If the U.S. opts to develop low-yield nuclear missiles, the USN wants to deploy such weapons as part of the nation’s undersea nuclear deterrent, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command told Congress Thursday.
If developed, the U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons would fall within limits set by the New START nuclear arms treaty, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. New START, signed in 2010 by the U.S. and the Russian Federation, caps the number of nuclear warheads each nation deploys.
“We’ll actually remove big weapons from the submarines and put small ones in,” Hyten said. “We’re going to have still the same number weapons, they just going to give us a smaller yield. But we think that smaller yield actually gives us a better chance to deter our primary adversary.”
Pentagon leaders and members of Congress worry Russia, China and others already are developing low-yield nuclear weapons in an attempt to gain an advantage over the U.S. or allied nations protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, said the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio).
“There is a concern that we might not retaliate, because if all of our weapons are such a large size, that we would be deterred because we’d be seen as escalating to their escalate,” Turner said.
However, not all lawmakers agree that low-yield nuclear weapons dramatically increase the ability of the nation’s nuclear triad to deter adversaries. Their worry is developing low-yield nuclear weapons will result in a low-yield nuclear arms race.
“I continue to be unconvinced of the value of low-yield weapons,” Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) said.
Several of Davis’ colleagues share her skepticism, including HASC chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). Smith is a frequent critic of the low-yield nuclear weapons plan. In September, he was among a group of lawmakers from the House and Senate who sought to prohibit the development of low yield nuclear weapons for submarines.
“We should not fund President Trump’s request for new low-yield nuclear weapons. His proposal dangerously lowers the threshold to nuclear use and siphons money away from genuine military readiness needs,” Smith said at the time. “We already have a nuclear deterrent that is more than adequate to achieve our national security goals. Funding new, low-yield weapons would only draw us further into an unnecessary nuclear arms race and increase the risks of miscalculation.”
Meanwhile, as the Pentagon waits for approval to develop low-yield nuclear weapons, military leaders are also developing hypersonic weapons. However, if created, the Columbia-class SSBN submarines will not carry hypersonics.
“There is no plan to put a conventional weapon on an SSBN,” said Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, the Navy’s director of Strategic Systems Programs.