The Trump administration's new nuclear policy aims to counter an evolving Russian military strategy that appears to more readily envisage the limited use of nuclear weapons, a senior defense official said Monday.
"We have been extremely concerned with what we have seen as the evolution of Russian military policy as it relates to potential use of nuclear weapons," David Trachtenberg, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said at the Heritage Foundation on Monday.
"Russian nuclear doctrine seems to actively consider the possibility of limited nuclear use. Russian military exercises … in some cases have involved levels of activity involving strategic nuclear forces that we haven't seen since the heyday of the Cold War, and some of those exercises have involved the simulated use of nuclear weapons as part of what has been referred to as an ‘escalate to deescalate strategy.'"
The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review, released earlier this month, calls for the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Critics of the document have complained the procurement of such weapons would not neutralize Russian investment in low-yield nukes as intended, but would instead provide President Donald Trump with a "more usable" nuclear arsenal.
Trachtenberg disputed reports suggesting the new strategy enhances the prospect of nuclear war or represents a revival of a Cold War-era arms race. He said the policy lays out a path for the United States to contest Russian advances, in turn enhancing American deterrence capabilities.
"The goal of our recommendations is to deter war, not to fight one," he said. "If nuclear weapons are employed in conflict, it is because deterrence failed, and the goal of the 2018 [Nuclear Posture Review] is to make sure that deterrence will not fail."
"Our purpose now is to disabuse any thinking on the part of—not just the Russian leadership, but any potential adversary's leadership—to disabuse them of the notion that there is some level of conflict or some level of escalation that they feel they can engage in where they are not at risk of … a commensurate response."
Citing the Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which sought to shrink the U.S. nuclear arsenal with the aim of reciprocity, Trachtenberg said the Pentagon's updated recommendations "are grounded in a realistic assessment of today's strategic environment" in which China, Russia, and North Korea continue efforts to build-up their nuclear capacities.