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, 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.