"Usable" nukes, worst idea ever?

I think so. The nation with the most to lose through the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons keeps making the news for nuclear strategery. You’d think with our conventional forces advantage, we’d give the world some comforting news once in a while. Nope, “usable nukes.” Again. This story worked out so well for us the first time.

Sure, but the headlines will read “USABLE” NUKES! – USA.

I’ve got lots of other arguments. Until someone enlightens me on the upside to this seemingly dangerous nuclear brinksmanship, I’ll wait.

One of these days somebody is going to use a nuclear weapon again. If somone uses a nuclear weapon, or some other WMD, on the United States then there’s a better than fair chance that we will respond in kind. Would you rather the United States simply used the biggest bomb possible or go with something a bit smaller?

I’m sure you’d rather we used conventional forces then a nuclear attack. We currently have nuclear weapons in our arsenal and so long as we have them we have to be willing to use them. Otherwise just get rid of 'em.


We have quite a selection of smaller strategic weapons. What this is suggesting is a new class of small tactical nuclear weapons to be used on the battlefield. More “usable” weapons.

Should a nation use nuclear weapons on the United States I have no problem with responding in kind. I am arguing against anything resembling a first use policy. Stopping proliferation should be our first priority.

I believe in the “firebreak” argument also. Keep the gap large between conventional and nuclear weapons. That keeps you off the escalation chain to large nuclear weapons.

There is a critique immediately following previous quote, I don’t find it persuasive.

The United States has included a tactical element in its nuclear strategy for decades. The hypothetical devices in the leaked paper appear o be new variations on the theme, but let’s not pretend that this is a brand new dance. Tactical nuclear weapons have been around for quite some time.

As to the “firebreak” argument, I find little to recommend it. The author presents it as an outgrowth of the Cold War strategy of deterrence, yet the “firebreak” argument is essentially ethical in character, and I don’t believe that many folks would agree that Cold War nuclear strategies were primarily ethical in nature. As I recall, the acronym most often applied to Cold War arms control was MAD.

Of course, even if the “firebreak” was a significant element of Cold War arms control (which I seriously doubt, since both the Soviets and the US maintained a tactical nuclear capacity during the height of the arms race), I would have to wonder why it is being applied without modification to the current international situation, which bears little resemblance to the Cold War.

BTW, this page has a pretty good “brief history of the tactical nuke”.

Grim Cold War era joke:

Q: How do you define a tactical nuclear weapon?

A: One that explodes in Germany.

Leaked Pentagon Paper??? - I’m quite skeptical. But you ask for enlightment on the nuclear Brinkmanship, you probably will not get it. We have had tactical nukes for a very long time, our subs are fitted with them. Some have close to a hundred warheads on just one ship… nice deterrant

I think there’s some misunderstanding of the concepts of “tactical” vs. “strategic” here. How could sub nukes be considered tactical?

Sort of depends on the usage and the type. I’m not really sure I understand it myself. Essentially, tactical bombs are meant to be used in a smaller area.

“Tactical” versus “strategic”

Erm, Multiply tactical by 100 and you have a strategery. I really did not want to get bogged down terming the new weapons as “tactical.” What I meant was, the new class of weapons is designed to be used. This makes them more like ordinary tactical weapons than ever before. Until someone explains how usable nukes does not place us on the escalation chain to larger nukes, it’s just common sense, I’ll stick with the firebreak argument.

“It was true in the Cold War, but it’s not true now.” Why?

It was not an “ethical” argument, it was eminently practical. If you start with the small nukes, you have crossed a very real “firebreak” – that is the use of nuclear weapons. When the mushroom cloud goes up over the enemy’s elite armored unit or command bunker, they may not stop to say “Oh, that was just a small nuclear weapon.” No. They may just respond in kind, as we would.

Where are the lefties when I need them? Did someone leave the disarmament lefties back in the 1980s? Too busy sucking up to Stalinists with NBCs to come help a fellow traveller trying to rid the world of nuclear proliferation? :smiley:

Tactical nukes have always been “intended for use”. They played a part in pretty much every strategic analysis of a European theater engagement with the USSR.

You have missed my point. It was not true during the Cold War.

This is an ethical argument. I am not sure why you think an ethical argument cannot be practical, but your treatment above is implicitely dependent upon the idea that an enemy would withhold the use of nuclear weapons due to an ethical concern (has the other guy used them first) rather than a strategic concern (Am I losing? Will using nukes give me a better chance to win?)

The very idea that nuclear weapons are “too terrible” for use is an ethical argument. As are such ideas as minimizing collateral damage, treating prisoners humanely, etc. That does not mean that these positions cannot also be practical.

It’s not just that they are too “terrible.” I’ve already said two things: 1) I’m all for responding in kind to any nuclear attack on the US or its allies. 2) These nuclear weapons are bad precisely because they will be sold as being not terrible, “usable” in fact.

The actual use of nuclear weapons make every nuclear nation on the Earth consider a heightened state of alert. Nations with or without nuclear weapons all, justifiably, reject any non-proliferation or stockpile reduction agreements. To build a new class of nuclear weapons will require testing, we’ve agreed not to test new weapons. I don’t want to follow France’s lead on testing.

To make small nuclear weapons usable - a first use - is a horrible precedent. Other nations will not follow a higher standard of conduct than we will. How can we push disarmament and nuclear stockpile reduction, then test and make a “usable” class of weapons for a first use policy?

