An era-shaping threshold is being crossed at a weapons plant in the high plains country of the Texas Panhandle, writes James Carroll.
Last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced that the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas. That warhead, the W76-2, is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile, a weapon with a range of more than 7,500 miles. By September, an undisclosed number of warheads will be delivered to the Navy for deployment.
What makes this particular nuke new is the fact that it carries a far smaller destructive payload than the thermonuclear monsters the Trident has been hosting for decades — not the equivalent of about 100 kilotons of TNT as previously, but of five kilotons. According to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the W76-2 will yield “only” about one-third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Yet that very shrinkage of the power to devastate is precisely what makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured. Fulfilling the Trump administration’s quest for nuclear-war-fighting “flexibility,” it isn’t designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it’s designed to be used. This is the weapon that could make the previously “unthinkable” thinkable.
There have long been “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, including ones on cruise missiles, “air-drop bombs” (carried by planes), and even nuclear artillery shells — weapons designated as “tactical” and intended to be used in the confines of a specific battlefield or in a regional theater of war. The vast majority of them were, however, eliminated in the nuclear arms reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, a scaling-down by both the United States…