Mattis: There Is No Such Thing as a 'Tactical' Nuke

FILE PHOTO -- An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) off the coast of Florida. (U.S. Navy/ John Kowalski)
FILE PHOTO -- An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) off the coast of Florida. (U.S. Navy/ John Kowalski)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there is "no such thing" as a tactical nuclear weapon in the context of strategies that consider the use of so-called "low yield" weapons to avert all-out nuclear war.

"I don't think there's any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used anytime is a strategic game changer," he said Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Nuclear Posture Review and the overall National Defense Strategy.

"That said, we don't want someone else to miscalculate" and underestimate U.S. resolve to respond to an attack, Mattis said. The U.S. nuclear deterrent "must be considered credible," he said.

The defense secretary was responding to questions from Rep. Susan Davis, D-California, on the proposed development of two new low-yield nuclear weapons under the review -- a new warhead for a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a sub-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM).

Mattis suggested that the two new weapons, the SCLM in particular, could be used as bargaining chips to convince Russia to abandon its own low-yield weapons programs and comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

"I want to make certain that our negotiators have something to negotiate with, that we want Russia back into compliance" with the INF, he said.

"We do not want to forego the INF, but at the same time we have options if Russia continues to go down this path," Mattis said. "So the idea is, once again, to keep our negotiators negotiating from a position of strength.

"I don't believe you can go into a negotiation and try to get something for nothing. I don't think the Russians would be willing to give up something to gain nothing from us in terms of reductions," he said.

Mattis did not rule out that the U.S. might drop development of the SLCM if Russia came back into compliance with the INF.

"I don't want to say in advance of a negotiation and undercut our negotiators' position [on] what we would or would not do," he said.

"The point I would make is deterrence is dynamic, we have to deal with it as it stands today," he added. "And in that regard, I believe we have to give our negotiators something with which to negotiate.

The NPR and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) unveiled last month were to be the main topics of the hearing, but the discussion often was sidetracked by debates over Congress' failure to reach a budget deal that would fund the military by nearly $700 billion.

Congress has passed multiple continuing resolutions (CRs) to date in lieu of a budget agreement and was moving towards a potential fifth to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Thursday.

Mattis told the lawmakers it was probably a "waste of your time" to discuss the NPR and the NDS when he could never be sure how much money he would have to carry out either.

Joining Mattis at the witness table was Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He backed up Mattis on the budget and stressed that the main goal of the NPR was to maintain and modernize and the nation's nuclear triad of bombers, land-based missiles, and ballistic submarines.

"More specifically, the Nuclear Posture Review paid particular attention to what Russia, China and North Korea have been doing to develop, modernize and expand their nuclear weapons capabilities and integrate them into their military strategy and doctrine," Selva said.

"The Nuclear Posture Review also took into account the potential for Iran to renew its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability in the future," he said.

The NPR determined that "our strategy must be tailored to each potential adversary to effectively communicate the costs of aggression," Selva said.

He said "this tailored strategy approach requires the United States to maintain a flexible and credible mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities that can address a spectrum of adversaries and threats over a significant period of time," with the triad as the "bedrock" of the strategy.

In his prepared remarks, Mattis said that under the new NPR, the first since 2010, the U.S. "remains committed to its global leadership role to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and to fulfill existing treaty and arms control obligations."

He said that the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) set a ceiling of 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads, and "shorter-range nuclear weapons were almost entirely eliminated from America's nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s."

However, Mattis said "we must recognize that deterrence and arms control can only be achieved with a credible capability" that requires modernization of the nuclear arsenal that the Congressional Budget Office estimates could cost $1.6 trillion through 2040.

"A review of the global nuclear situation is sobering," Mattis said. He said that "Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as other nuclear systems" and "Moscow advocates a theory of nuclear escalation for military conflict."

"China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces, pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities," he said, and "is also modernizing its conventional military to challenge U.S. military superiority."

In addition, "despite universal condemnation in the United Nations, North Korea's nuclear provocations threaten regional and global peace, and Iran's nuclear ambitions remain an unresolved concern. Globally, nuclear terrorism remains a tangible threat."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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