Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts a town hall during his visit to the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Feb. 20, 2020.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts a town hall during his visit to the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Feb. 20, 2020. Army / Staff Sgt. Brandy Nicole Mejia

Esper Plays Nuclear War: Russia Nukes Europe, US Fires Back

The defense secretary took part in a classified drill at U.S. Strategic Command this week.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper took part in a classified military drill this week in which Russia and the United States traded nuclear strikes, Pentagon officials said on background Friday.

The “mini exercise” held at U.S. Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday comes just weeks after the U.S. confirmed that it has deployed controversial low-yield nuclear missiles on Navy submarines, and as the Trump administration asks Congress to approve $44 billion to buy new nuclear weapons and maintain its existing arsenal.

“The scenario included a European contingency where you’re conducting a war with Russia and Russia decides to use a low-yield, limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory,” a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified military drills.

The U.S. fired back with what the senior official called a “limited response” to Moscow’s nuclear attack in Europe.

“During the course of the exercise, we simulated responding with a nuclear weapon,” the official said.

The U.S. regularly exercises its response to a nuclear strike, with defense and military officials playing the roles of the president and defense secretary “so they’re familiar with the mechanical process of making these decisions and providing the orders back out to the fleet,” the senior official said.

“They played out that game and the secretary got a good understanding for how that went,” the official said.

Two reporters traveling with Esper to Strategic Command were not told about the secretary’s participation in the exercise.

In a new book, “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War,” Fred Kaplan details similar drills and scenarios conducted by political and military officials during the Obama administration. 

On one occasion, Kaplan writes, a group of National Security Council deputies responded to Russia’s firing a low-yield nuclear weapon into Europe with a conventional strike. A month later, cabinet secretaries and military leaders went through the same scenario, but they decided to launch a nuclear strike on Belarus in response to Russia’s attack.

Modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal is Pentagon leaders’ top priority. The Pentagon, in its fiscal 2021 budget request, asked Congress to approve $28.9 billion to maintain its existing weapons and buy new intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth bombers, submarines, cruise missiles, warheads and communications equipment. The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration has requested $15.6 billion for its nuclear weapons projects.

While at Strategic Command officials also briefed Esper about the nuclear arsenals of North Korea, Russia, and China.

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