Letting It Be an Arms Race

A leaked draft of the Trump administration’s nuclear-weapons plan imagines a more dangerous world.

A long-rage ground-based missile silo
A long-rage ground-based missile silo at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where the United States is testing the missile defense shield, on July 17, 2007  (Kacper Pempel / Reuters)

As Americans question whether President Donald Trump has the judgment necessary to command the most capable nuclear arsenal on earth, the Pentagon is moving to order new, more usable nuclear options. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a Pentagon document that sets the nation’s nuclear policy, demonstrates an aggressive shift that will add to the spiraling cost of the nuclear arsenal, raise the risk of a nuclear exchange, and plunge the country into a new arms race, according to a draft published by HuffPost three weeks ahead of its planned release. Though the document is marked “pre-decisional,” insiders have told me it reflects the final text.

Trump’s NPR marks an abrupt shift from the last eight years, when the nation’s nuclear-weapons policy enjoyed a surprising bipartisan consensus. The Obama review of 2010 proposed a broad compromise: reducing the number of nuclear weapons and relying on them less to deter and fight wars, while at the same time starting a major effort to replace or upgrade nearly every submarine, aircraft, missile, and bomb in the nuclear triad.

The compromise reflected principles of responsible nuclear policy in place since the late Cold War. According to these principles, national security is better served by maintaining a rough balance of forces between the United States and Russia. Both countries, in turn, would gradually reduce the size of their forces. As the U.S. arsenal aged, it would be updated so it could serve existing missions, but wouldn’t acquire additional capabilities. Military and scientific officials now regularly certify that the existing arsenal can be maintained safely, and that there is no military reason to justify its expansion.

The Trump administration is preparing to shatter this consensus. The leaked draft moves to expand U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, develop new nuclear capabilities, and embrace competition in strategic weapons. Despite the president’s clear lack of knowledge about U.S. nuclear capabilities, the draft shows that the Pentagon is moving to translate his impulses into policy.

Trump’s administration has suggested that it sees nuclear weapons as useful against “non-nuclear strategic attacks” on U.S. infrastructure, perhaps including cyber or terrorist attacks. Such a change would strain the credibility of all U.S. deterrence policy, to say nothing of credulity itself. The president has said little to suggest that he understands the virtue of maintaining a stable, affordable, non-threatening balance of nuclear forces. If these programs cause adversaries to reciprocate? Then, as Trump says, “let it be an arms race.”

Even in advance of the NPR release, the Trump administration had already made adjustments to its strategic-weapons posture. First, in November, his administration stated that it had changed the “fundamental approach” regarding nuclear testing on American soil, adding a new category of a “simple test” that could occur within six to 10 months. Today, it is hard to imagine a nuclear weapon shaking the desert of Nevada, something we have not done for 25 years. The administration has also decided that the Pentagon should start work on a new ground-launched missile—which would violate treaty commitments—that could be deployed to Europe. In November, the Pentagon also announced “a very successful flight” of a next-generation hypersonic weapon that could someday pose a threat to an adversary’s mobile nuclear missiles. Within weeks, China carried out its own test of a similar weapon.

The centerpiece of the leaked draft is, in essence, an order for new nuclear capabilities. It proposes two new nuclear-capable systems. The first is a lower-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which, if used, would expose the submarine, its crew, and its hundreds of other warheads to attack for only a limited strike. The second is a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, a new version of a system that was removed from the force in 1994 because it is totally unnecessary. Advocates for such weapons have argued, contrary to military leaders, that they would limit collateral damage and be easier to control, thus more capable of deterring attacks. But there is little evidence that a nuclear rival like Russia could rapidly perceive a nuclear detonation as “limited,” or, even if it could, that it would limit its own retaliation. The draft also plans to retain the high-yield B83 nuclear bomb, which had been slated for retirement. At 1.2 megatons, the B83 is up to 75 times more powerful than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Neither weapon is needed to deter potential adversaries, and would instead raise the risk of the use of a nuclear weapon—whether because an adversary thinks it is being attacked or whether a U.S. president thinks he has to order an attack. As it stands, the Pentagon and the Department of Energy, the institutions that would handle the warhead changes, will struggle to find the funding or the manpower to meet existing modernization requirements. New programs would only compound this uncertainty and endanger core nuclear-modernization priorities. Moreover, developing new warheads creates an unpalatable choice: They will either be deployed without a test or with a test. Both options are bad. Lastly, the draft NPR asserts that its program proposals are affordable, but avoids making fiscal trade-offs between different military priorities. Yet Congress will have to ask whether new nuclear weapons programs are really worth the money, given that there is still no plan to pay the $1.2-trillion bill for nuclear weapons over the next 30 years.

The document also argues that this more assertive nuclear policy is necessary to reassure U.S. allies, who face greater threats today than during the Obama years. But the president’s dismissive talk has damaged American alliances in ways too grave to patch up by deploying new nuclear capabilities. In fact, many allies will strongly disapprove of plans to develop new nuclear weapons on moral and strategic grounds as they, too, worry about the president’s volatility.

Even as the Trump administration is proposing expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities, it is subverting traditional mechanisms for controlling them. For example, the president has reportedly denigrated the existing New START treaty, which limits Russia’s arsenal and provides the United States with invaluable information on it. Starting this year, neither the United States nor Russia will be under any legal obligation to continue reducing their forces. For the first time since the 1980s, the downward trend in deployed nuclear weapons could grind to a halt. If the treaty is not extended and supplemented, existing limits could go away entirely.

In a welcome development, the State Department has quietly opened a dialogue with Russia on these issues. For years, Russia has argued for broadening the scope of arms control from nuclear weapons to include other weapons that could upset stability at the strategic level (including missile defense, hypersonic weapons, and cyber attacks) but refused to begin talks until Trump took office. The talks are the best chance in years to resolve Russia’s cheating on an important arms-control treaty, and to address these alarming trends. After a cursory initial meeting in December, the Trump team is apparently allowing the talks to languish.

Today, an astonishing 58 percent of Americans lack confidence in the president’s judgment with the nuclear arsenal. It is difficult to believe that Congress or the American public will quietly acquiesce to a major expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities and missions. Yet, without concerted pressure, the Trump Nuclear Posture Review will abandon U.S. leadership to reduce nuclear risks and instead follow our adversaries into a world where nuclear competition is commonplace.