President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter three days before Christmas to freak everyone out about nukes.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukesDonald J. Trump December 22, 2016
That’s Cold War talk, made worse by similar statements from Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,” Putin said during a Dec. 22, 2016 discussion with Kremlin military officials. He said Moscow would push for “missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”
The world’s nuclear arms control community proceeded to freak out. Trump followed up to MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Dec. 23. “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Trump said.
“It is dangerous for the president-elect to use just 140 characters and announce a major change in US nuclear weapons policy, which is nuanced, complex, and affects every single person on this planet,” John Tierney, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said in an email blast.
“Calling for an expanded nuclear arsenal shatters that consensus, would likely place the US in violation of a key arms control treaty with Russia, and would almost surely lead to a new nuclear arms race.”
“This is how arms races being — with a battle of words. So today both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin indicated they wanted to strengthen and expand their already substantial nuclear arsenals,” Joe Cirincione, president of anti-nuclear group Ploughshares Fund, wrote on Facebook.
“If both of these men mean what they say, this could be the end of the arms control process that began with Richard Nixon and then accelerated with Ronald Reagan, where we cut the Cold War arsenals by 80 percent over the last few decades.”
“If both of these men mean what they say,” is the most important section of these quotes.
To be sure — more nukes won’t make the world safer. The planet has been down that road before and it didn’t go well. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union rushed toward Armageddon. That Earth avoided a nuclear war and its subsequent fallout is a miracle.
Now, if we can believe Trump and Putin, the old superpowers are gearing up for another round of nuclear proliferation. The truth is a bit more complicated.
“His tweet is a good example of what happens if the president-elect doesn’t get his briefings: it is baseless and reckless,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told me.
“The US military itself doesn’t see a need to expand US nuclear capabilities but has actually recommended further reductions. Right now they are reducing deployed nuclear forces under the New START treaty but even after that, the Pentagon has concluded that the United States will still have up to one-third more nuclear weapons deployed than it needs to meet its national and international security commitments.”
In April 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the United States had almost 4,720 active nuclear warheads in its stockpile. This figure didn’t include older atomic weapons the Pentagon and Department of Energy were scrapping at the time.
As of October 2016, the independent Arms Control Association estimated that both America and Russia had more than 7,000 warheads each. That number includes the retired bombs. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both publicly advocated reducing the number of nukes.
“I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said in a speech on April 5, 2009. “This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime.”
But Kristensen also pointed out that the Obama administration “has already put in motion the largest US nuclear modernization program since the 1980s.”
The plan includes spending $350 billion on modernization over the next decade and around $1 trillion before 2050. These are the programs Cirincione mentioned on Facebook.
As of 2016, the Pentagon was looking to buy new, long-range stealthy nuclear bombers, advanced ballistic missile submarines and deadly nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
In January 2016, Sandia National Laboratories released a video of a GPS-guided and possibly bunker-busting upgrade to the B-61 hydrogen bomb. In October 2016, the National Nuclear Security Agency estimated this project alone would cost nearly $9 billion.
“Based on these facts, it is puzzling what has prompted Trump to call for ‘strengthening and expand the nuclear capabilities’ of the United States,’” Kristensen said. “As is typical for his declarations, this one comes with no facts and no background.”
Kristensen also worried Trump’s tweets might “further inflame the crisis and deepen Russian paranoia and suspicion about US intentions,” as well as “further undermine support for the United States in the international non-proliferation treaty community where there is already great consternation over the slowing progress toward deep cuts and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.”
He pointed out that the members of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty will meet next spring to prepare for the 2020 review conference. The Donald’s comments about nuclear weapons are sure to haunt the proceedings.
As long as, y’know, the president-elect isn’t completely full of it.
“We may be over interpreting a tweet,” Jeffrey Lewis, arms control expert and Foreign Policy columnist, tweeted in the hours after Trump called for an expansion of nuclear weapons.
I had a long conversation with Lewis about Trump and nukes before the election. His comments from back then resonate now more than ever. “Don’t overthink it because he doesn’t overthink it,” Lewis told War Is Boring.
“The things he says are better suited to a bar stool than the Oval Office. They’re not deeply considered. That makes him very useful because he captures the spirit of what people think. He captures that perfectly.”
Trump has also discussed nukes for, literally, decades. Back in the 1980s, he told reporters that nuclear proliferation was the biggest problem facing the world. He wanted to try his hand at negotiating a better deal with the Soviets. He thought he could do better than the politicians could do.
Lewis told me he suspects Trump said those things because it was hip to be into non-proliferation in the ’80s. “There was a sense that nuclear danger was so great that we had to talk and Reagan was doing a lot of summits,” Lewis said. “So I think he just picked up on that as, ‘Oh, you can do a summit? I can do a summit.’”
“Now that things have gotten kind of darker he’s picking up on these darker notes. I don’t see it as a change in views. Just like I would never take anything a drunk said at a bar seriously, I don’t think he is deeply committed to any of these ideas. He’s just a mirror who reflects what we’re thinking at the moment.”
Basically, Trump’s words simply cannot be trusted, especially his off the cuff tweets. Better to look at his actions. For starters, look at his pick for Secretary of Defense — former Marine Gen. James Mattis.
“The nuclear stockpile must be tended to and fundamental questions must be asked and answered,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 27, 2015.
“We must clearly establish the role of our nuclear weapons — do they serve solely to deter nuclear war? If so we should say so, and the resulting clarity will help to determine the number we need. Is it time to reduce the triad to a diad, removing the land‐based missiles? This would reduce the false alarm danger.”
Mattis has a reputation as an officer who questions military orthodoxy and studies problems before he acts. He famously convinced Trump that torture is a bad after The Donald spent months on the campaign trail promising to bring back waterboarding and much worse.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — Trump’s pick for energy secretary and de facto nuke chief — is a company man who will fall in line behind the administration. He’ll oversee an entrenched bureaucracy and either spend the next four years fighting against a department he promised to destroy or overseeing policies decades in the making.
The danger here is not that Trump’s Twitter account will necessarily lead to tangible policy. The proof is always in the action, not the bluster. Read his tweets, take them with a grain of salt — and watch the money.
There’s a good chance the next four years will be business as usual. “By turning every Trump tweet into a sign of the apocalypse, we’re blinding ourselves to the specific bad things he might be doing,” Lewis noted.
from Memo to Trump: We’re Already Updating the US Nuclear Arsenal