On February 4, 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense officially announced the first combat patrol mission of a nuclear-powered submarine carrying low-yield nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Some details were reported several days before that: the platform was USS Tennessee, which had went on combat patrol in the Atlantic in late 2019.
The low-yield combat payload in question represent the all-new W76-2 thermonuclear warhead for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). It is a derivative of the standard “light” W76-1 warhead, with the original secondary stage removed. As a result, the original yield of 100 kt has been reduced to between 5 and 7 kt.
According to official explanations, up to and including those contained in the new nuclear doctrine , the United States intends to use the weapon to give additional stability and flexibility to its regional (not strategic!) nuclear deterrence. The idea is that the number of such missiles will be limited, because they are intended for fairly specific purposes.
The U.S. military had long sought permission for low-yield nuclear weapons from the White House, arguing that the president was only limited to high-yield weapons as a last resort and that “interim” response options would come handy in certain scenarios. These were eventually termed “tailored” nuclear scenarios in the new doctrine.
These statements become more specific when looked at through the prism of expert chatter, stories run by specialized publications and private statements. Such as: What if the Russians attack an Eastern European country and, quite inevitably, receive a devastating response from NATO, but then they cunningly use their tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to raise the stakes? How would the free world respond to that?
Their requests are quite simple and clear. The only question here is, why use a strategic SLBM in a purely tactical mission?
Something is Lacking
The U.S. has two types of nuclear weapons in its arsenals that would perfectly fit the purpose in terms of their yield. There are AGM-86B (ALCM) long-range air-launched cruise missiles, the backbone of the strategic triad’s air component. These are tipped with W80-1 warheads with dialable yield from 5 to 150 kt. There are also B61-family tactical nuclear gravity bombs that come in four different variants, some of them with 300 t and 1.5 kt yield in TNT equivalent.
Why another low-yield warhead?
The problem is not in the warhead itself, but in the delivery method. Russia, and the USSR before it, have historically been inferior to NATO in terms of airpower. For this reason, Russia has always relied on air defence (and electronic warfare) and is perhaps still the best when it comes to building reliable multi-layered air defence. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to penetrate a single air-launched nuclear weapon through that detection and multiple engagements system. The ALCM has been around for a long time, it is a well-known missile. Its more advanced derivative, the AGM-129, was decommissioned because it proved to be inferior. The combat aircraft with B61 were similarly ill-suited for such a hostile environment . Starting a nuclear mission and stupidly losing the delivery vehicle to a Pantsyr or an S-400 would have been a much harder blow than refraining from participation in the escalating conflict.
Single nuclear strikes (as opposed to the massive use of nuclear force) on the theatre become a challenge. Theoretically, at some point, the United States will have nuclear systems that would be up to the task due to their stealth capabilities (LRSO cruise missiles, F-35 combat aircraft plus B61-12 guided bombs) or short flight time combined with the ability to break through air or missile defence (land, sea or air-launched hypersonic boost-glide systems). However, the problem articulated by the United States has to be addressed right now.
This leads to a palliative solution that implies removing the secondary stage from the W76-1 and using the resulting mini-Trident as a guaranteed delivery vehicle. Strange as it may seem, high accuracy is not required here. Not only will the strike be directed against a “soft” target (tactical formations, emplaced positions, or above-ground structures), but it does not even have to hit that target since it is the very fact of the use of nuclear force that matters during the early stages of escalation and not the actual damage.
It may seem clear, but how real is this image of “deterring” Russia? Is it even possible to have such a conflict as the one described in the American strategic papers?
On Reading and Comprehension Skills
Descriptions of a possible conflict along the lines of “Russia suddenly invaded the Baltic states, pre-emptively used its TNW to confuse NATO and force the alliance into a retreat” do not even merit earnest critical consideration. It is quite sad that such ideas are widespread among western political scientists and security experts . However, even an expert with the greatest bias against Russia is likely to acknowledge that no matter what one thinks of Russian dignitaries, no matter what malicious intents one ascribes to them, believing these people to be infantile or irrational is a crucial research fallacy. Over the last couple of decades, the Russian elites have demonstrated a reserved, mistrustful and utterly rational (to the point of cynicism) approach to foreign and domestic policies, an approach that is utterly incompatible with the reckless idea of “let’s occupy the Baltic states, detonate a bomb and threaten a total nuclear war, because we’re bound to lose any other way.”
