Could a Low-Yield, Sub-Launch Nuclear Missile Stop a Russian First Strike?

Kris Osborn

Watch Video Above: Debate Rages About Sub-Launched, Low-Yield Nuclear Weapon

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Could a low-yield Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile help stop a Russian-launched first nuclear strike by ensuring a proportional response and holding enemy targets at risk of a precise, tailored nuclear attack? Conversely, could a newly emerging low-yield nuclear weapon lower the threshold to a dangerous limited or large scale nuclear war? Could potential adversaries mistake a conventional cruise missile for a nuclear weapon -- and therefore launch a nuclear weapon?

These questions are at the heart of a debate now raging through Congress between lawmakers who wish to stop the deployment of these weapons and those who believe they are critical to the US deterrence posture.

Some members of Congress are proposing legislation aimed at curtailing or even preventing the deployment of such weapons, prompting a strong response from advocates. Rep Mike Turner, R-Ohio. Turner’s recently published OPED in the Wall Street Journal specifies the argument in favor of the weapons as fundamental to US efforts to keep the peace.

"Russia has openly described, and rehearsed in military exercises, a military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.” Under this strategy, Russia would attack using smaller nuclear weapons, understanding that the U.S. would hesitate to respond without a way to act proportionally. This doctrine has led Moscow to think it has an advantage, and appears to have lowered its threshold for first use of nuclear weapons,” Turner writes.

Turner further makes the argument that the newly introduced low-yield weapons are scheduled to be deployed before this year’s defense bill becomes effective …. “meaning that this provision would pre-emptively recall the weapons from deployment.

Detractors, such as HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., express concern that the new weapon could inspire a new arms race and, perhaps of greater concern, lower the threshold to nuclear war. Smaller, more precise nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, could make some enemies more likely to consider a first strike. Finally, those opposed to the weapon maintain that its deployment could lead potential enemies to mistake an incoming conventional attack as a nuclear one - therefore prompting a nuclear response.

Pentagon officials have told Warrior that early draft plans for the weapon are already underway as weapons developers take the next step in developing the weapon.

Many of the particular technical configurations are still to be determined, however the Pentagon planners have outlined an initial sketch of what these weapons might include, Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, told Warrior Maven in an interview earlier this year.

Low-yield is as it sounds - smaller, more surgical and less destructive than most nuclear weapons.

"There are currently over 1,000 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal that have low-yield options. A yield is considered low if it’s 20 kilotons or less," an essay from the Federation of American Scientists states.

Development of the weapon can happen quickly, because it could involve re-configuring the existing Trident II D5 to carry a lower-yield warhead, Kristensen said.

This low-yield nuclear missile option does appear to add something not currently present in the US arsenal. While the emerging B-21 will be configured to fire lower-yield, more precise B61 Mod 12 weapons, a sub launched nuclear weapon bring newer avenues of attack and long-range strike without having to be over or near heavily defended areas from the air. The newer B61 Mod 12, Kristensen said, will bring even greater levels of precision than other lower-yield weapons.

Regardless, sea-launched low-yield weapons would bring attack options without placing air crews in harms way.

The other proposed nuclear weapons application, according to those identified by the NPR, is a shorter-range sea-launched cruise missile. Nuclear cruise missile options, potentially fired from a submarine or ship, can bring even more precision, Kristensen said.

A sea launched cruise missile could include a handful of possibilities. The Pentagon previously had a nuclear armed Tomahawk missile, which was retired in 2011

When testifying before Congress last year, former Defense Secretary James Mattis and other senior Pentagon leaders explained the NPR and its rationale for adding new low-yield nuclear attack weapons.

They stressed that neither of these new nuclear weapons recommendations in the NPR require developing new nuclear warheads or will result in increasing the size of the nuclear stockpile. NPR DoD advocates further stressed that the addition of these weapons does align with US non-proliferation commitments.

From the Nuclear Posture Review:

Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict. Recent Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons.

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Comments (7)
No. 1-7

"Proportional response to a Russian nuclear attack?" There's the problem right there. It has to be clear that the response will be disproportional. Stopping the attack from ever happening in the first place is the way to go, and the threat of ending them instead of giving them the option of absorbing the response ain't it.


Are we really stupid enough, as a nation, to risk the loss of a $5B strategic asset (one of 12-14) by firing a $38M missile with ONE 5KT warhead?!?!

Once the boomer exposes itself by firing a single Trident, the boat and the other 16 (Columbia class) or 24 (ohio class) missiles are forfeit as their remaining life-span would presumably be measured in hours, supposing that we did indeed fire off a nuke to reduce tensions (a laughable supposition) - the boat becomes a use-it-or-lose-it asset and the pressure to fire off the rest before they are lost will be immense.

The US exit from INF will allow the rearming of Tomahawk (and its eventual follow-on or reactivated AGM-129) with nuclear weapons to be launched from ships and subs, but the best option would be a low yield weapon on an already legal air-launched missile to effect a "Proportional response to a Russian nuclear attack"

Karl -Moderator
Karl -Moderator

You raise an important point - in fact some in Congress are making that exact argument - saying there should never be a proportional response considered but rather, as you point out, a massive response guarantee is need to ensure deterrence. Do you think this weapon will be stopped? Karl - Warrior Maven Moderator


These developments make guidance and targeting and actual operational status of ICBMs much more vulnerable to attack. Accordingly, various kinds of built-in defenses, sensors and warning systems are quite likely to figure prominently in the GBSD development.


Karl -Moderator
Karl -Moderator

Great point - that is exactly what developers say - that advanced sensors are needed to respond to a new threat environment.... do you think they will make a difference stopping enemy interceptors?


Depends what they hit with it? Command and control, leadership?


The issue would be a massive response from Russia or China. Nobody is promising anything proportional, that's us, not them. War is war, seems ignorant to expect otherwise. If we are going to strike, then it must be massive and damaging enough to discourage retaliation. In the case of Russia, I think there is massive nuclear retaliation, if any nukes are used against them. China on the other hand may not be so eager to end their own existence so quickly. The only logical strategy is to assume the worst and if things work out for the better, then so be it. Better that than getting caught with our pants down...

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