With an eye on Russia, US to increase nuclear capabilities

WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Concerned about Russia's growing tactical nuclear weapons, the United States will expand its nuclear capabilities, a policy document released on Friday said, a move some critics say could increase the risk of miscalculation between the two countries.

It represents the latest sign of hardening resolve by President Donald Trump’s administration to address challenges from Russia, at the same time he is pushing for improved ties with Moscow to rein in a nuclear North Korea.

The focus on Russia is in line with the Pentagon shifting priorities from the fight against Islamist militants to "great power competition" with Moscow and Beijing.

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"Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable," the document, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, said.

The rationale for building up new nuclear capabilities, U.S. officials said, is that Russia currently perceives the United States' nuclear posture and capabilities as inadequate.

By expanding its own low-yield nuclear capability, the United States would deter Russia from using nuclear weapons, U.S. officials argue.

Low-yield nuclear weapons, while still devastating, have a strength of less than 20 kilotons. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had about the same explosive power.

The argument for these weapons is that larger nuclear bombs are so catastrophic that they would never be used and do not work as an effective deterrent. With less power and destruction, the low-yield option would potentially be more likely to be used, serving as an effective deterrent.

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The Pentagon document, which is largely in line with the previous review in 2010, said the U.S. will modify a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads with low-yield options.

In the long term, the U.S. military will also develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. The missile could have the less powerful option, but a decision has not been made, and will take up to a decade to develop, officials said.

Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities at the Pentagon, said the United States would be willing to limit developing the missile if Russia would "redress the imbalance in non-strategic nuclear forces."

Weaver said the most difficult task for those working on the review was trying to address the gap between Russian and American non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Russia has a stockpile of 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, according to the Pentagon. The U.S. has a few hundred active low-yield weapons deployed in Europe.

RESPONDING TO RUSSIA

U.S. officials argue that since the last nuclear review, Russia has expanded and modernized its non-strategic nuclear weapons, annexed Crimea in 2014, and deployed a ground-launched cruise missile that breaches the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The treaty bans testing and fielding missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kms (310-3,417 miles).

"The U.S. is not arms racing, we are responding to Russian initiative here," Weaver said.

Some experts have questioned the expansion.

Jon Wolfsthal, a former top advisor to President Barack Obama on arms control, said there was a possibility that it could lead to a miscalculation.

"If we put nuclear weapons on cruise missiles and we launch conventional cruise missiles, how does Russia know that they are conventional?" he said.

The document argues that by developing U.S. nuclear responses, it raises the Russian threshold for using the weapons, rather than lowering the U.S. threshold.

RELATED: How to survive a nuclear attack

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What should you do in the event of a nearby nuclear attack? Click through to learn more. 

(Photo by Lambert/Getty Images)

Seek shelter immediately, towards the center of a building or -- preferably -- a basement. Aim for the same type of shelter you would utilize in the event of a tornado. 

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The next three slides are examples of nuclear shelters that exist around the world. 

(Image via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The entrance of Shelter Co.'s nuclear shelter model room, which is placed in the basement of the company's CEO Seiichiro Nishimoto's house, is pictured in Osaka, Japan April 26, 2017. (Photo via REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
A fallout shelter sign hangs on the Mount Rona Baptist Church, on August 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. In the early 60's Washington was at the center of civil defense preparations in case of a nuclear blast, with over one thousand dedicated public fallout shelters in schools, churches and government buildings. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
A 'shelter' sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on July 6, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. According to the metropolitan government, South Korea's city subway stations serve a dual purpose with over 3,300 designated as shelters in case of aerial bombardment including any threat from North Korea. The U.S. said that it will use military force if needed to stop North Korea's nuclear missile program after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday into Japanese waters. The latest launch have drawn strong criticism from the U.S. as experts believe the ICBM has the range to reach the U.S. states of Alaska and Hawaii and perhaps the U.S. Pacific Northwest. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Dense materials, including dirt or thick walls, provide the best defense to fallout radiation.

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If possible, take a warm shower -- but do not use conditioner, as it can bond to nuclear particles. 

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Do not seek shelter in a car, as they won't provide adequate protection, and you should not attempt to outrun nuclear fallout. 

(Photo by Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images)

The nuclear fallout zone shrinks quickly after an attack, but the less dangerous "hot zone" still grows. 

(Image via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Once you are sheltered, do not leave. Listen to a radio or other announcements. 

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Kingston Reif, director for disarmament research at the Arms Control Association advocacy group, said the document could bolster a new kind of arms race.

"It's not an arms race in terms of numbers like during the Cold War, but is an arms race that involves more than just the United States and Russia and it involves upgrading and improving the capability of existing nuclear forces," Reif said.

The review called for continuing the B-83 bomb, the largest nuclear weapon in the U.S. stockpile, until a replacement is found, reversing plans to retire it. (Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and James Dalgleish)

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