Postures, Policy For Low-Yield, Disruptive Weapons
The immediate humanitarian and environmental effects of Russia’s threatened use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine are not the gravest threats facing international peace and stability.
Rather, the greatest concerns should be the failure of U.S. nuclear deterrence, implications for broader proliferation and the resultant shift from the liberal democratic global order posed by any violation of non-use of nuclear arms. The implications extend to all forms of weapons of mass destruction and/or disruption that to date have been deeply regarded as opprobrious among democracies. Discriminate use of even the lowest yield chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons would be highly disruptive beyond the battlefield and would loosen norms and weaken U.S. leadership of the international order.
Since Moscow increased rhetoric on nuclear use, many observers have focused upon the danger of escalation that could put the United States and NATO into direct conflict with Russia.
President Joe Biden in October invoked worry over “Armageddon” in a speech about the Russian threat, stating that this is the first time since the Cuban missile crisis that there has been a direct risk of nuclear arms use. To be sure, escalating violence is a deeply valid concern, but hyperbole about nuclear exchanges is rooted in outdated fears of entire cities being obliterated in counter population strikes. Strategic planners should anticipate that the first violation of nuclear non-use in 77 years may not come from Cold War warhead designs that delivered ever larger thermonuclear yields.
Instead, serious planning for how to respond to an abrogation of counter-WMD norms should consider the fault lines in and around a discriminate employment against a justifiable military objective that may incur limited — if any — civilian casualties.
Continuing to categorize all yields and employment strategies of CBRN as tools of mass destruction precludes a genuine, objective assessment of their realistic possible use as potent disruptions of both intra- and international systems.
A nuclear explosion would surely get attention, but there is debate amongst experts on whether it would automatically lead to “nuclear winter” or other Earth-altering scenarios, according to a March 2020 article in Nature, “How a Small Nuclear War Would Transform the Entire Planet.”
Consider Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea compared to the rancor over its “special military operation” in this year’s general offensive against Ukraine. Smaller actions that are permitted to stand with weak responses, or complete abdication of a country or international body taking punitive action permits further loosening of the rules, norms, and international “laws” that are intended to sustain peace and security.
Similarly, while there have only been two uses of nuclear weapons — both by the Unites States — there have been multiple violations within the larger chemical-biological portfolio that have gone unchecked, except for strongly worded reports and sanctions of questionable effectiveness.
These events validate a violence escalation model wherein the propensity for WMD use — even nuclear strikes — may be morally injurious, but below the threshold of eliciting an assured retaliatory response. Once an actor has demonstrated an ability to weather the international response, the threshold for unequivocal retaliation would be revised, and additional violations would likely follow.
Not every CBRN employment need incur effects that spill over borders or lead to global war. Of note is that greater precision and more plausibly proportional effects that heretofore have been associated with advancements in conventional weapons, are now viable for low-yield nuclear arms.
Emerging trends in chemical and biological weapons can also have discriminate effects contrary to the World War I recollections of mustard gas unintentionally flowing over friendly forces. The United States’ use of very large conventional explosives in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated normative acceptance of explosions against then-justifiable military targets as proportionate and having utility, even when those bombs exceeded the explosive yields of the smallest nuclear weapons in the arsenal.
Today’s single low-yield weapon need not have the devastating effects that the bombs of the Cold War infamy conditioned the public to fear. Current successful military applications of miniaturized nuclear warheads with yields equivalent to conventional weapons of 20 tons or less are feasible, based upon the accuracy and target-retention maintained by higher precision delivery systems.
With greater expectation of striking the correct military target, weapons designers no longer need the yields of yesteryear. But any violation of the 77-year non-use legacy poses a far more profound threat to lessening both the CBRN opprobrium, and the United States and its allies’ influence upon the conduct of warfare, if not the global order at-large.
Conventional weapons of similar yields still require heavy logistics, including planning for the dangers of using slow-moving transport aircraft to reach designated targets. Operationalizing discriminately destructive WMDs on cruise missiles and short-range artillery lowers the challenge of the battlefield and threshold for engagement, making them attractive options for use in a conflict not going according to plan.
While the United States and accountable democracies may sustain deeply internalized taboos against any CBRN use, countries that already lack adherence to international norms — such as respect for human rights and proportionality in conflict — may exploit fault lines in current agreements or implicit norms, and thereby threaten the durability of post-WWII counterproliferation regimes.
Even more concerning than a single “rogue” violation, is the perception that America and its allies cannot, or will not, respond to such limited, highly disruptive engagements — which, to restate, has the propensity to collapse the legacy of non-use of nuclear — as well as biochemical weapons. Once observed thresholds are exceeded, go without viable retaliation and are thus reset, addressing any further violations using extant policy and governance formulations will become increasingly difficult, if not impotent.
Dr. James Giordano is Pellegrino Center Professor at Georgetown University, and senior fellow in science, technology, and ethics at the Naval War College, and the Stockdale Center of the Naval Academy. Bob Williams is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University focusing on the durability of nuclear non-use. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Department or any U.S. government agency of which they are employed.