But what is this idea based on? It is based on Russia’s actual nuclear strategy, the general understanding of which is almost completely the opposite to its intended meaning. Russia has constructed a defence plan against a stronger enemy on the basis of the concept of the limited use of nuclear weapons in special cases.
The logic of “de-escalating” a military conflict by raising the stakes in the form of limited (including demonstrative) use of nuclear weapons has been repeatedly expounded both in general terms and in military details. Asymmetric scenarios are no exception. In such cases, a country responds to a massive attack of conventional forces with a first (limited) nuclear strike. Since, following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the lengthy socioeconomic crisis of the 1990s, Russia had significantly fewer conventional weapons than NATO, it was a rational strategic deterrence plan that implied balancing out conventional weapons with nuclear forces .
This was duly reflected in strategic planning documents. The foundation for such planning was laid back in 1993, when Russia officially disengaged itself from the 1982 Soviet obligation not to deliver the first nuclear strike, even though this use of nuclear weapons still applied to a global war only . Subsequently, Russia developed a full-fledged military doctrine in 2000 that allowed the use of nuclear weapons “in situations that were critical for the national security of the Russian Federation,” including “in response to a large-scale aggression using conventional weapons.”
In 2010, the new version of the military doctrine showed the direction of Russia’s military development. The wording became more specific: now nuclear weapons could only be used in a conflict that “threatened the very existence of the state.” The current 2014 doctrine retains this strict wording and additionally bolsters it by introducing the notion of “strategic non-nuclear deterrence” that had previously been absent.
Let us note that this latter step was taken at the peak of the military and political crisis between Russia and the West, in the second half of 2014. If Russia had indeed relied on the irrationally incommensurate nuclear deterrence of the West and, in accordance with the classical “madman theory,” had wished to convince the West of this, there would have been no obstacles in the way of Russia enshrining such deterrence officially. Instead, Russia demonstratively enacted a “doctrinal détente.”
They Offered War and Nobody Came
Taken together, these developments reflected Russia’s efforts to rebuild and modernize its armed forces setting a course for raising the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and for gradually filling up all those potential rungs on the escalation ladder that previously had to be “secured” using nuclear means with non-nuclear precision-guided weapons.
A number of motives driving this evolution can be identified. First, it is a flexible and comprehensive approach to deterrence that was not entirely typical for the USSR in the last years of its existence . Second, there is a clear unwillingness to endow nuclear weapons with any significance greater than that inevitably required by the military strategic balance. Third, the logic of this development directly contradicts the very idea of “nuclear coercion” in regional conflicts with NATO. To coin a phrase, Russia has been gradually “clearing the mines” from a dangerous destabilizing situation that had emerged on the continent following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and significant curtailing of the potential of Russia’s armed forces. The temporary lowering of the threshold for using nuclear weapons reflected precisely the transitory nature of the current factors.
Thus, at the moment, we can presume that Russia cannot simply deliver a first nuclear strike when things start going wrong in a military conflict with a near-peer adversary. The circumstances have to be more severe than this, in which is clearly and presently suffering a large-scale military defeat that threatens a national disaster. Regardless of who started it.
Let us, however, go back to “mini-Tridents” and see what their place in this scenario is. Everything appears to be just the same, but there is one flaw that cannot be eliminated. Such weapons systems will hardly be an effective deterrent if Russia has been cornered so badly that it used nuclear weapons to de-escalate a catastrophically developing conflict with NATO (and it does not matter whether we are talking about the very fact of their existence, as the United States sometimes claims, or about the outcome of a retaliatory strike). The problem of an impending defeat has not been eliminated and, consequently, neither was the stimulus for the further use of nuclear weapons. In this case, the initiating state will simply move to the next rung of the escalation ladder, delivering a multiple strike on the battle ground or selecting a more valuable and sensitive target for a single strike (for instance, within the continental United States). Psychologically, this transition will be much easier (not to say more thoughtless) than the decision to deliver an initial strike.
The crucial thing is that this is precisely the scenario where the apparent military and technical advantages of the “mini-Trident” we mentioned above will lose their importance. Facing an imminent large-scale military defeat, Russia’s integrated air and missile defence system will have been largely “dismantled” through the intensive and successful use of NATO’s precision-guided weapons, and resistance to air and missile strikes will have taken on fragmented nature. In such circumstances, a “mini-Trident” is excessive as a delivery vehicle for a single strike. These tasks can be handled by usual means, such as cruise missiles or combat aircraft. Moreover, “mini-Tridents” will even be harmful in such a situation: an SLBM launched and detected by the early warning systems (which would be left intact in such a conflict), may be misconstrued by Russia given the acute stage of the crisis and thus prompt a launch-on-warning . NATO most certainly does not need this, since it would actually be winning such a war “on points.”
