Trump’s Nuclear Arms Race Is a Terrible Idea, but Modernization is Overdue

The US doesn’t need more nukes—it needs to modernize the weapons it already has.

byTyler Rogoway|
B-21 photo


Yes, the President elect says many confounding things, especially on social media, and his priorities can seem far out of whack; but that doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong. Case in point: Yesterday’s tweet about nuclear weapons.

Trump has dived into the technological portfolio of the Pentagon in recent days. And yes, if you just follow the President-elect on Twitter he seems like a kid in Willy Wonka’s factory—more in awe of things he never knew existed than someone already in the know on these topics.

He was briefed in detail on Lockheed's F-35 program, which he has strongly criticized (I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that sales job.) Then he proclaimed that he is shopping Boeing for an F-35 alternative, sending Lockheed stock tumbling. Boeing, too, is under Trump’s thumb on the Air Force One replacement program.

Now the President Elect seems to be getting an earful about the state of America’s nuclear arsenal and the security issues surrounding it. From this, the man who famously knew nothing about the nuclear triad has concluded that we need to strengthen and expand our capabilities in this, the most deadly realm of weaponry.

He is right on one aspect of the statement and wrong on another. America's nuclear arsenal has become outdated and hard to maintain after decades of fiscal neglect. While it should be obvious that we don’t need more nuclear weapons, we certainly need to make the best of the ones we have through modernization of both the weapons themselves and their delivery systems. This is essential in maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent at a time when having that capability is becoming ever more critical to national security.

Both the US and Russia have roughly 1,800 operational nuclear weapons that are ready for use, and thousands more that are retired and are awaiting disassembly. It should be the new administration’s goal to refurbish and upgrade our operational nuclear weapons and to work with Russia to destroy permanently the roughly 14,300 retired weapons as quickly as possible. Pushing for reduction in operational weapons could and should happen once the retired stockpiles have been eliminated.

Minuteman Missile in its silo. , Spencer/wikicommons

It would also make sense for the President-elect to look into the actual benefits of a nuclear triad, and to be open to the possibility of moving to a two-prong nuclear weapons strategy. America’s silo-based Minuteman ICBMs are in great need of a major upgrade or direct replacement. That's one area where savings could be realized, and the money saved could be channeled to the other two legs of the nuclear triad—which include aircraft and submarine delivery platforms.

If the US were to eliminate its ground-based ICBMs it could invest more heavily in the Columbia class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, which are being developed to replace the aging Ohio class “boomers.” Money channeled from the Minuteman program could be used to augment Columbia class numbers, decreasing its cost while providing increased patrols. It could also be used to consistently modernize the Trident II SLBM that will be carried over from the Ohio class to the Columbia class.

Savings from retiring the Minuteman fleet could also allow the USAF to procure more B-21 stealth bombers and to develop a modern, survivable nuclear-tipped cruise missile. Meanwhile executing key strategic moves, such as actually basing American tactical aircraft at the airfields where tactical nukes are stored abroad, like we had in the Cold War, would be a good starting point. Having forward-deployed strike units actually train for the nuclear mission would be beneficial as well.

A B-2 drops a B-61 nuclear bomb., NNSA

The thing is that a lot of this is already planned for under President Obama’s $348 billion initiative to recapitalize America’s nuclear arsenal over the next decade, and that includes keeping the ground-based leg of the triad intact.

In the end what we need is rationalization of our nuclear posture, not simply more of it. We have enough nuclear weapons to end human life on this planet as it is, procuring more is a fool’s errand. And if we were to help incite that nonsensical behavior by expanding our nuclear arsenal needlessly, it will just result in a massive buildup of more nuclear weapons among our enemies. With more nuclear weapons there are more chances for mistakes to be made—mistakes more costly than any of us can imagine.

Also, just because Russia is doing something in the nuclear realm does not mean we need to counter tit-for-tat. With no real defense against a large nuclear weapons barrage from a peer-state actor, what’s most important is to have the arsenal that is most likely to be effective and to be survivable if it is ordered into use, not who has the largest stockpile alone.

Secretary of Defense holds a nuclear missile launch controller during a tour of a boomer. , AP

So Trump is half right and half wrong: We do need to strengthen our nuclear arsenal, and doing so isn't cheap. But by carefully analysing the necessity of a nuclear triad, we may be able to save money and increase America’s nuclear deterrent effectiveness and flexibility. At the same time, Trump is very wrong. Expanding our nuclear arsenal is a massive waste of money and only invites more instability in an increasingly unstable world. Sadly, it seems that Trump really does believe in a nuclear weapons buildup, at least that's what his recent comments to MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski indicate. If this is truly the case, we are all in for a wild, expensive and dangerous ride. 

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