It is no secret that when it comes to shaping government policy, Donald Trump has been driven by compulsion to undo the enlightened measures of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Whether in the field of immigration, labor rights, race relations, environmental protection, or climate change, Trump has used every instrument at his command—every senior appointment, regulatory measure, or executive order—to undermine the gains made in those areas during the Obama era. But no rollback of that legacy is likely to prove as consequential or dangerous as his plan to enlarge America’s nuclear arsenal and expand the uses to which it can be put. If all of Trump’s policies are enacted, we will soon find ourselves in a world as terrifying as that of the darkest days of the Cold War.
To fully grasp the severity of Trump’s proposals, we need to recall President Obama’s own stance on nuclear-weapons use. In his first major address on this issue, delivered in Prague on April 5, 2009, Obama laid out a clear and hopeful vision. “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he declared. While recognizing that such a world could not be easily or quickly achieved, he promised to begin that process with a pledge to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”
To translate this pledge into formal policy, Obama commissioned a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by the Defense Department. The NPR, released in April 2010, represented a definitive statement of US policy regarding nuclear weapons and their possible use. In consonance with Obama’s stated outlook, it stressed that such munitions were an instrument of last resort, intended solely for deterrence of enemy nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies. Among its key conclusions were that the United States will “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks” and that it “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances,” in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States or one of its allies. This was a dramatic change from the policies of previous administrations, which had contemplated and prepared for the use of nuclear munitions in response to a wide range of non-nuclear threats, such as a tank-driven Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
The Obama NPR of April 2010 has remained the principal expression of US policy regarding nuclear weapons until now. In accordance with its precepts, the Obama administration negotiated a new strategic-arms-reduction treaty (New START) with Russia in 2010, further reducing the strategic nuclear stockpiles of both nations (the agreement will remain in effect until 2021, or longer, if both sides agree). Obama undertook additional efforts to reduce the global role of nuclear weapons, including the successful drive to conclude a nuclear-limitation agreement with Iran (which Trump seeks to tear up) and sponsorship of a series of Nuclear Security Summits, aimed at preventing the acquisition of fissile materials by illicit actors.
While proceeding with all this, however, Obama was faced with a painful dilemma: Most of the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal were reaching the end of their intended lifespan and, in the view of hawks within the military establishment (and their supporters in Congress), could no longer be considered 100 percent reliable. To placate those elements and gain space for his arms-reduction efforts, Obama agreed to begin preliminary design work on replacements for all three components of the strategic “triad”—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). No decision had yet been made on actual procurement of the new systems when Obama left the White House, but research and development was well under way.
All this is important to keep in mind as President Trump prepares to roll out a new Nuclear Posture Review, aimed at reconfiguring US nuclear strategy in a totally different way. The Trump NPR, a draft of which was leaked to The Huffington Post on January 11, calls for increasing rather than reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy. It also decrees a massive boost in military spending so as to finance the actual procurement of additional munitions, including both replacements for all three components of the strategic triad as well as an array of new weapons intended to bridge the (perceived) gap between conventional conflict and all-out nuclear war.
In concrete terms, the new NPR calls for doubling the amount spent on nuclear weapons from approximately 3 percent of the military budget to 6 or 7 percent, an increase that would amount to as much as $50 billion per year (assuming a national-security budget of approximately $700 billion), or $1 trillion over a 20-year period. The additional funds would be used to modernize 450 Minuteman-III ICBM launch facilities with a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent fielding 400 ICBMs; replace existing Ohio-class missile submarines with a new generation of subs; and introduce a new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider. In addition, existing air-launched cruise missiles would be replaced by a more capable successor, the Long-Range Stand-Off missile, and a new submarine-launched cruise missile would be developed to provide additional targeting options. All of these acquisitions, it is claimed, will both ensure the longevity of the US strategic arsenal and provide the president with a wider range of “nuclear options.”
