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Trump's Pentagon expected to lower the bar on when the U.S. should use nukes

“There’s stuff here that’s really dangerous”
A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. Reviews of the U.S. nuclear arsenal show significant changes are needed to ensure the security and effectiveness of the force, a Defense Department report said November 14, 2014. (REUTERS/USAF/Airman John Parie/handout via Reuters)

The Trump administration has overhauled America's ground rules for starting nuclear war, introducing a new policy that increases the likeliness of a limited conflict transforming into a full-scale war that would put millions of lives at risk.

The Department of Defense is set to release its much-anticipated Nuclear Posture Review on Friday afternoon, and while it shares similarities to the Obama administration’s 2010 report, experts say it marks a more aggressive approach to nuclear weapons use. They know this because a draft was leaked to HuffPost earlier this month, and though there is always a possibility the official copy will differ from the leak, analysts said it was unlikely.


The Trump administration’s official policy on how and when nuclear weapons can be used is especially noteworthy, said James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton said the review lowers the threshold for the use of nukes.

“There’s stuff here that’s really dangerous,” Acton said. “Even the worst imaginable for me would still fall below the nuclear threshold.”

Acton noted that, under the new guidelines, the Trump administration could technically decide to respond to a cyberattack with nuclear weapons, a decision that could turn a smaller war into World War III.

“There is a distinct increase in the role of nuclear weapons,” Acton said. “In particular, the Trump NPR gives the U.S. the option of responding to non-nuclear strategic attacks with nuclear weapons.”

Additionally, the review calls for the development of new low-yield nuclear warheads, which the Department of Defense says would “enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States.”

The thing is, the U.S. already has hundreds of low-yield options. The request for more “proceeds from the erroneous assumption that there are gaps in the U.S. nuclear deterrent vis a vis Russia,” said Kingston Reif, the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.


“The NPR's call for additional low-yield weapons is a solution in search of a problem,” Reif said “There is no evidence that more usable nuclear weapons are necessary or would enhance deterrence.”

Finally the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons review relies on an increasingly insecure international environment. While certain nuclear-armed countries like North Korea do pose a threat, the review underestimates the current capabilities of American military might, the analysts said.

“The NPR understates the overwhelming power and credibility of existing U.S. military forces (both conventional and nuclear),” Reif said. “Some of the other nuclear-armed states have not been responsible nuclear citizens. Technology is advancing in new and unpredictable ways. And the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging. But none of this justifies the direction the Trump NPR proposes to take U.S. nuclear strategy.”

The budget for these programs has yet to be released, but if Trump’s previous comments on America’s nuclear arsenal are any indication, it’s likely to be received kindly from the White House.

Cover Image: A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. (REUTERS/USAF/Airman John Parie/handout via Reuters)