Memo to President Trump: Let’s Avoid a Nuclear Arms Race
By Elliott Negin
For the past several decades, every new US president has initiated a “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR), a Pentagon-led, months-long process that lays out the administration’s nuclear weapons strategy. The last one, released by the Obama administration in 2010, was heralded by the Union of Concerned Scientists as “the most far-reaching since the end of the Cold War,” appropriately reflecting “the reality that nuclear weapons have become a liability in today’s world.”
But that was then.
Now we have a president who has made some deeply disturbing comments about nuclear weapons. During last year’s presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump repeatedly said it was important to be “unpredictable” about whether the United States would use nuclear weapons. He wondered aloud why we have nuclear weapons if we wouldn’t use them. He said he wasn’t particularly worried about more countries getting nuclear weapons. And tellingly, he apparently had no idea what the term “nuclear triad” means. When asked which leg of the triad—bombers, submarines, or missiles—is a priority for him, Trump responded, “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power; the devastation is very important to me.”
President Trump has already directed the Pentagon to undertake a new NPR, scheduled to wrap up by the end of this year. We don’t know how it will deviate from President Obama’s plan but we do know it will have enormous consequences: making the world safer or substantially more dangerous.
“The Nuclear Posture Review offers a renewed chance for the United States to reduce the threat of global annihilation from nuclear weapons,” says Lisbeth Gronlund, codirector and senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program, “and that concern should remain paramount as it is drafted.”
What Are Nuclear Weapons For?
The United States has long reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first, a policy UCS wants to change. The NPR offers an opportunity to establish that the only reason the United States retains nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on this country or its allies—in other words, the United States would use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack.
The Obama administration took a small step in this direction, declaring that the “fundamental”—but not the only—role of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack. That language still allowed the first use of nuclear weapons, while declaring that a no-first-use policy was a long-term objective. However, at the end of the Obama presidency, Vice President Biden stated that he and President Obama had concluded the United States should take this step. UCS calls on the Trump administration to do so and declare that the only purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack.
How Many Nuclear Weapons Do We Need?
“It would be wonderful—a dream would be that no country would have nukes,” President Trump said during a February interview. “But if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
The United States is already at the top of the pack, possessing more nuclear weapons than any other nation: an estimated stockpile of 4,480 warheads, of which approximately 1,740 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles or at bomber bases as of January 2017. Russia has the second-largest nuclear arsenal: an estimated 4,300 warheads, of which 1,950 are deployed on missiles or at bomber bases.
The other seven countries with nuclear weapons have arsenals ranging from 100 to 300 warheads. France, with the third-largest arsenal, has 300 warheads, for example, followed by China with an estimated 260, none of which are deployed.
If everything goes according to plan, US and Russian deployed weapons will be limited by early next year. In 2010, the two countries signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits countable deployed nuclear warheads worldwide to 1,550 by February 2018. The treaty was ratified by the Senate in a bipartisan 71–26 vote and enjoys widespread support among senior military brass.
But all may not go according to plan. During his presidential campaign, Trump complained that Russia “outsmarted” the United States when negotiating the treaty and he made wildly inaccurate claims about what the treaty allowed and prohibited. And when Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested extending the treaty during a phone conversation with President Trump in February, Trump again complained that the treaty favored Russia and was a “bad deal” for the United States.
UCS strongly recommends that the Trump administration extend the treaty for another five years before it expires in 2021. Unless both countries agree to do so or negotiate a new treaty, neither will be bound by the current treaty’s limits, which could potentially touch off a significant new nuclear arms race.
No One Wins a Nuclear Arms Race
Remarkably, President Trump has said he relishes the prospect of an arms race. Last December, he tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” A day later, during an appearance on the MSNBC show Morning Joe, Trump went further, saying he welcomed an arms race if it bolstered US superiority. “Let it be an arms race,” he reportedly said in an off-air remark. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
For all intents and purposes, the United States and Russia have already embarked on a nuclear arms race of sorts. Despite President Obama’s soaring rhetoric about a world without nuclear weapons, his administration put in place a plan to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia is also developing a new suite of subs, missiles, and bombers, although it has hit some major obstacles, including a number of missile test failures.
This dynamic undercuts US security and is completely unnecessary. The United States can deter a nuclear attack with far fewer nuclear weapons than are called for in the current plan, which would replace every warhead and nuclear delivery system with a new one—at an enormous cost. The Trump administration should make the smart choice of paring back and refurbishing warheads and delivery systems instead of building new ones, potentially saving taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars while enhancing US security.
Will President Trump Abandon the Goal of Nuclear Disarmament?
Finally, under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States—as one of the five nations actually possessing nuclear weapons among 191 signatories—is legally obligated to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. All US administrations since the treaty was signed have at least paid lip service to that goal.
For its part, the Trump administration has not yet committed to the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament. According to Christopher Ford, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation, the Trump administration’s NPR will examine whether disarmament “is a realistic goal.” As Ford put it, that question “is certainly among the conceptual space of options that we’re exploring now.”
Those statements are extremely troubling. If the United States fails to reaffirm its commitment to nuclear disarmament, it would further damage the NPT, which is already fraying because the nuclear weapon states are not living up to their commitments to eliminate these weapons. Notably, non-nuclear weapon states, frustrated by the lack of progress, successfully negotiated a legally binding treaty—which was adopted by the United Nations in July-- that makes illegal the development, testing, production, manufacture, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
“For the United States, nuclear weapons are a liability, not an asset,” says Gronlund. “With this in mind, we’re urging the administration to take steps forward by rejecting Cold War–era policies that make us less safe.”
Why Nuclear Weapons Are a Liability
Nuclear weapons are unlike any other type of weapon—just one can wreak almost unfathomable damage. A typical warhead of 300 kilotons (i.e., with a yield equivalent to 600 million pounds of dynamite) detonated above a city would incinerate or otherwise kill every person and living thing within a one-mile radius. People within three miles would not fare much better, being crushed by collapsing buildings and receiving severe burns and exposure to potentially lethal doses of radiation. For many major cities, this would amount to roughly 1 million dead and an additional 2 million seriously injured. And that from just a single warhead. Any use of nuclear weapons would almost certainly provoke retaliation, meaning far more devastation still.
That’s why a growing number of US military and security experts consider the country’s large arsenal of nuclear weapons to be a liability. Nuclear weapons do not address today’s threats from rogue states such as North Korea or from terrorists that may seek to buy or steal a warhead. Any use of a nuclear weapon, whether deliberate or accidental, would cause unacceptable devastation. And, even if the rationale for nuclear weapons is solely to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, a much smaller arsenal would suffice.