US tests "smaller" nuclear weapon, increasing the risk of nuclear weapon use

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb during the first week of the new year captured world news. The United States’ test of a mock B61 model 12 small, so-called precision nuclear weapon did not. While the DPRK’s test is thought to be exaggerated, the United States’ $10 billion investment in the new B61 is not. The new bomb is maneuverable and has sensors, allowing it to target underground objects. It also has an adjustable yield.

All of this means, as General James E. Cartwright has said, making the use of a nuclear weapon more thinkable. Building a more “useable” nuclear weapon is a concerted move away from the theory of nuclear “deterrence” towards nuclear detonation. One of the US government officials who helped develop the modernisation plan argues, “Minimizing civilian casualties if deterrence fails is both a more credible and a more ethical approach.”

The entire theory of nuclear “deterrence” is built on the belief that it cannot fail. For if deterrence fails, the states wielding these weapons must admit that they believe they have the right to mass murder civilians, destroy cities, disrupt the climate, and threaten humanity’s survival. Building a “smaller” or “more precise” nuclear weapon is neither a credible nor ethical approach to this problem. The only credible and ethical approach is to prohibit nuclear weapons for everyone, stop all modernisation programmes, and eliminate existing arsenals.

Both of these nuclear weapon tests underscore the inability of the current legal regime to prevent states from seeking, possessing, or modernising nuclear weapons. Prohibiting nuclear weapons through a legally-binding international treaty is a practical, feasible, and effective way to help facilitate nuclear disarmament in the current context. Those states concerned with the current trajectory of modernisation and unfulfilled commitments must take action now to develop such an instrument.