The Biden Administration’s Willful Ignorance About US Nuclear Capabilities
To put it simply, in the current standoff over Ukraine’s territory, Putin has the advantage as far as nuclear threats go. The ongoing brinkmanship there has revealed a serious misunderstanding on the part of some analysts and most of the media attempting to define the threats made by Biden and Putin, by relating it to the Cold War environment.
The problem is that in the realm of deterrence, the U.S. no longer has a robust nuclear response at the very low end of the weapons spectrum whereas Russia does (if their maintenance is up to par). Let’s review an ignored aspect of the rush to draw down U.S. forces in the '90s.
Important sidenote: In the wake of the government raid on Mar-a-Lago and the DoJ’s assertion that “nuclear documents” were found, I must instead thank Obama for providing some of the numbers I’m using in this article. But I am being sarcastic in doing so, because generations of Americans and our allies sacrificed deeply to determine Russia’s and China’s comparable numbers, and to protect the information that Obama provided to all, in an act of near-treason.
On top of this, Israel’s policy of ambiguity concerning its nuclear weaponry was flushed down the toilet by Obama, a pathetic move just to make a deal with Iran.
The U.S.’s ground-based tactical nuclear capability was retired in the early '90s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, in essence, removed any means of preventing nuclear escalation beyond an operational theater. Rather than destroying cities, the tactical nuclear weapons no longer in our arsenal were designed for use against large Soviet combat formations on the march to confront NATO forces. These tactical nukes had 0.007 of the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Those who assume that Biden’s response to Russia’s potential use of nukes must entail using our own nukes must either be ignorant or have a death wish. This is because our only recourse would be to use high yield warheads resulting in destruction on a global scale.
Our inventory and that of the USSR included weapons fired by tube artillery, rockets and theater ballistic missiles. For example, the 155mm Artillery Fired Atomic Projectile was rated at 0.072 kilotons (kt), but according to Jane’s it was closer to 0.1 kt, which is equivalent to 100 tons of TNT.
For comparison purposes, the Pepcon rocket fuel explosion in Henderson, Nevada was rated at 0.3 kt; that is, three times as much as a 155mm AFAP. Depending on the situation, it would likely would have required a “package” of these weapons to adequately slow or stop a Warsaw Pact breakthrough operation.
The 155mm AFAP in use 1963-1992 (Los Alamos National Laboratory, public domain)
Next up in yield was the US Lance battlefield rocket, which ultimately had a yield of 1 kt. And finally, the Pershing II theater ballistic missile which had a “dial-a-yield” of 5 – 80 kt. Despite advances in warhead technology, we foresaw the problems of large yield weapons in preventing escalation outside the war zone and ensured later versions of both the Lance and Pershing warheads were reduced in yield, not increased.
The U.S., being the good guys, saw getting rid of the tactical level nuclear weapons as a peace dividend. However, there was also the realization that precision strike weapons employed at critical points could replace or supplement the low-yield weapons without all the infrastructure, training and exercises. Ask any old artilleryman about nuclear surety inspections where one minor infraction could be a career killer. They would say precision-guided conventional munitions is the way to go, thank you very much.
Of course, the Russians did not reciprocate despite agreeing to do so, and why would they? Just the length and breadth of Russia virtually dictates the necessity of having a tactical nuclear capability to cover such an expansive territory, particularly in the Russian Far East. Not only does Russia need to engage China on political and economic terms, should conflict come, its military doctrine requires a plan to employ tactical nuclear weapons in a potential Far East regional war against much larger Chinese conventional forces. This nuclear capability I would suspect is viewed as critical by the Kremlin leadership given the poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine.
I am not arguing to refurbish and reissue ground based tactical nukes. Only the folks at Pantex know the status of the projectiles, the nuclear material and the stockpile and they aren’t talking right now. This is not doable in the short term given the training and operational expertise that vanished a few decades ago. However, we have retained a low-yield capability in the form of the B-61 gravity bomb. It has a yield of 0.3 up to 50 kt and has recently had its non-nuclear components refurbished and tested. Yet, does the administration want B-1s and B-2s to overfly even the annexed territories with nuclear weapons? Don’t answer that.
So, the issue is not whether Putin will use nukes, it’s how Biden will respond if he is urged to conduct a U.S. nuclear response to a Russian tactical strike. The ignorant media is also cheerleading this nonsense. Martha Raddatz went on board a ballistic missile submarine, the USS Maine and basically thumbed her nose at Putin and seems to expect the Maine’s Trident strategic missiles to be an effective deterrent against Putin’s relative firecrackers.
If this reflects the thinking of Biden and the national command authority, we’re in big trouble.
This is why I pray that cooler heads would prevail and entertain all options, especially conventional means. Also Mike Pompeo’s alternative strategy at least deserves consideration if -- and a big if -- the U.S. wants to remain involved in the conflict, which I don’t, but here we are. If Biden, the American left, and the media continue on this path, we may see Raddatz go back on board the USS Maine again to push the honorary red button and send a 475 kt Trident missile on its way to Putin. Then all bets are off.
John Smith is the pen name of a former U.S. intelligence officer.