Did US President Donald Trump’s nuclear-status review last week make nuclear war more or less likely?
Has it enhanced or degraded Israeli security and deterrence to the extent that US nuclear actions could protect or engulf the Jewish state?
A fiery debate over the first major nuclear policy change since 2010, has been running for weeks, since before it came out.
Critics say Trump’s changes have destabilized the world and made nuclear war more likely. Supporters say they have provided a needed response to nuclear moves by US adversaries.
The nuclear review addressed three main issues: 1) making sure the US has everything nuclear that anyone else might have; 2) deterring adversaries from making land grabs on the geopolitical margins of countries that are viewed as less important; and 3) threatening a nuclear response to a major cyberattack.
The first issue notes that while the US under the Obama administration reduced its nuclear weapons arsenal in the hope that others would follow suit, Russia, China and North Korea all expanded or innovated aspects of their nuclear programs. In all of the complex nuclear deterrence games, Trump does not want the US to get in a situation in which an adversary has nuclear options that the US does not have. This is true even if the US’s general nuclear deterrent can sufficiently destroy any adversary.
The second issue is a response to Russia’s land-grab of large portions of Ukraine. It also obviously looks at China’s growing threat to Taiwan and North Korea’s threat to its neighbors. Less obviously, it may be directed at deterring Iran, at extending aspects of the US’s nuclear umbrella to Israel and to maintaining the status quo in other parts of the Middle East.
Regarding the third issue, cyber threats, the US, Israel and other nations are increasingly concerned that an adversary might try to cripple the US or Israeli electric grid, the telecommunications grid or some other critical national infrastructure component.
They fear that an adversary like Russia might try this and conceal its involvement, hoping the US could not trace the origin with enough certainty to robustly respond. Even if the trace was certain, how would the US respond to such a massively crippling but non-military attack? Israel has similar worries about Iran and Hezbollah.
Why has Trump’s nuclear review generated such criticism from arms-control experts? Is Trump’s new direction a correction of the Obama era denuclearization trend and an updating in line with present threats? Or is it taking the world dangerously close to the edge of the nuclear abyss? And how does all of this impact Israel?
On the first and second issues, arms-control critics say that Obama’s denuclearization direction was correct. They cringe at the idea of a nuclear superpower like the US feeling it needs newer nuclear weapons, or more than the 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons and thousands more stockpiled ones.
The critics suggest that arguing for more and new kinds of nuclear weapons, as opposed to just modernizing old ones like Obama suggested, sets a dangerous tone in which the weapons are more likely to be used.
More specifically, Trump’s review notes that Russia has developed new lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons for using in concert with conventional forces in a potential battle with NATO forces.
In the wild and complex mind-games of nuclear logic, Trump’s Pentagon is worried that Russia is more likely to use nuclear weapons now than in the past because it has low-yield weapons and the US does not.
How does this play out? Russia might make a move to grab more land in Ukraine or some other former part of the Soviet Union that the US and Europe already care little about. NATO forces might then want to challenge Russia or impede its progress with a defensive force.
RUSSIA COULD then use a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon on the “unimportant” country it is invading to eliminate opposition and scare off NATO.
The Pentagon believes that Russia believes that NATO would back off because its only recourse would be to use full-fledged nuclear weapons. Further, the view is Russia believes that NATO would not be ready to start an all-out nuclear war with Russia when Russia has “merely” used a low-yield atomic weapon on an unimportant country.
Trump’s answer: develop low-yield submarine-launched nuclear weapons which can be used against Russia in a conflict over an unimportant country.
Paradoxically, the Pentagon argues that the existence of an equal “low key” nuclear weapons will prevent Russia from additional land grabs in the first place. In other words, once the US can give Russia the same low-key nuclear pain it can dish out, Russia will scrap the whole land grab and nuclear weapons use idea as too risky.
Then the debate gets really hairy.
Critics say that the logic is unconvincing. They point out former vice president Joe Biden has shot down this view by noting that US conventional forces are so powerful, there is barely need for a nuclear deterrent.
Rather, critics say that the only thing that is more likely, if the US develops low-yield nuclear weapons, is that they will be used, whereas full-fledged nuclear weapons would not be used.
The logic of critics is that nuclear weapons should be kept so large and so horrible that no one will contemplate their use.
They say that as soon as the arsenal is a mix of big bad nuclear weapons and “not so bad” nuclear weapons, Trump and other world leaders are more likely to be to trigger happy.
Trump’s review “breaks with past US policy and ‘aligns with President Trump’s more aggressive and impulsive nuclear notions,’” said the Arms Control Association.
This last bit explains a lot.
Many aspects of modernizing the US’s nuclear apparatus were started by Obama.