“Higher standard of conduct”? And yet you resist the characterization as an ethical argument?

Anyway, I do not disagree with you that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict would open a pandora’s box that I would much rather see naied shut and buried deep under the mountain. But the fact remains that the strategic approach outlined in this “leaked memo” is nothing new. Tactical nuclear weapons have been a standard element of conflict scenarios for more than 4 decades. I just wanted to clear up what I saw as a mistake in the presentation of facts regarding our nuclear strategies during the Cold War and today.

I agree that this won’t play well. Here’s the U.S. demanding that nations we don’t like don’t have nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons are terrible, terrible: and unlike conventional weapons, unthinkable to use, and therefore unthinkable to develop for practical use: they are (cue drum roll) Weapons of Mass Destruction! And yet… we are quietly planning on causually using nuclear weapons whenever it suits us.

Now, personally, I think the “type” of weapon is breaking down as a good way to think about the danger. Chemical weapons don’t belong in the same class as biological, and neither belong in the same class as nuclear. Five kilo nukes designed for underground detonation don’t belong in the same class as modern city-killing, radiation spewing warheads. The fact that they use the same process doesn’t make them the same, any more than eating an apple seed is like drinking cyinide, and I think it’s just wrong to morally equate the two. Saddam is developing city killers. These things we have may be nukes, but they are bunker-killers, and they do their work underground. Not the same thing.

However, for PR purposes, I don’t expect that most people in the world are going to see it this way, which is why I agree that things like this are probably miscalculations. There are many other ways we can take out bunkers: much more expensive I argee, but probably not worth the potential PR damage this could cause.

I think whether or not these “usable” nukes are a bad idea depends greatly upon the specific details of the weapons. Why are nukes in general considered so awful? It’s not because nuclear energy is inherently bad, or because dying by a direct nuclear blast is much worse than dying from a conventional bomb blast - dead and vaporized is dead and vaporized.

Nukes are considered evil incarnate for two reasons, as far as I can tell. The first is that they can potentially kill millions of people in one blast. The second is that they can irradiate an area, killing many more people slowly, and making an area uninhabitable for a time. So what if we could make a nuclear weapon that could be localized to the same extent that a conventional bomb can be? And further, what if we could make a nuke that had minimal, or even negligible, fallout? Would this still be an awful, evil weapon? I don’t see why. At the least, I don’t see why it would be any more awful and evil than a FAE bomb, or something comparable.

The article cited doesn’t really go into details much, it just says, “Ooh, usable nukes, how eeeeeevil!”, and leaves it at that. The one mention of specific technology that is mentioned is the “bunker-buster”. What I know of the bunker buster is as follows - it’s a bomb that can effectively burrow underground, and create a huge explosion beneath the earth, destroying everything down there, while creating minimal fallout. Basically, extremely localized Death and Destruction with considerably less radiation damage than a “normal” nuke. To me, this sound great. All the advantages of a nuke (Big Freakin’ Explosion sure to vaporize anything that needs vaporizin’), with few of the drawbacks (that whole irradiation of hundreds of square miles and millions of folks dead). If this is what they mean by “usable nukes”, hey, sign me up. Sounds like a pretty good deal.

Of course, by usable nukes, they could just mean “something that can take out a reasonably sized village, but probably wouldn’t decimate all of New York”, in which case I fail to see the use for that. But until I get a few more real, actual, honest-to-God facts, I don’t see how this qualifies as the Worst. Idea. Ever.

We could have said that we want to reduce the overall size of many of our existing nuclear weapons. We could have suggested a new class of small weapons to replace the strategic ones. The argument that a smaller nuclear weapon might maintain deterrence yet kill less civilians makes sense, MG. The problem is, what you say and how you sell it.

For example:

US wants to downsize and modernize nuclear deterrent force


We have the most precise conventional weapons in the world, some of the best scientists, and lots of money. Yet, we scare the world with talk of a nuclear first use policy with more “usable” nuclear weapons.

I’ll concede, the media sometimes twists what public figures, or governmenatl bodies say. To some degree, this is true here. But, to suggest a first use policy, under any circumstances is potentially fatal to any agreements concerning nuclear weapons. Let me be clear, if nuclear weapons become part of our everyday arsenal, we become hypocrites in the world’s eyes, justifiably. Why can’t every nation make a small nuclear weapon part of their arsenal? Then, the horsepower wars start. First they are 10KT, then 30, then…

Apos, you make a good point regarding the PR damage such weapons would create. As to whether that PR damage outweighs the potential benefits of such weapons is debateable, though. If a bunker-buster saves us hundreds of our soldiers’ lives in that we don’t need to trek on into enemy bases personally and try to take them out by hand, then it seems worth it to me. If it just saves a few dozen man hours, then it may not be worth it. One of the benefits of the proposed bunker-busters, as far as I’ve heard, is that it can effectively destroy any biological or chemical weapons that are down there. Once something gets hit, it’s good and gone, without having to send our troops in there to possibly get infected. That alone may be good justification for using nukes, but I don’t know the level of resources or of danger for sending men in to personally eradicate such bases. That would be the deal-maker or -breaker for me.

Uh don’t some of our ships carry nuclear warhead Tomahawk Cruise missles?

Nuclear artillery shells have been around fo quite a while.

Genie Surface to air missles? (no longer in service)

Don’t have a cite handy, but I recall that the US has always reserved the option of “first use” and has never heeded calls for a “no first use” policy.