To some degree, of course, this is just another expression of Trump’s belief that a bigger military with more and better weapons confers power, prestige, and influence on the United States (and its president). If there is to be an arms race, he said a year ago, “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” The full-scale “renovation” and expansion of the nuclear stockpile will also channel hundreds of billions of dollars into the coffers of US military contractors, consistently among Trump’s major cheerleaders. But there is much more to all this than prestige and profits: Trump, and his associates in the White House, reject the outlook that governed Obama’s nuclear policy and instead profess a stance that is both darker and far more combative.
Whereas President Obama believed that it was possible to envision a world without nuclear weapons and to take practical steps to achieve that outcome, Trump and company see nothing but unending strife and contention ahead. “The world is more dangerous, not less,” the draft NPR states, citing Russia’s seizure of Crimea and China’s buildup in the South China Sea. While no mention is made of US efforts to expand NATO’s reach in Eastern Europe or to “pivot” toward Asia, Russia is accused of provoking an “unabashed return to Great Power competition.” Both Russia and China, moreover, are accused of enhancing their nuclear arsenals while the United States stood aside (as if Obama’s go-ahead for design work on new weapons didn’t matter). “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction,” the draft NPR asserts. “They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals [and] increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans.” (Some evidence is provided in the NPR to buttress these claims, but most independent experts are uncertain as to the extent of Russia’s and China’s nuclear enhancements and whether they have, in fact, increased the “salience” of nuclear weapons in their strategic calculations.)
In this increasingly perilous environment, the draft NPR claims, America’s existing arsenal and nuclear-use policies could prove inadequate to deter aggressive behavior by Russia, China, and other adversaries, such as Iran and North Korea. The greatest danger, it suggests, is that a president may be inhibited from employing the city-busters now in US stockpiles in response to a less-than-all-out assault by one of our enemies—say, a limited nuclear strike on a NATO tank formation, or a cyber-attack on critical US infrastructure. Accordingly, it is essential that US leaders be provided with alternative nuclear options, such as low-yield nuclear munitions. “In nuclear deterrence, no ‘one-size fits all,’” the draft NPR affirms. Instead, “a diverse set of nuclear capabilities provides an American President with flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.” This is the argument given for arming some SLBMs with low-yield warheads and introducing a new class of submarine-launched cruise missiles.
One can pick these arguments apart piece by piece to expose their innumerable fallacies. To begin with, the United States already possesses plentiful gravity bombs that can be “dialed down” to lower yields if such an outcome is deemed necessary. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that Moscow would be any more deterred from using a low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapon against NATO (even assuming this is something they are seriously thinking about) by the prospect of being struck with a smallish nuclear bomb rather than one of the big ones now in the arsenal. And why we need to replace all three “legs” of the triad—at a cost of many hundreds of billions of dollars each—when each alone is sufficient to incinerate any conceivable aggressor is an open question, especially at a time when those funds are desperately needed to rebuild America’s deteriorating infrastructure, fight the opioid epidemic, and provide a world-class education to every American child.
But more important, it is essential to resist the notion that a world without nuclear weapons is inconceivable and that only a bigger arsenal can protect us at a time of increased international tension. Enhancing the potency of the US nuclear arsenal at this moment will only aggravate tensions and increase the risk of confrontation, not reduce it. If we can be sure of anything, a US decision to procure additional nuclear munitions and expand the number of circumstances in which they might be used is certain to invite similar moves by Russia and China and lower the threshold for the first use of such weapons in a future crisis situation. In the end, the Trump plan, if fully executed, will put us at far greater risk than a strategy aimed at reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our military strategy.
Moreover, as demonstrated by the adoption last July by the UN General Assembly of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a vast majority of the nations of the world seek the elimination of these munitions. If we are, indeed, entering a time of renewed “Great Power competition,” the smartest thing we can do is remove nuclear weapons from the equation. Many organizations, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (which won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017), Global Zero, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others, are working for the elimination of nuclear weapons and deserve strong public support.
President Trump will also need congressional authorization to finance all those extravagantly expensive new weapons in the Nuclear Posture Review, so this is one area where public pressure can usefully be brought to bear. With the tax cut now in place, any increase in nuclear spending is likely to require reductions in spending on health, education, or infrastructure. Although Trump has yet to submit specific funding requests for the new munitions, it is not too early to tell our senators and representatives to oppose any increase in nuclear weapons spending.