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Policy Memo Re: Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

RE:                 Support legislation banning ‘low-yield nuclear weapons’
DATE:           September 19, 2018

In preparation for the upcoming FY20 defense authorization and appropriation cycle, this memo offers background information regarding a proposed “low-yield” nuclear arsenal. As a contentious matter in our national defense debate, this arsenal will likely be a salient issue in the upcoming Congress. Congressional Democrats, particularly leadership in the House Armed Services Committee, oppose the Trump Administration’s current effort to incorporate low-yield nuclear weapons in the United States’ nuclear triad and posture. We recommend you support their legislative effort to deauthorize and defund these weapons’ development.


“Low-yield” (or “tactical”) nuclear weapons are nuclear explosives intended to achieve localized, “minor” destructive effect. Cold War-era low-yield nuclear weapons had a maximum yield comparable to roughly 10 times that of the nuclear bomb used over Hiroshima, but could be “dialed back” to a fraction of it. Relative to strategic nuclear weapons, low-yield nuclear weapons may be more portable – mounted in artillery shells, short-range ballistic missiles, or carried by fighter aircraft – and can be hosted in-theater to enable more rapid deployment and use. Historical and theoretical nuclear doctrine calls for low-yield nuclear weapons to be used to soften entrenched enemy positions, slow massed enemy advances, and/or minimize civilian casualties in areas of strategic importance which carry high risk of collateral damage.

The United States maintained a low-yield nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War, deploying it in Europe to deter and stall a Soviet military invasion. The arsenal has been dramatically reduced since the end of the Cold War, with approximately 150 bomber-deployed warheads remaining in operational service. While successive administrations had rejected proposals to reinvigorate the low-yield nuclear arsenal, apparent changes in the Russian nuclear doctrine prompted a strategic recalculation within the second-term Obama Administration and the Trump Administration. Russia has reportedly shifted from a “no-first-use” nuclear weapon policy to that of “escalate-to-deescalate.” Under this doctrine, Russian forces would employ low-yield nuclear weapons during early stages of regional conflicts (i.e. an invasion of the Baltics or Caucasus) to effectively deter a NATO response, lest NATO be the first to escalate the conflict into strategic nuclear warfare.

The Trump Administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for the development and deployment of an American low-yield nuclear arsenal to proportionally match and counter that of Russia’s. This position became manifest in the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law, which authorized the development and deployment of submarine-based low-yield nuclear warheads hosted on Trident ballistic missiles. The FY19 defense appropriations bill, expected to be imminently passed by Congress and signed into law, provides $65 million for this effort. In response, Congressional Democrats have recently introduced legislation – the “Hold the LYNE” [Low Yield Nuclear Explosive] Act – to prohibit research, development, and production of submarine-based low-yield nuclear weapons. We anticipate that this legislation will serve as the basis of further efforts in opposition to this class of nuclear warhead during the FY20 defense authorization and appropriation cycle, especially if Democrats secure a majority in the House of Representatives and/or the Senate.

Arguments for low-yield nuclear weapons

Proponents of low-yield nuclear weapons suggest that the lack of parity between the American and Russian nuclear arsenals for this class of weapon undermines – or defeats entirely – traditional nuclear deterrence. Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine is designed to exploit the lack of an equivalent or proportional American response and test American thresholds of escalation. Without a credible capability for low-yield nuclear retaliation, the United States would be forced to either disengage, engage entirely with conventional means (which could not match the military efficacy of a nuclear explosive), or escalate to the use of the strategic nuclear force. Any of these options would be both tactically ineffective and strategically unattractive during a time of war against an adversarial nuclear-capable power – practically, and in terms of “messaging” for both allies under the United States’ nuclear umbrella and opponents whom nuclear engagement would seek to deter.

Arguments against low-yield nuclear weapons             

Nuclear weapons have not been used in conflict since the waning days of the Second World War; while military theorists and analysts may suggest possible “ladders” of escalation and the short-term strategic calculus of nuclear weapon use, it is entirely unknown how such weapons will be employed once the threshold of their first-use has been crossed. Muting Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine should not be done through the means of low-intensity nuclear warfare, in which thresholds of continued escalation have not been clearly communicated and risks of miscalculation are high – and, of course, costly.

