USA missile launches from its underground silo launch facility. Photo: iStock

When US Defense Secretary James Mattis was confirmed, he immediately began summoning professionals devoted to nuclear strategy to discuss the role America’s nuclear triad (air, sea, land) plays in the current evolving security environment.  The result was released last week in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR),  a document laying out the reasons for new nuclear deployments abroad.  Its aim is Russia, and here’s why.

For the past decade, Moscow has flagrantly violated arms control agreements by fielding intermediate ground-based nuclear missiles.  Mattis has authorized the US Department of Energy and the US Navy to develop and deploy identical ground-based intermediate nuclear missiles that would violate current INF (intermediate range nuclear force) treaties between the US and Russia.

The NRP acknowledges that the US’s evolving security environment requires new tactical nuclear weapons.  Mattis is looking to field low-yield tactical nuclear cruise missiles in the hope of strengthening US deterrence abroad. His view is that the US needs far more flexibility in delivering nuclear weapons than it currently possesses.  George Weaver, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for strategic capabilities, has revealed the concerns of US security principles have regarding hostile environments that remain difficult for US planners to penetrate.

By fielding highly mobile ground-based nuclear cruise missiles and low-yield tactical weapons, Mattis and his principals believe they can alter Russian threat perceptions

Mattis firmly believes that Russian nuclear calculus hems in US nuclear responses because the contemporary US triad is heavily conventional, meaning that America’s most deadly nuclear arsenal is housed deep in its interior and isn’t maneuverable. By fielding highly mobile ground-based nuclear cruise missiles and low-yield tactical weapons, Mattis and his principals believe they can alter Russian threat perceptions about US responses.  Mattis, Greaver and the NRP document make it clear that the goal is to raise Moscow’s threshold in initiating nuclear war.

Arms control advocates and 16 Democratic senators have serious reservations about this strategic aim, signing a letter addressed to the president asking him to reconsider deployment of low-yield tactical nuclear warheads abroad.  However, Robert Soofer, the US deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and defense policy, reiterated after the release of the NPR document that Mattis’ snew approach didn’t present radical changes but continued longstanding nuclear policies embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Soofer revealed that the Obama administration ordered the fielding of new stealth bombers, new ballistic missile submarines and new land-based ICBM’s.

Clearly, the entire US defense establishment has been thinking about engaging Russian provocations abroad for a decade.  It acknowledges the very limited reach that US conventional nuclear strategy has in our contemporary security environment.  Addressing the nuclear calculus of emerging near peer competitors is necessary, if the US is to continue to lead in the long war against Islamist terrorism.  For strategists, this means fortifying Germany, Poland, the Baltic and North Seas, so as to relieve mounting pressure on the peripheries in the Gulf.

Both the NPR and the White House National Security Strategy document recognize the return of balance of power geopolitics, the kind embraced by Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and other regional powers like Iran.  The reemergence of power blocks and tactical alliances has replaced the post-Cold War era of disorder:  revolutions, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies.  While intrastate war and genocidal conflict rages throughout pan-Africa unabated; it remains for the nation state writ large to deploy conventional nuclear calculus to strengthen diplomacy and alliances for security.

We now know what the end of history looks like, its back to the future with realpolitik.

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William Holland

William Holland is North American recruiter for Wikistrat global consultancy monitoring Pakistan's nuclear program.

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