The W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead:
-is officially aimed against the non-existent scenario of Russia using nuclear weapons in an act of provocation in the unrealistic event of a Russia—NATO conflict;
-is unable to deter Russia’s first use of nuclear weapons in an actual crisis situation as prescribed by its nuclear doctrine;
-harbours an additional destabilizing potential.
What is the point of this warhead then?
“I Don’t Know Who Needed it or What They Needed it For”
Note that in our story, the outlandish strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” has become intertwined with the notion of escalation control, or the idea that a conflict (including a nuclear conflict) can be proactively managed by keeping it low-intensity. This is not surprising at all because the two concepts are the same thing. Consequently, we have to go much further back in time, to the turn of the 1950s–1960s in the United States, to find the roots of this phenomenon. The single, yet crucial remark here is that escalation control is a scholastic and convoluted theory, an exercise for minds with a propensity for abstract thinking. Meanwhile, “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, as it is described today, is, in terms of both political motivation and means of implementation, a highly oversimplified form of the concept.
The United States is a pioneer in terms of introducing plans for limited use of nuclear weapons in practice. If we recall the entire history of the its “counterforce”— the 1974 Schlesinger Doctrine, Carter’s 1980 PD–59 plan and other contrivances of the heights of the Cold War, we will find it very hard to pretend that “mini-Tridents” appeared as an emergency response to Russia’s particularly malicious nuclear doctrine of the last few years. Back in 1962, Robert McNamara said that the United States could look for a way to stop a war on favourable terms, using its own forces as a bargaining chip, threatening further attacks. He further noted that, in any case, the highly secured large reserves of fire power could convince the enemy to abstain from attacking U.S cities and could stop the war .
We should not view these things as tales of a long gone bipolar past. A current 2019 American paper on planning nuclear operations states that, “Employment of nuclear weapons can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign. A nuclear weapon could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more-favorable terms .”
It is sometimes hard not to think that the current nuclear strategy of the United States is subject to a kind of “projective” logic, something that should be familiar to practicing psychologists and means projecting one’s own aspirations and associations onto another person. In this ironic sense, mini-Tridents are very convenient as a nuclear weapons for “limited-scale” operations long since embraced by the U.S. military doctrine. Whether or not they are holding Russia back from an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, or if Russia is somehow self-deterring, is beyond the point. What is important is the very fact that such a potential exists, as arms control experts put it, capabilities are always more important than intentions.
One feature of Trident II SLBM is its depressed trajectory, which makes it possible to use the missile where very short flight time and a relatively low apogee are needed. Thus, at a striking distance of 1900 km, the missile will reach the target in six to seven minutes, never going higher than 150 km, and it will cover a distance of 3000 km in nine to ten minutes with a maximum height of 185 km . Taking into account the changes in precision, it is generally accepted that these SLBM possess significant counter-force capabilities, which puts them beyond the classical role of “city killers” in retaliation strikes that is usually assigned to sea-launched missiles.
This means that the choice of the delivery vehicle was not accidental, although it was influenced by the desire to save time and money. The platform is indeed resilient against air and missile defence, allows for very short flight time and is convenient for discriminate nuclear strikes with low “collateral damage.” Besides, with this payload, it does not pose any counterforce threat for the strategic nuclear force of a potential enemy (the same accuracy with 15–20 times less yield) and planning officers could therefore erroneously perceive it as a relatively “stabilizing” kind of weapon. It is not such a weapon, due to a reduced nuclear use threshold and functional ambiguity of delivery vehicle.
Yet, the danger of low-yield nuclear warheads being deployed is not so much in the lowering of the nuclear threshold as such. First of all, it is about the continuation of a much more encompassing dual process, which erodes two categories: the clear differences between nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons on the one hand, and between strategic and tactical weapons on the other. Mini-Tridents bear the prints of both, especially if you recall how much effort was spent only 10–15 years ago to equip them with non-nuclear precision-guided warheads (nothing came of it, but lightening, or in this case, the shell, most certainly did strike the same place twice).