Conventional warfare between peer competitors has been staved off in the nuclear era because of the “mutually ensured destruction” deterrent. Deploying an American nuclear capability intended for battlefield, “conventional” use would fundamentally alter perceptions of acceptable nuclear weapon use and consequences. Lowering the threshold of American nuclear weapon employment from the “strategic” to the “tactical” not only justifies Russia’s holistic military doctrine – of which “escalate-to-deescalate” is simply a part – but transforms the nuclear arsenal’s stabilizing effect (be it real or perceived) of being an “end-all, be-all” response to military transgression into yet another system for use on the battlefield.

Opponents of the current low-yield nuclear weapon development effort point to the impracticality of hosting such warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Given that submarines serve as the United States’ strategic “second-strike” nuclear force, it will be challenging for an adversary to discern whether a particular submarine-launched warhead is “tactical” or “strategic.” In the short timespans inherent in nuclear warfare, this may lead an adversary to rationally presume that full-out nuclear warhead has begun and employ their entire nuclear arsenal. If – not to mention should – low-yield nuclear weapons be deployed, they must be deployed on platforms which are clearly communicable to the opponents they seek to deter or counter.


We recommend you support and sign the Hold the LYNE Act and oppose the development of submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapons. Nuclear warfare is too risky an endeavor for the United States to engage in without clearly understanding the potential for escalation; the nuclear deterrent too valuable a tool to “make cheap.” In place of these weapons, we recommend that you advocate for the Administration to make clear its respect for true, historical deterrence – that any adversarial use of nuclear weapons will be met with a non-proportional strategic nuclear response.

Recommended Further Reading/Referenced Works

Eric Schlossar, “The Growing Dangers of the New Nuclear-Arms Race,” New Yorker, May 24 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-growing-dangers-of-the-new-nuclear-arms-race

Eryn MacDonald, “Trump Wants a New Low-Yield Nuclear Weapon. But the US Has Plenty Already,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 18 2018, https://allthingsnuclear.org/emacdonald/trump-wants-a-new-low-yield-nuclear-weapon

Hans Kristensen, “The Flawed Push for New Nuclear Weapons Capabilities,” Federation of American Scientists, June 29 2017, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2017/06/new-nukes/

Jay Ross, “Time to Terminate Escalate to De-Escalate – It’s Escalation Control,” War on the Rocks, April 24 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/04/time-to-terminate-escalate-to-de-escalateits-escalation-control/

Joe Gould & Aaron Mehta, “Nuclear weapons budget gets boost in US spending bill,” Defense News, September 11 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2018/09/11/nuclear-weapons-budget-gets-boost-in-us-spending-bill/

John Harvey, “Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons Are Worth A New Look,” War on the Rocks, November 10 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/11/low-yield-nuclear-weapons-worth-new-look/

John Klein, “The Case for Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Stratfor Worldview, November 25 2014, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/case-tactical-nuclear-weapons

Lawrence Korb, “Why Congress should refuse to fund the NPR’s new nuclear weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 7 2018, https://thebulletin.org/commentary/why-congress-should-refuse-to-fund-the-nprs-new-nuclear-weapons/

Letter to President Trump regarding the Nuclear Posture Review, Office of Senator Edward Markey, January 29 2018, https://www.markey.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Letter%20on%20NPR.pdf

Mark Schneider, “Deterring Russian First Use of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons,” RealClearDefense, March 12 2018, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/03/12/deterring_russian_first_use_of_low-yield_nuclear_weapons_113180.html

“Nuclear Posture Review,” Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872877/-1/-1/1/EXECUTIVE-SUMMARY.PDF, pgs. 7-8

Paul Sonne, “Trump poised to get new low-yield nuclear weapons,” Washington Post, June 13 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-poised-to-get-new-low-yield-nuclear-weapons/2018/06/13/161b1466-6dac-11e8-9ab5-d31a80fd1a05_story.html?utm_term=.120c1f84832e

Philip Coyle & James McKeon, “The huge risk of small nukes,” Politico, March 10 2017, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/03/huge-risk-small-nuclear-weapons-000350

Rebecca Kheel, “Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes,” The Hill, November 18 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/407263-dems-introduce-bill-to-ban-low-yield-nukes

