By John LaForge
Winter Quarterly 2018-19
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is the government’s most public nuclear weapons and war-planning paper. It provides smart-sounding euphemisms for reporters, teachers, researchers, and others who are interested in nuclear weapons policy. Since nuclear weapons can produce only human catastrophes with mass fires, obliterated hospitals, crushed first responders, and poisoned food and water, the “Posture Review” uses cool, detached, and technical terms to convince Congress and taxpayers about the “need” and “usefulness” of the Bomb and “deterrence.”
The phrase “low-yield nuclear weapon” is one of dozens of misnomers in the NPR. “Low-yield” refers to nuclear detonations ranging from 0.1 to 50 kilotons of TNT in explosive force. That is, up to three-times the 15 kiloton bomb the United States used on Hiroshima, killing 140,000. The White House NPR promotes building new “low-yield” warheads for Cruise missiles, submarine missiles, gravity bombs, and even land-based ICBMs.
Talking about low-yield nuclear weapons as if they are small is “dangerous,” says Alexandra Bell, of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “‘Low-yield’ [are] …the kind of weapons that were used in World War II,” she told Medill News Service last February.
Yet Elbridge Colby writes in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs now on newsstands. His article, “If you want peace, prepare for nuclear war.” Colby, a former Trump Administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy & Force Development, writes, “Washington’s task is clear. It must demonstrate … the right strategy and weapons to fight a limited nuclear war and come out on top.”
In a similarly hair-raising vein, David Lonsdale writes in the Nov. 7 issue of The Strategist (from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute), in an article titled “The demise of the INF Treaty and a return to nuclear war fighting”: “Should deterrence fail, the US must have the wherewithal to fight, survive and win a nuclear war.”
Never mind that even Ronald Reagan, who oversaw the production of 17,000 new nuclear weapons during his eight years in office, declared, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Depending on where a “low-yield” H-bomb detonates, “it still has city-killing potential,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in Washington. This power of mass destruction is overlooked partly because nuclear war planners have ignored the effect of mass fire caused by thermonuclear detonations.
In her book Whole World on Fire, Lynn Eden shows that “Because fire damage has been ignored for the last half century, high-level US decision makers have been poorly informed, if informed at all, about the damage that nuclear weapons would cause.”
“Any decision or threat to use nuclear weapons would in all likelihood,” Eden reports, “be based on a severe underestimate of the damage that would result. … Mass fire [sometimes called firestorm] and extensive fire damage would occur in almost every circumstance in which nuclear weapons were detonated in a suburban or urban area. … Under most circumstances, damage from mass fire would extend two to five times farther than blast damage.”