The result of the changes taking place in the respective nuclear doctrines of the United States and Russia can hardly be considered positive. The United States (if freed from the burden of having to explain its actions) directly raised the question of “usable” nuclear weapons, that is, a battlefield capability, and not an instrument of strategic deterrence. Thus, the image of conflicts of the future implies a limited use of nuclear weapons, including, possibly, against non-nuclear states—the United States has already tried to include such provisions in its 2018 nuclear doctrine. Subjectivity is also important here. Donald Trump is a man of exceptional sincerity and consistency. Look at his campaign promises and compare them with actions in the White House. But even during the election campaign, Trump noted that he does not understand the meaning of weapons that cannot be used.
Given all the severe restrictions we emphasized above, Russia continues to think of itself as of a besieged fortress that is about to fall. This leads, among other things, to the desire to make its nuclear doctrine as opaque as possible, implementing a strategy of “deterrence through uncertainty,” the traditional refuge of the weakest side (take China, for example, which has been adhering to this approach for 50 years). Another national habit, namely making non-strategic strike systems dual-capable (which is both cheap and convenient, and, again, in certain scenarios increases the constraining uncertainty) creates further problems in this area.
Both attitudes do the same job, albeit from different sides and in different ways. They both blur the “red lines” of the first use of nuclear weapons. In the case of the United States, this line descends lower to the area of “clashes,” due to the development of delivery vehicles and the appearance of the illusion that such an employment can be controlled, is limited and implies supposedly low “collateral damage.” It feels like a nuclear strike, but not really. In the case of Russia, the intentional management of nuclear uncertainty lays down destabilizing factors for possible military and political crises, complicating their course and simplifying the transition (including erroneous) from the non-nuclear section of the escalation ladder to the nuclear one.
This might sound like a paradox, but both superpowers are escalating the strategic nuclear risks by solving situational problems caused by the lack of political trust. One problem deals with the imaginary lack of low-intensity deterrence against Russia’s aggressive behaviour, while the other continues to safeguard the risks of a no-less-imaginary NATO intrusion amid the continuing weakening of conventional forces.
All the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy are met. Nuclear Posture Review 2018. Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018, pp. 54–55.  Davis P. K. et al. Exploring the Role Nuclear Weapons Could Play in Deterring Russian Threats to the Baltic States. Santa-Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019, pp. 52–53.  See, for instance: Kroenig M. A Strategy for Deterring Russian Nuclear De-Escalation Strikes. Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, 2018; Luik J., Jermalavičius T. A Plausible Scenario of Nuclear War in Europe, and How to Deter It: A Perspective from Estonia. // Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2017. Vol. 73. No 4, pp. 233–239; Schneider M. B. Escalate to De-Escalate. // Proceedings. 2017. Vol. 143/2/1,368 (Feb. 2017), pp. 26–29.  Note that this is essentially “mirroring” the situations of the 1960s–1970s, when NATO relied on America’s forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe to balance out NATO and Warsaw Pact’s conventional weapons.  Principal provisions of Russia’s Military Doctrine. Presidential Executive Order 1833 of November 2, 1993.  Studies by several western experts based on contacts with members of the Soviet military and political leadership indicate that, despite having done the relevant theoretical work, the USSR only planned on the concentrated use of nuclear weapons (both on the battle ground and against the enemy’s strategic targets behind the front lines). See, for instance: Hines J. G., Mishulovich E., Shull J. F. Soviet Strategic Intentions 1965–1985. Vol. I: An Analytical Comparison of U.S–Soviet Assessments During the Cold War; Vol. II: Soviet Post-Cold War Testimonial Evidence. McLean, VA: BDM Corporation, 1995.  It is not very likely, but still probable, and this is precisely the strategic “black swan” that leads to the situation collapsing without any chance of recovery. Concerning the real influence highly unlikely events with a highly significant effect have on nuclear deterrence, see: Yarynich V. E. C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation. Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003.  McNamara R. S. Speech before the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, 17 Feb. 1962. Cited after: Ball D. Deja vu: The Return to Counterforce in the Nixon Administration. Santa-Monica, CA: California Seminar on Arms Control and Foreign Policy, 1974.  Joint Publication 3–72, Nuclear Operations, 11 Jun. 2019, pp. V–3.  Gronlund L., Wright D. Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: А Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities. // Science and Global Security. 1992. Vol. 3. No. 1. pp. 100–160.