Tom Collina, “Trump’s New ‘Low-Yield’ Nuclear Weapon: Two Bad Ideas Rolled into One,” The National Interest, March 10 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/trumps-new-low-yield-nuclear-weapon-two-bad-ideas-rolled-one-24806

Valerie Insinna, “To deter Russia, US needs new low-yield nukes, says STRATCOM head,” Defense News, March 20 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2018/03/20/stratcom-head-to-deter-russia-us-needs-new-low-yield-nukes/

Vladimir Kozin, “America’s Low Yield Nuclear Bombs, Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine is Being Distorted Once Again,” Global Research, June 27 2018, https://www.globalresearch.ca/americas-low-yield-nuclear-bombs-russias-nuclear-doctrine-is-being-distorted-once-again/5645593

William Perry, “The US Does Not Need New Tactical Nukes,” Defense One, April 26 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2018/04/us-does-not-need-new-tactical-nukes/147757/


University Technology Transfer & Start-Ups

Research universities are becoming increasingly essential for economic success. The research performed by universities creates new knowledge and serves as a basis for innovation that benefits industry. Indeed, many industries have relied on university research for commercial purposes. There has been a rise of commercialization of academic research in recent decades, particularly in the United States, as new technologies and innovation transfer from universities into the private sector. This technology transfer takes many forms: trained graduates who get private employment; personal interactions between industry and academia; or publication of research results. However, an important method of technology transfer is the entrepreneurial activity of university faculty and the licensing of university-produced intellectual property to established firms or new start-up companies.

Historically, there were high barriers to technology transfer from universities, especially with licensing intellectual property. Federal funding of university research entailed the government retaining title to inventions made with those funds, regardless of who performed the research. Licenses issued to that research were primarily non-exclusive. This made it challenging to offer innovations and technologies to the private sector so that they could be commercially profitable. Then, in 1980, the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act – often referred to as the Bayh-Dole Act – set a legal framework for university technology commercialization and created a stable environment that allowed intellectual property rights to be retained from federally funded research. The Act allows inventors from universities or other nonprofit institutions to retain intellectual property ownership from federally sponsored research and development. Because of the Act, patenting at universities increased dramatically, and many universities have set up methods, such as technology transfer offices, to transfer their patents into the private sector.

Technology transfer offices (TTO) promote the utilization of inventions from university research. In the United States, they allow universities and researchers to capitalize on the intellectual property rights they gained through the Bayh-Dole Act, while attempting to resolve concerns regarding conflicts of interests. They identify research that has potential commercial interest, assist with work related to marketability and funding sources, provide legal and commercialization support to researchers, and serve as a liaison interested in commercializing university-developed technologies Many universities have channeled their innovation activities through a central TTO. By selling, licensing, or patenting technologies or research, universities may recover the investments of its project or support future research while making that property available to society.

TTO’s, however, are not without their criticisms. While some TTO’s are effective at spreading innovations into the marketplace, others have been criticized as impeded technology transfer by adding extra layers of administration and bureaucracy. For example, research has shown that some university administrators would rather use TTO’s as generators of university revenue instead of focusing on transferring technologies, neglecting some innovations that have little profit potential in the commercial marketplace. Academic red tape with some TTO’s tie up university faculty with patent-related paperwork and which detracts from the main research mission. TTO’s personnel sometimes have little knowledge of research results, innovation, and the marketplace for an invention. Finally, intellectual property management and technology transfer revenue distribution policies can be confusing and rigid.

Moreover, there are questions of TTO’s impact on the university’s core academic mission. Some argue that a focus on patenting innovations – for purposes of commercialization and profit – impedes the free flow of information from university research. Researchers may delay publications of their findings before they patent technologies that could stem from them, thereby risking impeding innovation. A focus on research into commercial-ready technologies could lead university researchers to focus on applied research, rather than the basic research which is often the purview of universities and fundamental to broader innovation across sectors. This diversion of research priorities risks the critical scientific exploration that leads to new discoveries and knowledge. However, many scholars find that there is little evidence that suggests this shift is occurring; likewise, some have found that commercial activity increases research efforts and publication outputs. This is to suggest that entrepreneurial activity at universities do not hamper scientific performance.

