Mini-nukes: innovative or invitation for destruction?

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Last week in Student Pugwash at Carnegie Mellon, we returned to Pugwash’s roots and discussed a new development in nuclear weapons: mini-nukes.

While miniaturizing nuclear weapons (called mini-nukes or tactical nukes) doesn’t constitute complete disarmament, it’s a step in the right direction, or so claims the Obama administration, which is behind the effort to reconfigure older nuclear weapons into a modern, mini-nuke format.

These new mini-nukes would be mounted to precision cruise-missiles and would have a “dial-a-yield” feature, allowing them to adapt in explosive power to match their target. The lowest setting would be 2 percent of the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The lowest setting is what has people worried. If nuclear weapons become much less dangerous, with less fallout, what is to stop the military from using them in less-than-apocalyptic scenarios? Would they be used preemptively, instead of only in response to a nuclear attack? What do they mean for the theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the idea that no two nuclear-armed countries will ever fire on each other due to the consequences of retaliation? This is a frightening scenario, but it also encourages countries to resolve conflicts through methods other than all-out war.

While mini-nukes might be smaller and less destructive, the threat of MAD would still be maintained, either through the amount of mini-nukes, or by keeping some of the larger-scale warheads.

Because the United States still needs to have enough capability to enforce MAD (otherwise another country could destroy the United States without fear of retaliation on the same scale), some question what the point of miniature nuclear weapons even is. If they have the same overall destructive yield, then why would it matter what size they were? What’s the point in making them precise if the only case in which they would be used in would be total Armageddon?

And that’s where the worry comes in. If nuclear weapons are more accessible, if they don’t have such massive collateral damage, then maybe they aren’t such a red line to cross. Maybe someone will be tempted to fire off one or two of these little nukes simply because they’re much smaller and easier to use than conventional weapons of the same size.

If they’re only being used in the same destructive scale as conventional weapons, then maybe putting nuclear weapons back in the battlefield wouldn’t be so terrible. By removing their huge destructive power, nukes would no longer be the game-changer they were after World War II. However, keeping the nuclear weapons under a threshold level of explosive yield would be hard.

Most countries have a “fire-all-weapons” response policy to any nuclear weapon use. Even if the policy were changed, it would be hard to measure exactly the size of the mini-nuke, and what would happen if someone crossed the line, just by a little bit?

The upwards creep in yield seems almost inevitable were mini-nukes to come into conventional use, which is why they most likely won’t be used, at least by respectable governments. The same sort of agreements against chemical weapons or bombing hospitals would also be made against using mini-nukes. This again brings up the question: if they aren’t to be used, then why do we need them?

Although mini-nukes are supposed to be a step toward disarmament, it seemed as though most of Student Pugwash was skeptical by the end of the meeting. Providing no clear benefit, miniature nuclear weapons still hold the same dangers as traditional nuclear bombs, only with the added concern that they might actually be used.

Pugwash is a national organization focused on open discussion of ethical issues in science. The original Pugwash conference took place in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1957, sparked by the Russell-Einstein manifesto, which called for nuclear disarmament and peaceful conflict resolution. Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization on campus that discusses the implications of science, technology, and medicine on society. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on the miniaturization of nuclear weapons.