Foreign Affairs: what would happen if a nuke was dropped on ISIS?

Foreign Affairs Scope looks at Trump asking about nukes as the US clears F-35 for combat. With special feature audio.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump this week reportedly asked his advisers why the US military couldn’t use nuclear weapons against the Islamic State (IS). His question was painted as asinine by the media, and questions about authorisation for using nuclear missiles quickly emerged.

But the utility of nuclear weapons is not widely understood and Mr Trump’s question is apt. Such weapons have only been used twice in combat but have been critical to keeping the peace between major powers for 71 years. The stronger a nuclear weapon, the better it is for deterrence. And the threat of using nuclear weapons is more important than their actual use.

His question about deploying them against IS draws from a philosophical issue known as the “trolley problem” in which a few people are sacrificed to save many. Such a calculation is a common reality in warfare but in this case IS is both a state and an idea. And although striking IS might compel it to cease its fighting, it might also invigorate the jihadist narrative. There is too much unknown. Hence why the weapons will probably stay in their silos.

Also in the US, the seven-year late and $US1.5 trillion weapons system called the F-35 Lightning II received clearance for the second of its variants to enter combat operations. While there is still extra testing to be done, and its operations will be limited, the clearance represents a significant military advancement for the US and its allies.

The F-35 will replace four aircraft (F-16, F-18, A-10 and AV-8B) and serve until at least 2070. Due to cost overruns and a drop in planned sales, the airframe is the most expensive weapons system in history. It is the second operational fifth generation fighter aircraft to be built (the first was the F-22 Raptor in 2005). The US will buy more than 2500 while Australia will buy up to 100.

Clearance of the highly capable airframe comes at an important time. Both China and Russia are developing their own fifth generation aircraft, although whether the types are true fifth generation or advanced fourth is largely unknown. Also, recalcitrant states such as Iran have advanced surface-to-air missiles, which will limit the effectiveness of older aircraft. Nevertheless, the F-35 may be the last manned aircraft to be built as unmanned aerial vehicles develop in capability.

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