There are also issues of conflict of interest and incentives for university faculty to engage in technology-related research and transfer. Researchers may be sponsored by industry for their work on a specific technology or scientific inquiry, which can lead to ethical issues related to their results, methodology, or priorities. Meanwhile, while there are several reasons why scientists, with proper incentives, would be more likely to coordinate with industry to disclose and transfer inventions, scholars have found that incentives do not motivate university faculty to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Indeed, some have found a negative correlation between monetary incentives given to scientists whose inventions were licensed and the number of start-up companies that use that licensed technology. Some argue that universities have thus struggled to find an incentive structure that prompts faculty to commercialize research and foster an entrepreneurial culture within the university.

At any rate, TTO’s have blossomed in the United States. At the time the Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980, there were 25 technology transfer offices at United States universities. By 2005, there were over 3300. Success with TTO’s widely varies, with a wide disparity among universities of revenue, invention disclosure, patenting rates, and licensing across universities. In 2012, 8 universities – the top 5% of universities earning revenue on university-produced research – took 50% of the total licensing income of the American university system. This is manifest from differences in the organization structure of TTO’s, such as staffing levels, funding sources, procedures for sharing royalties between the inventor, school, and department, and relationships with the faculty. Moreover, disparities reflect differences in university factors such as the scale and specialization of their research portfolios, historical reputation, geographic proximity to potential investors and industry partners, and their public vs. private status.

TTO’s, along with the growth of university-based innovation through research and development, has lead to a boom in the establishment of start-up companies. TTO’s are placing emphasis on creating new start-up companies as the optimal path of commercialization. To achieve that aim, some universities have created incubators and science parks where start-ups can share space and services, and where there is closer proximity and collaboration between the entrepreneur and the researcher. Others have launched university venture firms to invest in start-up companies that are commercializing university-produced and licensed technologies. This may be a measured success; indeed, research has found that the number of start-up firms commercializing university research grew from 241 in 1994 to 555 in 2007. However, other research has indicated that there is marginal, if no, causation between university incubators, university venture capital investments, and the rate by which new firms are launched.

However, entrepreneurial universities do ingrain a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism that translates from academia into the private sector. Researchers, academics, and students who participate in basic and applied research at a university and secure a license for a certain technology developed through the course of their work can then start-up their own company and try to commercialize it. To that end, universities that engage in technology development do have a “spin-off” effect in that the individuals who participate in it then propagate out into the private and entrepreneurial sector.

American research universities have been generally successful in creating new innovations and inventions for high-tech industries, and the economy would suffer if it was without an entrepreneurial role for universities. The transfer of new technologies plays an important role in the creation of new products and industries. Universities have stimulated this transfer through the establishment of technology transfer offices and assistance to start-up firms that seek to commercialize that technology. This is not without criticisms, of course, nor has it shown itself to be as effective as commonly assumed. However, the role of the university as an innovation generator has only recently begun and is constantly evolving; future models may see universities reorganize their education and research and reconsider how to best disseminate knowledge and technologies into the economy.

“Combatant Commands” & U.S. Defense Policy

As a key organizational and operational construct within the highest levels of the United States’ military, combatant commands – along with their commanders – play significant roles in U.S. defense policy. These commands, organized either on a geographical or functional basis, provide effective command and control of military forces, regardless of branch of service, in peace and war. By their nature, they offer U.S. defense policy and application of military force several benefits, but likewise face several challenges.

The combatant command structure emerged out of an evolution, prompted by historical circumstances, in the military’s approach to force unity and command and control. Prior to the Second World War, the services operated independently. Coordination between branches of the armed forces was frequently marred by bureaucratic distrust and service rivalry. The experience of the Second World War, particularly in the Pacific theater, demonstrated the operational pitfalls of this arrangement; differences between the Army and Navy precluded any sort of consistent unified command. While commanders were able to work together to defeat Japan, it wasn’t without considerable fiction and infighting as commanders within the independent, powerful commands competed for the same resources and the attention of senior leadership.

Given the dynamics of the post-war geopolitical environment, a global military presence was viewed as a guarantee against Communist expansion. Achieving such presence necessitated an effective, geographically-focused, long-term, joint-command arrangement. Between this and the lessons learned from the Second World War, legislation over the course of three decades established geographic unified commands, clarified lines of command for unified commanders, and, per the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, permanently assigned forces to unified combatant commands.

