There’s no such thing as ‘limited’ nuclear war

Last week, Senator Diane Feinstein wrote a critical op-ed in The Washington Post after it was revealed last month that a Pentagon advisory committee authored a report calling for the new administration to invest in lower-yield nuclear weapons that could provide a “rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use.” The report also suggested researching less-powerful nuclear weapons that could be deployed without resorting to full-scale nuclear war and urged the administration to consider resuming nuclear testing. Senator Feinstein asserts, and I agree, that designing new low-yield nuclear weapons for limited strikes dangerously lowers the threshold for their use and increases the likelihood of a nuclear war. 

“Designing new low-yield nuclear weapons for limited strikes dangerously lowers the threshold for their use and increases the likelihood of a nuclear war.”
— Senator Diane Feinstein

All of the scenarios that postulate the use of so-called “tactical nukes" assumes that their use would be one-sided and limited. That is, they assume that we could somehow control the escalation that would result from that first use. Feinstein quotes Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work testifying to the House Armed Services Committee in 2015 explaining the problem of assuming any nuclear exchange could be limited thusly, “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”

Proponents of lower-yield "tactical nukes" focus so much on chapter one of their story that they neglect to consider the chapters that follow. None of the organizations pushing for a limited nuclear option have put forth a credible plan for controlling the escalation that would most likely follow the first use of lower-yield nuclear weapons. In fact, the most obvious outcome of a first use of tactical nukes against another nuclear power is that this first use would escalate into a general nuclear war. 

“Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”
— Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work

We have no experience with escalation in a nuclear war, and we have no way of being confident what the ultimate outcome would be of a first use of nuclear weapons. The reality is that no one can predict what the full consequences of deploying tactical nuclear weapons would be, but when the possible outcomes of using lower-yield weapons includes full scale nuclear war, that is a gamble that the United States and the world cannot afford to take: a nuclear Russian roulette.

Senator Feinstein is performing a great public service by challenging this dangerous and misguided defense strategy.

- William J. Perry, Former Secretary of Defense