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The Other NPR: Nuclear Posture Review


This month, the Pentagon is rolling out its first new strategic plan in 10 years. The move is away from fighting terrorism and instead calls for more weapons in order to match Russia and China. This includes nuclear weapons. The shift in policy is reflected in the document known as the Nuclear Posture Review. It calls for building smaller nuclear weapons that could be used against foreign aggressors not just in response to a nuclear strike but also potentially to a cyberattack. That frightens many. Here is former Secretary of State George Shultz, who served under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.


GEORGE SHULTZ: One of the alarming things to me is this notion that we can have something called a small nuclear weapon and that, somehow, that's usable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are joined in the studio by Alexandra Bell. She is senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation here in Washington. Good morning.

ALEXANDRA BELL: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the idea behind a lower-yield nuclear weapon is - what? - that it would kill fewer people? Does it have a particular tactical advantage? What's the argument for them?

BELL: The idea is that it would be more usable, that our largest nuclear weapons and our arsenals would somehow deter us, that we wouldn't want to cause that much damage. So we need these smaller options to convince countries that we will, in fact, respond to aggression.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me - when we talk about a smaller payload, what exactly does that mean?

BELL: Honestly, the best example I can give you were the bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were both under 20 kilotons. Twenty and under is what we consider a low-yield nuclear weapon. So it's smaller than a lot of the weapons we have in our arsenal. But it is still a city destroyer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration says that we are seeing Russia, China expand their arsenals. And shouldn't the United States be doing the same?

BELL: We, like the Chinese and Russians, are investing in our nuclear weapons stockpile. The United States should not be buying into an idea that the expansion of a nuclear arsenal is somehow in our interests. I think George Shultz was warning lawmakers, warning policymakers. As a Cold warrior who was a part of a massive expansion of nuclear weapons and then eventually walking away from that potential threat, he's telling people not to do this.

And I'm hoping that lawmakers will listen to him. We've already tried low-yield, small nuclear weapons. At one point, we even had a nuclear weapon called the Davy Crockett, which is effectively a nuclear bazooka. We've gone down this road before, and we decided against it. There's no reason to repeat past mistakes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to get at something else that the Nuclear Posture Review changes. And that is when the United States would use a nuclear weapon. Can you talk a little bit about how that posture has changed?

BELL: It's actually incredibly alarming that the Trump administration is putting forth the idea that we could use nuclear weapons in response to a cyberattack. There are cyber threats out there. We should be dealing with them. But a nuclear weapon is not the answer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Basically, it says that the threshold is lower for firing a nuke. It's not just if someone fires one at us that we would fire back. It's now, let's say someone launches a sort of asymmetrical attack on the United States. Then we could use these weapons in response.

BELL: That is the theory. The Trump plan actually puts multiple options on the table - nuclear weapon in response to a chemical attack, to a biological weapons attack, to an attack on civilians without a real description of where that threshold is and really widens the options for President Trump to use nuclear weapons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This obviously is a proposal - the Posture Review. It's not exactly - it's a blueprint of what the administration wants, as opposed to something that's already done. They need to get the money for it. And this is something that obviously takes place over years, not months. So what's been the response?

BELL: I think Congress is going to view a lot of these proposals, particularly the new nuclear weapons, very skeptically. Modernizing our current arsenal is already expected to cost us about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years - adjusted for inflation $1.7 trillion. So now the Trump administration is coming in, saying, not only do we want you to pay for that. We want these new things. We don't even know what they would cost or the possible consequences. It's, I don't think, going to be politically palatable among people who are already a little concerned about Trump and nuclear weapons, nor will it be attractive to budget hawks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alexandra Bell of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.