The premise and purpose of Combatant Commands remains essentially the same today. Combatant commanders integrate and utilize air, land, sea, and amphibious forces within the geographic or functional area of their control to achieve U.S. national security objectives. They are responsible for accomplishing missions assigned to their region, designating objectives, assigning tasks, and giving authoritative direction over all aspects of military operations as well as all aspects of joint-training and logistics. Likewise, they are responsible for establishing command relationships with subordinate commands and for organizing subordinate units as deemed necessary. They take direction from the Commander in Chief – the President – and are responsible to the Secretary of Defense.

Combatant commands offer several benefits. First, and perhaps most importantly, they provide unified and integrated command and control of cross-service forces in a theater. This is critical for the United States’ current military doctrines, which emphasis use of joint-service application of force. By minimizing confusion, competition, and conflict between the services in operations, the military can more effectively conduct its primary mission of keeping America secure and waging conflict. For functional combatant commands, integrating all elements of a particular warfighting domain – such as cyber, space, and strategic forces – under a single chain of command allows for easier oversight, coordination, and rapidity of action.

Second, as regional combatant commanders wield considerable influence over American foreign policy in their area of responsibility and have the resources and authority to act quickly, they can be disproportionately effective, compared to other American foreign policy actors, in shaping dialogue and events in theater so as to advance American security and foreign policy interests. Likewise, their relationships and integration with regional counterparts through military engagement programs provides them policy leverage that other elements of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus may not possess. Frequently, the power to “get something done” may lie with a foreign military rather than in a foreign ministry. As such, the United States’ government has increasingly deferred to and provided resources for combatant commanders to achieve regional objectives, regardless of whether those objectives are distinctly military in nature or not.

Combatant commands also come with challenges both inherent to their structure and manifest from their historical and contemporary execution. First is manifest from the policy influence that combatant commanders have. Commentators have suggested that combatant commanders have overstepped their bounds in executing American foreign policy. The resources of the DoD and combatant commands may provide a quick response to a foreign issue, but not necessarily the correct or most effective response. Once combatant commands are engaged in a foreign policy effort, they tend to continue, as it is difficult and time consuming to transfer responsibilities to civil organizations. Because of this, civilian agencies that are, by law and by tradition, supposed to manage U.S. foreign relations have tended to be relegated to an increasingly secondary role – and have faced budgetary pressures reflecting that. Similarly, the influence of combatant commanders and their role in executing U.S. foreign policy raises questions about the civilian oversight and control.

This issue ultimately comes down to a key point bout handling the issues of today’s world. Military engagement programs with other countries can be seen only as part of the overall engagement activity of the U. S. government. Modern security challenges such as terrorism, narcotics, smuggling, and international criminal networks can no longer be managed as single agency programs but must be integrated into “whole of government” programs. That combatant commands and their commanders have widened, not closed, the gap between the foreign policy agencies involved in a “whole of government” approach is a distinct challenge and concern.

Next, the geographically organized and regionally focused combatant command structure does not readily accommodate solutions to post-Cold War era challenges such as the emergence of transnational groups and regional powers, which operate outside traditional borders and in nontraditional domains. Strict geographic regionalism is no longer how the world operates. From this stems issues of and disagreement over responsibility over problems that extend across areas of command. Coordination on handling these new and emerging challenges will be increasingly difficult if the rigidity of the combatant command structure is maintained. Meanwhile, the lead for two major security concerns of priority today – international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – falls squarely on the shoulders of two functional combatant commands – Special Operations command and Strategic Command, respectively. The geographic combatant commands are, by their nature, not designated as the lead organizations for managing two of the United States’ primary military challenges.

Considering these challenges, experts both within and outside the Department of Defense have offered several suggestions for reform of the combatant command structure – or fundamental change to the way the United States organizes command and control. Nonetheless, in the present day, combatant commands play a vital role within the United States’ military and defense policy, and their commanders are actors of considerable influence for American foreign policy. The combatant command structure has brought the United States considerable military advantage throughout the past decades – even if it comes with drawbacks and faces increasingly difficult questions and issues.

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