Public domain image French nuclear test at Fangataufa atoll in French Polynesia
Yesterday, Donald Trump sat down with the Washington Post editorial board for a long (or surreal as it turned out) discussion on a range of subjects. One of the most interesting ones was this:
RYAN: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You’ve mentioned it many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troop in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?
TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…
RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?
TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?
To a certain extent this was a trick question based on the assumption that Trump was full of crap. Battlefield nuclear weapons, i.e. tactical nuclear weapons, have largely been removed from the US inventory. Gone are Pershing II missiles and nuclear 155mm artillery from the Army. Gone are nuclear bombs on US carriers and the Navy’s Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear. Right now that capability resides in a couple of hundred nuclear bombs stored both in the US and in Europe
Nevertheless, according to unclassified reports, the United States did reduce the number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and the number of facilities that house those weapons during the George W. Bush Administration. Some reports indicate that the weapons were withdrawn from Greece and Ramstein Air Base in Germany between 2001 and 2005. In addition, reports indicate that the United States withdrew its nuclear weapons from the RAF Lakenheath air base in the United Kingdom in 2006.57 According to unclassified reports, the United States now deploys 160-200 bombs at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Some of these weapons are stored at U.S. bases and would be delivered by U.S. aircraft. Others are stored at bases operated by the “host nation” and would be delivered by that nation’s aircraft if NATO decided to employ nuclear weapons.
So, “are you crazy?” would have been an entirely appropriate response. US nuclear policy is that we will not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons nor use nuclear weapons against them. As ISIS is a non-state actor, popping a nuke over, say Raqqa, Syria, would set aside US defense policy as it has existed for a half century by nuking the territory of a nation with which we are not at war. The nuclear weapons stored in Europe can’t be used without consultation and approval of the host nation… well, they can but that would result in us being ordered to evacuate a heretofore allied nation.
And, as ISIS doesn’t employ the massed formations that battlefield nukes were designed to stop, most of of the casualties of any nuclear strike against ISIS would be non-combatants. And, because part of the effect of a nuke is nuclear fallout and keeping in mind that friendly and enemy forces are closely intermingled, not to mention international boundaries:
most any nuclear attack is going to result in radiation contamination of friendly forces and nations.
In short, there are zero circumstances where current US nuclear use policy would allow the use of nukes against ISIS.
(The B-61 is a variable yield weapon going from sub-kiloton (0.3KT) to 340KT yields. If you want to amuse yourself with collateral damage of the various weapon sizes, this will let you calculate blast effects.)
Rather than do anything sensible, Trump decides to talk tough. Though he doesn’t say it, he clearly implies that nuclear weapons are on the table (“I don’t want to start the process”) and that some, unspecified, level of attack by ISIS on US troops could result in nuking them. The problem obviously is that even a President Trump would be heavily constrained in any decision to use nukes, ISIS knows that, and what is worse nukes would not serve our best interest. To mildly paraphrase Talleyrand, “It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” So Trump manages to make himself look rather silly… again…. but, sadly, his supporters are going to be cheering him on.