The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019. The W76-2 warhead, which is facing criticism at home and abroad, is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” We’re joined by William Arkin, longtime reporter focused on military and nuclear policy, author of numerous books, including “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for Federation of American Scientists. He also recently wrote a cover piece for Newsweek titled “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” “What surprised me in my reporting … was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world,” Arkin says.
AMY GOODMAN: So, to say the least, this has been an explosive week of news in Washington, D.C., and your news, which has hardly gone reported, is — should really be one of the top news stories of these last weeks.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, during the very time when the Iran crisis was at its highest, the United States, last December, deployed a new nuclear weapon, the first new nuclear weapon to be deployed, Amy, since the end of the Cold War. So here we have not just a momentous occasion, but a weapon which is intended explicitly to be more usable — and not just more usable against Russia and China, but to be more usable against Iran and North Korea, as well. It seemed to me that looking more deeply at this weapon, looking more deeply at the doctrines behind it, and then, really, what surprised me in my reporting, looking more at Donald Trump and the role that he might play in the future, was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this — what does it mean, “low-yield” nuclear weapon?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, “low-yield” is actually a little bit wrong. The United States actually possesses nuclear weapons with even smaller yields than five to six kilotons, which is what this is estimated at. That’s 5,000 to 6,000 tons. And so, that would be — if you thought of it in Manhattan terms, it would be probably something on the order of 20 square city blocks obliterated and radiation coming from that area. So, to say “low-yield” is, of course, a little bit wrong. But it is the lowest-yield missile warhead available to the strategic nuclear forces.
And the real reason behind deploying a Trident warhead with this low-yield weapon was that the United States, the nuclear planners, felt that they didn’t have a prompt and assured capability to threaten Russia or threaten other adversaries — “prompt” meaning that it would be quickly delivered, 30 minutes, or even, if a submarine is close, as low as 15 minutes, and “assured” meaning that it isn’t a bomber or an airplane that has to penetrate enemy air defenses in order to get to the target. So, those two things, prompt and assured, is what they really wanted. And putting a warhead on the missiles on the submarines allowed them both covert deployments as well as getting close to the target.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means between the United States and Russia.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, between the United States and Russia, I think it really doesn’t change very much. The Russians can denounce the Trident warhead, but the reality is that they have 2,000 of their own small nuclear weapons of this sort opposite Europe. And one of the justifications for the deployment of this new nuclear weapon, Amy, was that the Russians in fact had, if you will, a numerical advantage against NATO, and there was a desire to have a more “usable” nuclear weapon in order to eliminate that advantage. I think the U.S.-Russian situation is certainly tense, but it’s not really what this weapon is about. What this weapon is about is having a more usable nuclear weapon against countries like Iran and North Korea, where in fact a shocking first use of nuclear weapons, a preemptive use of nuclear weapons, would be used to either stop a war or to destroy a very important target, say, for instance, if there were a missile on a launchpad ready to strike at that United States.