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Ten days before Donald J. Trump was elected president, in 2016, the United States attacked Iran with nuclear weapons. The event: an exercise in nuclear warfare that takes place every year at the end of October. In the mock war, after Iran sank an American aircraft carrier and used chemical weapons against Marine Corps forces, the commander in the Middle East requested a nuclear attack, and a pair of stealth B-2 bombers, each loaded with a single nuclear bomb, I was waiting while the president reflected. “Testing our forces through a range of challenging scenarios validates the safety, effectiveness and preparation of the deterrent strategy,” said Admiral Cecil D. Haney, then commander of the United States Strategic Command, while the exercise was taking place. According to a government contractor who helped write the complex scenario that led to the decision to use nuclear weapons, Global Thunder 17 (as the exercise was called because it occurred during fiscal year 2017) focused on the “execution of a commanding command of attack at the tactical level ”. In simple language, this means using nuclear weapons to support one of three “theater” commanders in the Middle East, Europe or the Korean peninsula. Even though North Korea and Russia dominated the news at the time, the contractor says that Iran’s scenario was chosen because it allowed for the greater integration of nuclear weapons, conventional military actions, missile defense, cybernetics and space in what nuclear strategists they call the “deterrence of the 21st century.”
“Our deterrence goes far beyond just nuclear weapons,” Admiral Haney said at a conference at the University of Kansas a few days before Global Thunder 17 began . “If necessary,” he added, the United States “will respond in the time, place and domain we choose. ” Iran’s scenario had never been publicly disclosed. All the Strategic Command says about the 2016 war drill is that it followed “a theoretical and classified scenario.” Although the United States has never made a public or explicit nuclear threat against Iran, in the last year it has deployed a new nuclear weapon that increases the chances of a just nuclear war. The new weapon, called W76-2, is a “low-performance” warlike missile designed for exactly the type of Iranian scenario that was carried out in the last days of the Obama administration. Military sources directly involved in the planning of a nuclear war say there has been no formal change in the war plans with respect to Iran during the Trump administration, but the deployment of what they say is this “most usable” weapon. ”, The nuclear calculation changes.
In an exclusive report for Newsweek , four senior military officials say they doubt that the fight with Iran, now six months, could turn into a nuclear war. But all of them mention that the deployment of the new Trident II war missile was explicitly thought to make the threat of such an attack more credible, and they point it out as a little understood or noticed change that increases the danger. They argue that the new capacity should give Tehran time to consider some major attack against the United States or its forces. But the four also add, with much reluctance, that there is a “Donald Trump” factor involved: that there is something about this president and the new weapons that make considering crossing the nuclear threshold a special danger. Nuclear weapons have been part of military contingency plans to deal with Iran since the 2002 nuclear posture review of the George W. Bush administration. In its guide for nuclear war gliders after 9/11, the White House added to the states of the “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran, North Korea), in addition to Syria and Libya, in the missions of the Command Strategic.
After much internal debate, President Barack Obama wrote his own Nuclear Posture Review, which claimed that there was “a narrow range of contingencies” – either to deter a huge conventional attack or prevent the enemy from using chemical or biological weapons. – in which the United States could use nuclear weapons first and even against non-nuclear nations, precisely the scenario that was then carried out in Global Thunder 17. According to documents partially declassified and obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, the new plans of nuclear war written in the Obama administration formally included Iran. Hans Kristensen of the Federation points out that this is the situation inherited by Donald Trump. The national policy affirmed by the two previous administrations includes the possibility of nuclear use against Iran, while the experience in the war drills of such scenarios – and not only against Iran – exposed the weaknesses in the ability of the Strategic Command to carry out such a presidential order. Thus, the “requirement” by the military forces to create a new weapon to meet this scenario of attacking first arose. APPROPRIATELY ADAPTED WEAPON “Regardless of the presidencies, nuclear planning tends to have a life of its own,” Kristensen said in an interview last week, adding that “Iran is quite in the spotlight.” This is because, as Kristensen points out, nuclear gliders operate from “relatively vague presidential guides,” writing scenarios, conducting war drills, and adjusting plans, weapons and the posture of forces to anticipate countless scenarios. possible. When Donald Trump assumed the presidency, one of his first actions was to sign a memorandum on “Rebuild” the US military. That memorandum instructed its new Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis, to initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review and ensure that nuclear deterrence was “ready and properly adapted to deter threats from the 21st century.” The Strategic Command had already determined that it needed a new nuclear weapon to deal with advanced and emerging nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran. Now they had their orders to continue. “They answered their own email,” said a retired air force officer involved in Trump’s first White House on the national security directive.
For nuclear leaders, “properly adapted” meant a new small nuclear weapon, which could be launched with a ballistic missile instead of a bomber. The second, as simulated in the Global Thunder exercise, would require an 11-hour flight from the base in Missouri to Iran or North Korea. On the other hand, a missile could take 30 minutes, and a missile launched from an advanced submarine could only take 10 to 15 minutes. North Korea’s long-range missile test series in the first year of the Trump administration accentuated this “gap” in US nuclear capabilities, says a senior air force officer involved in nuclear deliberations. In the most pressing scenario involving the imminent use of weapons of mass destruction, existing missiles were rejected as a credible deterrent because the size of their warheads was thought to be too large to be “usable.”
