President-elect Trump's Nuclear Agenda: Modernization and More

After a campaign that featured virtually no substantial discussion of global or nuclear policy issues, President-elect Trump and his team will face a host of complex decisions around the future size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the posture of nuclear weapons, and the conditions under which those weapons could be deployed. Nuclear budgets put in place by President Obama will need to be reviewed, and budget constraints will factor into decisions about what kinds of nuclear weapons, and how many, the United States can afford to refurbish and on what time frame. All of these decisions will need to be addressed in the context of worsened U.S.-Russia relations, an increasingly dangerous and intransigent North Korea, and a nonproliferation regime that is under tremendous pressure. On the new president’s agenda:

Nuclear Modernization: The Trump administration will inherit a nuclear budget and modernization plan that calls for up to $1 trillion in spending over 30 years to completely refurbish the entire nuclear triad and build new nuclear capabilities. The White House and Congress will face serious questions about how to proceed in the face of budgetary pressures in the Department of the Defense (and an upcoming funding “bow wave”). In addition, the administration will need to factor in: how modernization plans impact strategic stability vis-à-vis Russia and China; whether it hurts or helps nonproliferation goals with respect to U.S. allies or other non-nuclear-weapons states; whether nuclear weapons spending hampers our ability to fund other defense priorities or other domestic priorities (use this tool to decide for yourself); and whether nuclear deterrence remains relevant in the face of today’s threats, such as terrorism and cyber attacks. Given the high cost of modernization plans, there should also be an opportunity to have a broader national debate on these weapons.

The Nuclear Triad: The United States reports that it has a nuclear force of 1,367 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. This definition excludes smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons deployed in Europe under the NATO umbrella and thousands of warheads that are in storage. The number of deployed nuclear weapons is actually larger because the United States reports these numbers under the current U.S.-Russia arms control agreement known as New START, which counts strategic bombers as one weapon even though they can carry multiple nuclear warheads. The arsenal is made up of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are placed in fixed silos across the United States. There are also submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and nuclear weapons that can be launched or dropped from strategic bombers. These make up the so-called land, sea, and air-based “legs” of the triad. Modernization plans call for the replacement of all three legs. However, there has recently been a push by some retired military and government officials, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, to phase out the ICBM leg, which would reduce the overall nuclear arsenal by approximately one third and save tens of billions of dollars. (The Pentagon said in 2013 that the United States can safely cut its nuclear arsenal by one third.) For both sides of the debate, see this piece by Tobin Harshaw, this piece by Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk, and this piece by Constance Baroudos and Peter Huessy. For more on the rationale for each leg of the triad, see this PBS News Hour special report

Prompt Launch: The alert status of U.S. nuclear forces is another issue the White House must address. Currently, the United States has roughly 900 warheads on hundreds of ballistic missiles on so-called “prompt launch” status or “hair trigger alert” (Russia has about the same number on this high-alert status.) This means that a president only has minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons in response to a warning of an incoming nuclear attack. This short decision time would create immense pressure on a president in a crisis situation – and nuclear weapons, once launched, cannot be called back. The current alert status also creates the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons. A few nightmare scenarios come to mind: What about a situation when there has been a false warning due to computer error (as has actually happened)? Or the possibility that a cyber attack might spoof a warning of incoming attack? Both of these scenarios could lead to devastating consequences, as described in the following NTI clip.

Other sources on prompt launch include Bruce Blair’s chilling piece in Politico and the Union of Concerned Scientists resources, including this and this.

Declaratory Policy: The next administration will also have to establish under what circumstances the United States would use a nuclear weapon. For instance, should the United States declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack? Or do we use our nuclear weapons to also deter non-nuclear attacks, such as chemical or biological attacks or other existential threats? Also, should the administration adopt a no-first-use policy—in other words should we state publicly that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons? According to the most recent nuclear posture review, the United States does not have a no-first-use policy or a sole purpose doctrine. That means the government reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first and in scenarios other than responding to a nuclear attack, such as to deter conventional, chemical, or biological attacks by countries with nuclear weapons or not in compliance with nonproliferation obligations – though U.S. policy does say that the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against itself or its allies. 

Some journalists have reported that President Obama recently considered adopting a no-first-use policy, but that the administration faced opposition from within the U.S. government and from U.S. allies. This is because adopting such a policy has implications not just for the United States, but also for its allies in the Asia-Pacific region and in NATO that rely on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” To understand more about this topic and different views, see this piece by Bruce Blair in Politico, this piece by Bruce Blair and General James E. Cartwright, this piece by Michael Krepon, and this piece by David Sanger and William Broad in the New York Times. For more on sole purpose, see this piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists and this explainer from The Wall Street Journal.

November 15, 2016
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Senior Director, Global Nuclear Policy Program

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