded development of a new delivery system for the new low-yield nuke, and forced Russia to contend with the idea that a low-yield nuclear strike against NATO in Europe might lead to nuclear retaliation on the battlefield or against the nation itself.
A low-yield weapon without global range grants “the Russian homeland as sanctuary, as long as it does not fire nuclear weapons at the U.S. homeland,” according to State.
One name-brand arms control advocate on Monday threw cold water on State’s contention that painting a bulls-eye on Russian cities with W76-2 was a “restrained” means of holding the Kremlin in check.
“What can the low yield [submarine launched ballistic missile] do that our current low yield nuclear systems cannot?” Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mused on Twitter. “Range and penetrate into downtown Moscow. Which doesn’t seem all that restrained.”
As it sends a small number of W76-2 warheads on patrol aboard Ohio-class submarines, the U.S. is still studying a possible low-yield, sea-based cruise missile to replace the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile that the Barack Obama administration retired.
The NNSA’s share of the research for the planned cruise missile is coming out of the maintenance fund for the W80 warhead, which tips the current generation of air-launched cruise missiles and is slated to tip the next-generation Air Force cruise missile, the Long-Range Standoff weapon that Raytheon Technologies [RTX] will build.