But Trump’s verbal statements have been 10 times more in favor of using or boosting the US nuclear strength than Obama’s, or than even his own nuclear review.
So some of this is critics simply worrying about anything Trump might change related to nuclear weapons.
But Trump did not get Russia, China and North Korea to speed up their nuclear proliferation. That started and continued unimpeded for years before Trump came on the scene.
How does that impact Israel?
The Trump review gives little recognition to the Iran nuclear deal. Along with its attacks on that deal, in the near or long term, military deterrence, and not the deal, may be the only thing restraining Iran from breaking out to developing and potentially using a nuclear bomb.
It is harder to imagine Iran getting into a nuclear war with the US. But would Iran pass off a smaller dirty bomb to Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad to strike Israel and try to avoid it being traced back to it?
If that happened, would it be simple for Israel to respond and against whom would it respond?
Like Russia, Iran may think it could get away with such actions without a US response on behalf of Israel, because using “full” nuclear weapons would again be overdoing it and too risky.
But if the US has low-yield nuclear weapons, would that dissuade Iran from taking such a risky move?
The same could be true for greater Iranian or Hezbollah adventurism in Syria or using conventional weapons against Israel if Iran wielded a low-yield nuclear threat.
Also, the same could be true for Chinese adventurism with Taiwan and North Korean adventurism with its neighbors.
Critics say Israel has its own nuclear weapons, and it would not hold off from a full response, and that this threat would deter Iran from making such a risky move, rendering low-yield US nuclear weapons unnecessary.
WHAT ABOUT the third issue – the debate over Trump’s review possibly escalating using nuclear weapons as a response to a large cyberattack?
A willingness to go nuclear in response to a massive cyberattack increases the risk of a significant nuclear “blunder,” Ernest Moniz, Obama’s energy secretary, and former senator Sam Nunn, a co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed last week.
“If a cyberattack took out a major part of our electrical grid, would we be able to quickly and confidently identify the attacking country?” they asked.
The idea that Trump was in favor of responding with nuclear weapons to a cyberattack was fueled by a mid-January New York Times story which suggested just that based on a leaked draft of the review.
The review gives examples of “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” where the US would consider responding with nuclear weapons. Many observers and critics, including Moniz and Nunn, interpreted this ambiguous category as condoning responding to a cyberattack with nuclear weapons.
But the Pentagon is disputing that the Trump review calls for using nuclear weapons to response to a cyberattack.
“People who say we lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons are saying, ‘But we want these low-yield nuclear weapons so that we can answer a cyberattack because we’re so bad at cyber security.’ That’s just fundamentally not true,” Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week, according to the Defense One website.
Rather, Defense Department officials told reporters that nuclear responses to non-nuclear attacks referred to “catastrophic attacks against civilian populations, against infrastructure. It could be an attack using a non-nuclear weapon against our nuclear command-and-control [or] early-warning satellites. But we don’t talk about cyber.”
Defense One has reported that last week John Rood, US defense undersecretary for policy, was asked whether a service disruption would prompt a nuclear retaliation.
The report said that he did not directly respond, but he indicated the threshold for launching a nuclear strike is going up, not down.
Before launching a strike in response to a cyberattack on a power plant, US officials would want a lot of questions answered. “In the hypotheticals you cite, would that also involve the use of biological weapons against the US population or allies? Chemical weapons... a conventional attack against the US or our allies? The context... would be how we would evaluate an appropriate response.”
So US defense officials at least are tamping down fears that the US would respond to a cyberattack with a nuclear strike.
But will this satisfy critics who view Trump as a wild card, willing to ignore his civilian advisers? And even if they tamp down the fear, they are confirming that the threshold for a nuclear strike is getting lower.
Long before Trump’s review, commentators were already discussing how the US or Israel would respond to a devastating cyberattack and if a nuclear response would be on the table.
So the question was on the table before the review, and the review lowers the threshold for a nuclear response across the board.
To date, Israel actually has had a better record of fending off cyberattacks than has the US. But Israeli cyber officials have been unsure how they would respond to a devastating cyberattack. Last week, top Israeli military and civilian officials warned of potential devastating cyber-based pharmaceutical, electrical grid and other attacks. If the US is lowering its nuclear threshold, Israel may do the same.
Is all of this good or bad? If you are more worried about the new nuclear aggressiveness of Russia, China, North Korea and, in the future, possibly Iran, then a more aggressive US posture could be good for the US and for Israel. It could further deter US and Israeli adversaries from taking nuclear or cyber risks.
If you are more worried about “fire-and-fury-Trump” being the main risk in the use of nuclear weapons, and feel confident that existing US and Israeli nuclear abilities and conventional power are sufficient to deter a nuclear attack, the Trump nuclear review will definitely make you worry more.