Donald Trump created controversy when he tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
In case anyone was confused, he followed up Friday morning with an off-air remark to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that clarified his intentions: “Let it be an arms race,” he said. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
The backlash was swift and unanimous. Critics charged that there is no plausible reason to expand U.S. nuclear weapons, that Trump’s comments contradicted a decades-old bipartisan consensus on the need to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and that such reckless statements risk provoking a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China.
On this matter, however, Trump is right.
U.S. nuclear strategy cannot be static, but must take into account the nuclear strategy and capabilities of its adversaries. For decades, the United States was able to reduce its nuclear arsenal from Cold War highs because it did not face any plausible nuclear challengers. But great power political competition has returned and it has brought nuclear weapons, the ultimate instrument of military force, along for the ride.
In recent years, North Korea has continued to grow its nuclear arsenal and means of delivery and has issued chilling nuclear threats against the United States and its Asian allies. As recently as Thursday — before Trump’s offending tweet — Rodong Sinmum, the Pyongyang regime’s official newspaper, published an opinion article calling for bolstering North Korea’s “nuclear deterrence.”
The potential threats are everywhere. Washington faces an increasing risk of conflict with a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China in the South China Sea. Beijing is expanding its nuclear forces and it is estimated that the number of Chinese warheads capable of reaching the U.S. homeland has more than trebled in the past decade and continues to grow. And Russia has become more aggressive in Europe and the Middle East and has engaged in explicit nuclear saber rattling the likes of which we have not seen since the 1980s.
At the height of the crisis over Crimea in 2014, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin ominously declared, “It’s best not to mess with us … I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” And on Tuesday, he vowed to “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces, primarily by strengthening missile complexes that will be guaranteed to penetrate existing and future missile defense systems.” As former Defense Secretary William Perry correctly notes, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War.”
The United States needs a robust nuclear force, therefore, not because anyone wants to fight a nuclear war, but rather, the opposite: to deter potential adversaries from attacking or coercing the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons of their own.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States mindlessly reduced its nuclear arsenal even as other nuclear powers went in the opposite direction, expanding and modernizing their nuclear forces. Such a path was unsustainable and Trump is correct to recognize that America’s aging nuclear arsenal is in need of some long overdue upgrades.
So, what would expanding and strengthening the nuclear arsenal look like?
First, the United States must modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad (submarines; long-range bombers, including a new cruise missile; and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs). The Obama administration announced plans to modernize the triad under Republican pressure, but critics are already trying to kill off the ICBM and the cruise missile, and production timelines for these weapon systems keep slipping into the future. The Trump administration must make the timely modernization of all three legs of the triad a top priority.
Second, the United States should increase its deployment of nuclear warheads, consistent with its international obligations. According to New START, the treaty signed with Russia in 2011, each state will deploy no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, but those restrictions don’t kick in until February 2018. At present, according to the State Department, the United States is roughly 200 warheads below the limit while Russia is almost 250 warheads above it.
Accordingly, Russia currently possesses a nuclear superiority of more than 400 warheads, which is worrisome in and of itself and also raises serious questions about whether Moscow intends to comply with this treaty at all. The United States, therefore, should expand its deployed arsenal up to the treaty limits and be fully prepared for further expansion should Russia break out — as Moscow has done with several other legacy arms control agreements.
Third, and finally, the United States and NATO need more flexible nuclear options in Europe. In the event of a losing war with NATO, Russian strategy calls for limited nuclear “de-escalation” strikes against European civilian and military targets. At present, NATO lacks an adequate response to this threat. As I explain in a new report, the United States must develop enhanced nuclear capabilities, including a tactical, air-to-surface cruise missile, in order to disabuse Putin of the notion that he can use nuclear weapons in Europe and get away with it.
These stubborn facts lay bare the ignorance or naivety of those fretting that Trump’s tweets risk starting a new nuclear arms race. It is U.S. adversaries, not Trump, who are moving first. It is a failure to respond that would be most reckless, signaling continued American weakness and only incentivizing further nuclear aggression.
The past eight years have been demoralizing for many in the defense policy community as Obama has consistently placed ideology over reality in the setting of U.S. nuclear policy. The results, an increasingly disordered world filled with intensifying nuclear dangers, speak for themselves.
Rather than express outrage over Trump’s tweet, therefore, we should take heart that we once again have a president who may be willing to do what it takes to defend the country against real, growing and truly existential threats.