Dr. Christopher Yeaw, associate executive director at the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, recently presented an overview of U.S. nuclear strategy and policy to a committee of the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The committee is conducting a consensus study aimed at evaluating the potential environmental effects of a nuclear weapons exchange. The full session is available at nationalacdemies.org with Dr. Yeaw's remarks beginning at 1:04.
"When we think of nuclear war, it is an extension of a conventional war in almost all cases, so that is looking to achieve political war aims," Dr. Yeaw stated at the beginning of his remarks. "In the case of nuclear employment, [the goal is] to restore deterrence and assurance at the lowest level of escalation and destruction possible while both limiting damage to the U.S. homeland and minimizing collateral damage."
Dr. Yeaw focused his 60-minute presentation on the tripolar dynamic of the near-peer nuclear powers — U.S., Russia and China. To provide context to the environmental impacts of a nuclear weapons exchange, he spent several minutes describing the size of the nuclear weapons and arsenals for each county, highlighting that China is "racing toward parity."
He underscored the challenge of Russia outpacing the U.S. in non-strategic nuclear weapons or "theater nuclear weapons," many of which range in size from tens of tons to single-digit kilotons. A 20-ton nuclear strike, he explained, is the same size as some of the largest conventional bombs in the world’s inventory.
"You’re looking at explosions that are of a similar size to conventional explosions," he said. "Those kinds of explosions can take out discrete targets ... can be done where the fireball never touches the ground and essentially at a what we call a fall-out-free height of burst, so essentially no fall out. And the radius for fires is minimized. If you’re doing it on a base where there is a lot of concrete and not many trees, you’ll have the added advantage of not a lot of combustible products, so the fires are minimized, but the operational utility is achieved — the site goes non-operational."
While the environmental impacts of these types of nuclear weapons are minimized, the decision calculus for the U.S. is quite difficult considering it doesn’t have a countervailing nuclear capability to non-strategic nuclear weapons, essentially pushing it toward a decision between over-escalating or going to the negotiation table.
Throughout his career, Dr. Yeaw has designed, developed and facilitated dozens of wargames with leadership from across the Department of Defense and federal government. Through those experiences of being in the "virtual situation room" with top leaders, Dr. Yeaw has observed and participated in the simulated decision-making process of employing nuclear weapons in various scenarios. The decision calculus for the U.S., he said, includes all elements of human life, critical infrastructure, economics, politics, moral considerations, the environment and more.
He emphasized, however, that the value system of the U.S. is not shared worldwide, and in a strategic deterrence scenario or nuclear weapons employment scenario, the adversary’s value system must be understood deeply. He also cautioned the committee against self-deterring.
"For nuclear deterrence, we wouldn’t want to give the impression to adversaries, like Russia and China, that we have so much concern over environmental prospects of nuclear weapons employment that we are self-deterred," he said. "We would want to be careful not to come near to that line. If they feel that we are self-deterred because we don’t want to engage in any nuclear employment ever, regardless of their nuclear employment because of environmental effects, then deterrence I think would be undermined at that point, so there is a little bit of caution there."
NSRI’s research portfolio includes a focus area on strategic deterrence and nuclear weapons as well as food, agriculture and environment security. Explore these areas and the institute’s entire research portfolio at nsri.nebraska.edu/capabilities.
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Through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska leading scientists deliver innovative national security research, technology, product and strategy development, training and exercises, and subject matter expertise to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. One of only 15 DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Centers in the country, NSRI is sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command and works to ensure the United States’ safety and preparedness against increasingly sophisticated threats. Read about our mission.