By Fang Xiaozhi
The American website naval-technology.com reported that the US Navy has recently commissioned a new-generation tactical nuclear weapon, the first deployment of this kind in nearly a decade. It is said that the low-yield nuclear warhead, coded W76-2, has been fitted on the Ohio-class nuclear power submarine and will be used for deterrence or tactical nuclear attack.
Since he took office, Trump has changed his predecessors’ cautious policies and attached great importance to the research and development of nuclear weapons. Unlike strategic nuclear weapon in the nuclear deterrence system, the use of which may trigger a world war, tactical nuclear weapon features small size, strong maneuverability and dispersive manipulation and control. It is especially suitable for launching surgical strike at specific targets when combined with a high-precision carrier, while minimizing collateral damages, making itself a handy scalpel for nuclear powers on the battlefield. Washington has increasingly stepped up the R&D of tactical nuclear weapons in recent years, making them more precise, universal and real-combat-ready.
Against such a background, the US has taken faster steps to develop and deploy small, tactical nuclear weapons. After the first batch of about 50 W76-2 tactical nuclear warheads were delivered to the US Navy, more are planned to be fitted on other carriers than the Ohio-class nuclear power submarine, such as the USS Zumwalt destroyer, Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine and F-35C shipborne fighter plane. They will turn the US Navy into a “nuclear naval force” capable of carrying out flexible nuclear tactical attacks, which, coupled with the land-based and air-based nuclear forces, will establish a full spectrum of deterrent means of various magnitude and destructive effects.
America’s accelerated R&D and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons sabotages the relative strategic stability in the present world.
Mainly targeting Russia, US Navy’s re-commissioning of tactical nuclear weapons is aimed to not only offset Moscow’s quantitative advantage in this kind of weapons, but also to make sure America’s nuclear deterrence will remain effective in a reasonable period of time, which will give Washington an extra card to play in order to curb Russia, hence realizing a new strategic balance.
Both the US and Russia have shown signs of further strengthening the R&D and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, which is sure to lead to mutual suspicion and escalated animosity and probably a new round of nuclear arms race. Following their lead, nuclear states in the second echelon will also develop relevant weapons or defensive technologies, which will further intensify the nuclear race and exert extensive influences in many fields.
While tactical nuclear weapons are much more flexible than strategic ones on the battlefield, they are riskier as well and may cause the warfare to escalate and get out of control, leaving a string of ethical issues in its wake. This is worth close attention of the international community.
(The author is a researcher at the BRI Institute of Strategy and International Security, Fudan University)