In the rarefied world of nuclear war planning, only a single small nuclear weapon launched from a Trident submarine represented the credible and “swift” capacity needed to respond to new threats. That is, a new nuclear weapon that could really be used to prevent an attack against the United States or its Asian allies. In theory, B-2 bombers could be deployed in advance with nuclear bombs to shorten the response time, but such advance deployment has never been attempted, and would require consulting with, and permission of, the allies. The war gliders concluded that, even then, a mission with bombers would take hours – not fast enough – and there was a possibility that a bomber could be shot down. In February 2018, the Trump administration completed its own Nuclear Posture Review. “We must see reality in the eyes and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Defense Secretary Mattis wrote in the introduction.
The review formally requested a new low-performance warhead to be deployed in missiles launched from Trident II submarines of the navy. Even when presented as a response to Russia, government and non-government officials today agree that the new W76-2 warhead was always intended to fill the gap to provide a quick and usable weapon to counter imminent North Korean or Iranian attacks, either with weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles. At the end of January 2019, with little fanfare, the first of these W76-2 nuclear warheads began to leave the assembly line of the Department of Energy in Amarillo, Texas. In September, according to officials who spoke behind the scenes because no announcement has been made, the first W76-2 warheads were handed over to the army. It is said that those W76-2 have an explosive yield between 5 and 6 kilotons (5,000 to 6,000 tons), about a third of the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Kristensen estimates that about 50 of these small, “fast” warheads will be deployed on Trident submarines, and that two of the 24 missiles aboard each of the 12 submarines will also be armed. On October 30, 2016, a day before Global Thunder 17 ended, the USS Pennsylvania, a Trident submarine with ballistic missiles based in Washington State, emerged in Apra Harbor, Guam. It was the first visit of a submarine with ballistic missiles to Guam in 28 years and only the third Trident submarine that makes a visit to a foreign port since 9/11.
“This visit is a clear demonstration of the highly surviving and lethal capabilities that the United States applies in support of the unwavering commitments of expanded deterrence with our allies,” said Admiral Harry Harris, then the commander of the US Pacific Command (and now United States ambassador to South Korea). VISIBLE NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY The USS Pennsylvania trip was an introduction to its special and extended “tactical” duty, which now extended to the mission of nuclear submarines beyond Russia and China. Nine months later, another submarine with ballistic missiles, the USS Kentucky, appeared in Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian island chain in Alaska, just 5,500 kilometers from its North Korean targets. Trident submarines rarely emerge after leaving their ports, operating in 100-day cycles, around 70 days under water followed by 30 days of refueling before a new crew takes it. However, since Donald Trump took office, four Trident submarines have emerged during their patrols, both in the Pacific and two in the Atlantic, both making stops in Scotland. To carry out visible nuclear diplomacy, US military forces depend on their force of 156 bombers: the stealth B-2 Spirit bombers, the venerable B-52 Stratofortress bombers and even the B-1 Lancer bomber of conventional weapons. Last May, while the Trump administration began accelerated military deployments “in response to a certain amount of problematic and intensified signs and warnings” from Iran, the bombers played a visible role. B-52 bombers were deployed to an air base in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf, for two months. And at the end of October, B-1 bombers flew from South Dakota to Saudi Arabia, the first time heavy bombers landed in that country since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But then the bombers more or less disappeared from the skies of the Middle East. Global Thunder 20, this year’s nuclear exercise, focused completely on a Russian stage. The scenario for the October 2019 exercise was chosen more than a year earlier. Last week, six B-52 bombers were shown on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the first time the bombers have made base in British-controlled territory in more than a decade. Retired Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle told the Air Force Times that the placement of bombers more than 5,000 kilometers from the southern tip of Iran put them in the range of medium-range ballistic missiles in Tehran. None of these advanced deployment bombers contain nuclear weapons, and neither are nuclear weapons deployed in the half-dozen advanced bases for used bombers in the Pacific, Europe or the Middle East. Sources agree that, if there was a conceivable nuclear attack by the Americans against Iran, it would come from the new low-performance system based on the Trident submarines.
No one in the air force or the Strategic Command wanted to speak officially regarding nuclear plans or the possibilities of nuclear weapons having a role in the current crisis with Iran, being cautious when talking about highly classified and style-conscious war plans with which the president operates. On the philosophical issue of using nuclear weapons, the six air force sources and the Strategic Command with whom I spoke expressed their concern that the very existence of nuclear options, with this president, complicated his otherwise clear conviction that there was no way that nuclear weapons could be used against Iran. They agree that US nuclear use could only occur after countries were in a total war, and after Iranian use of chemical or biological weapons or after a direct attack on the United States. And even then, they add, a nuclear option could only be discussed if there was unmistakable information that Tehran prepares an imminent attack with some kind of radiological weapon or another improvised mass destruction. These officers agree that, in such a scenario, the president’s decision-making could be both murky and unpredictable. In July, when Trump was offered the option of attacking Iranian air defense targets in retaliation for the demolition of an unmanned reconnaissance drone, he rejected even a very limited option, worried that 150 civilians could die. But he chose the most extreme option in the January 2 attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
A retired Air Force officer told me this week that he is concerned that a “package” of US options in response to more extreme Iranian actions will automatically include the nuclear option, even if it is an option among a hundred. Having a “fast W76 with low collateral damage,” says the officer, connotes a usable nuclear weapon. Under current nuclear plans, the use of such a weapon could also be justified, almost as in Hiroshima, as a precautionary noise to prevent a total war. “It is a capacity that the United States did not have a year ago,” says the officer, built precisely for use. “Let’s just hope the option is never offered.”
– William Arkin is the author of half a dozen books on nuclear weapons. He is writing Ending Perpetual War for Simon & Schuster.
– Published in cooperation with Newsweek / Published in cooperation with Newsweek
Source: Newsweek Espanol