A new, nuclear-armed, submarine-launched, low-yield ballistic missile warhead has now been deployed by the Pentagon. The weapon, called the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile, ensures a catastrophic, targeted nuclear response option if the U.S. is ever attacked with nuclear weapons. The Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the missile is now operational in a Feb. 4 Pentagon statement.
The DoD’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released two years ago by the Trump administration and Pentagon, called for the introduction of several new lower-yield nuclear weapons. The new weapon is a modified W-76 warhead, already in the U.S. stockpile. The U.S. currently has about 1,371 nuclear weapons, down from more than 12,000 during the Cold War. Existing treaties could raise that level to 1,550.
John Rood, the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, said in a statement, “This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon. And demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.” He added that U.S. counterattack options ensure a “prompt” response.
Low-yield weapons are smaller and less destructive than most nuclear weapons. While there is no formal definition of what is considered low-yield and what is not, some experts say a low-yield weapon could be in the range of 20 kilotons. Many existing nuclear weapons are in the range of 90 to 100 kilotons, with some even higher. The “Little Boy” bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II yielded roughly 15 kilotons.
Critics are concerned that the deployment of new low-yield weapons could increase the risk of nuclear war. They say that their existence does nothing to make Americans safer and would actually make it easier for U.S. officials to consider the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith called the decision to deploy this warhead “misguided and dangerous.”