MEDITERRANEAN SEA - APRIL 7: In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy,The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 7, 2017 in the Mediterranean Sea. The USS Porter was one of two destroyers that fired a total of 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians this week. The attack was the first direct U.S. assault on Syria and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year war there. (Photo by Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, says more usable tactical nuclear weapons will deter adversaries and raise the threshold for enemy attack

The US will adopt a more aggressive nuclear posture, contemplating strikes in response to non-nuclear threats and deploying new “low-yield” devices after a government review that detractors say will raise the risk of nuclear war.

Although the nuclear posture review states that the US would only consider such an attack in the case of “extreme circumstances”, these could include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”.

This raises the prospect that nuclear weapons could be deployed in response to a severe cyber attack, a large terror attack such as those staged on September 11 2001, or another strategic threat.

While the Trump administration says the stance merely “clarifies” previous policy, critics say it marks a radical departure.

“Our goal is to convince adversaries they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons,” Jim Mattis, defence secretary, said in the review document, arguing that more usable tactical nuclear weapons would deter adversaries and raise the threshold for enemy attack.

The posture review plans to reintroduce a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile that was retired under the Obama administration. It also seeks to equip submarines with lower-yield weapons whose impact could deliver up to the equivalent of the nuclear bomb that the US deployed to destroy Hiroshima in 1945.

Although the Trump administration is preoccupied with the accelerating nuclear threat from North Korea, experts say the review is aimed at a rising threat from China and Russia, which are seeking to modernise their military capabilities.

Pentagon officials are focused on maintaining the US military advantage as the best means to deter rivals, saying the world is now “more dangerous”. A state department official said both Russia and China were briefed on the new posture on Friday.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly argued for a large-scale military build-up, calling for modernisation of the country’s nuclear capability. “Let it be an arms race,” he announced the month before he took office. He has also bragged that he has a “bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than North Korea.

Patrick Shanahan, deputy defence secretary, said the effort would deliver a “modern and credible” deterrent. He argued the new weapons would break no treaties, would not increase the size of the US nuclear stockpile and would help the US deter nuclear attacks.

But non-proliferation experts are dismayed by the decision, which they argue marks a dangerous break with post-cold war US nuclear orthodoxy.

“I think it’s a dangerous and destabilising break with 40 years of bipartisan efforts to reduce nuclear threats around the world,” said Alexandra Bell at the Center for Arms Control and a former non-proliferation official at the state department.

She argued that it was dangerous to broaden the circumstances under which the US may use nuclear weapons.

“The US is abandoning its leadership role helping to reduce overall nuclear stockpiles and encourage non-proliferation,” she said.

The Pentagon counters that the new doctrine will allow diplomats to work “from a position of strength”. Mr Shanahan was due to say that the new stance “lowers the risk of nuclear use by anyone” and would “strengthen American deterrence”.

But the document also calls to “strengthen the integration of nuclear and non-nuclear military planning”, a move critics say will make operational use of limited nuclear weapons more likely.

“Potential adversaries should not doubt our resolve,” said Tom Shannon, under secretary for political affairs at state department, adding the US will not conduct nuclear explosive testing unless it deems it “necessary”.

Joseph Cirincione at Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear policy think-tank, said the approach was “a recipe for locking-in the next two generations into the cold war architecture that previous administrations have been trying to disassemble”.

The document calls for an increase in spending on nuclear modernisation, approximately doubling the current nuclear allocation to up to 6.4 per cent of the Pentagon’s annual budget.

The plans may face hurdles in Congress to secure funding. Adam Smith, a top-ranking Democrat in the House says the US is already outspending Russia and China on its nuclear programme and that Mr Trump’s spending plans are “completely unrealistic”.

“The administration’s recommendations will not increase our security — they will instead feed a nuclear arms race, undermine strategic stability by lowering the threshold for nuclear use, and increase the risk of miscalculation that could precipitate a nuclear war,” Mr Smith said.

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