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U.S. puts new low-yield nukes on a submarine

Weapons are meant to counter nuclear threats from North and Russia

Feb 06,2020
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday it has deployed a new low-yield nuclear warhead on at least one strategic submarine, citing the need to deter potential adversaries, which could include North Korea.

John Rood, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement that the W76-2 low-yield warhead had been fielded on the U.S. Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

The move appeared to be reciprocal, according to Rood, who said it was “to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners.”

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported last week on the deployment of a new W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead on the Ohio-class USS Tennessee, which left a Georgia base at the end of last year and is patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. Submarines like the Tennessee also carry 90-kiloton (90,000-ton) W76-1 or 455-kiloton W88 warheads, and one or two of the 20 missiles on the Tennessee and other subsequent submarines are expected to be armed with the W76-2.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the FAS, estimated that each of the low-yield W76-2 warheads have an explosive yield of about five kilotons, or about a third of the power of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

The FAS estimates that the United States already has about 1,000 low-yield nuclear weapons that can be delivered by fighter jets,

Advocates for the new SLBM warheads say that low-yield warheads delivered on fighters might not be able to penetrate Russian air space.

But Kristensen assessed that despite the focus on deploying the weapon to deter Russia, “it is much more likely that the new low-yield weapon is intended to facilitate first-use of nuclear weapons against North Korea or Iran.”

Rood in his statement Tuesday said the dispatching of the W76-2 “demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.”

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review described that “in the near-term, the United States will modify a small number of existing SLBM warheads to provide a low-yield option, and in the longer term, pursue a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).”

This Pentagon review, released in February 2018, ahead of the summits and denuclearization dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, assessed that “Russia and North Korea have increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans and have engaged in increasingly explicit nuclear threats.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of last year warned that he could test a “new strategic weapon,” and some analysts have said it could be an advanced SLBM.

In October last year, North Korea said it had successfully test-fired a new type of SLBM, the Pukguksong-3, from waters off its east coast.

The addition of the W76-2s, seen as tactical nuclear weapons, has been seen by critics as reversing efforts in recent decades to remove and control nuclear weapons and could lead to a nuclear arms race.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington and chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, criticized the deployment of the W76-2 warheads in a statement Tuesday, saying it “increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis” and that “validating the utility of so-called ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons […] adds to the growing pressures of a nuclear arms race.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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