Trump's Nuclear Tweets
By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Robert Joseph
Of President-elect Trump’s tweets since winning the election, the one drawing the greatest criticism may well be his comment last week that the United States "must strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." The next day, his critics went downright ballistic when the president-elect reportedly made the off-camera statement: "Let it be an arms race. . . . We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." The partisans at the Ploughshares Fund and their paid-for "echo-chamber" colleagues across the disarmament community were seething that Trump's comments could touch off an arms race and undercut strategic stability, lowering the threshold for nuclear use, possibly leading to a global holocaust. But beyond the obvious hyperbole, what are the relevant facts?
Fact one: The nuclear arms race has been going on for more than a decade, but it has been primarily a one-nation race, by Russia—unless you count China, which has been aggressively modernizing its nuclear arsenal as well. Moscow has strengthened and expanded its nuclear capability across the board. It has maintained a broad array of warfighting systems, from nuclear-armed torpedoes to short- and medium-range missiles, including the development of new capabilities that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. At the strategic level, Russia has modernized all three legs of its triad. It has deployed, or soon will, new mobile and heavy ICBMs as well as a new class of strategic ballistic missile submarines. It has begun testing a rail-mobile ICBM, raising the prospect that it will bring back an operational concept most thought had been abandoned with the end of the Cold War. It is modernizing the air-breathing force with new cruise missiles (already tested over Syria multiple times) and an advanced heavy bomber. Moreover, Russia is developing, and may have tested, an unprecedented new nuclear weapon—a nuclear-powered torpedo with an enormously large warhead, perhaps as large as 100 megatons, whose sole purpose would be to inflict massive civilian casualties and long-term ecological damage.
Fact two: Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced the size of its nuclear forces with each successive administration. Under presidents George H. W Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, U.S. nuclear forces were substantially reduced. Thousands of theater, so-called nonstrategic, nuclear weapons were dismantled, representing an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the stockpile that once was a principal means of deterring Soviet aggression against NATO allies. Today, Russia has an estimated 10-to-1 advantage in this category of deterrent forces.
To its credit, the Obama administration initiated overdue strategic nuclear modernization programs to develop and deploy both a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine and a new strategic bomber, perhaps armed with a modern long-range standoff missile. It appears that the United States will also pursue a new ICBM force to replace the aging Minuteman land-based missiles. Yet this modernization of delivery platforms is being pursued consistent with White House guidance that no new nuclear capabilities be developed—a unilateral restriction that does not apply to Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, India, or even our French and U.K. treaty allies.
The U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure has suffered from decades of neglect that is only now being partially addressed and again with the restriction that no new capabilities will be designed or developed.
Fact three: There have been significant consequences resulting from the above disparity in the development and fielding of nuclear forces—a disparity that stems from more than 20 years of neglect and, for the last 8 years, unilateral nuclear disarmament in this administration's feckless quest for a world without nuclear weapons. Although President Obama has talked about getting Russia to negotiate reductions in theater nuclear forces, his administration unilaterally acted to eliminate all sea-launched cruise missiles—an important capability for our Pacific allies, especially Japan, who rely on U.S. extended deterrence guarantees for their security. While the administration did negotiate New START with Russia, the treaty required reductions of deployed strategic warheads only on the part of the United States. As we predicted when we testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the treaty's implications in 2010, the Russian warhead level has actually gone up under the treaty. In other words, this has been a clear case of unilateral disarmament cloaked in bilateral garb.
Today, Russia has overtaken the United States in the number of deployed nuclear forces. At the theater level, according to administration sources, the U.S. arsenal consists of a few hundred gravity bombs while the Russian force numbers about 4,000 warheads. At the strategic level, the most recent data provided under New START show the U.S. force level below 1,400 and Russia's close to 1,800 in deployed strategic warheads. Little wonder that Russian officials claim to have achieved strategic superiority and presumably believe they will have escalation dominance in a crisis with the United States. The Obama administration recognized in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that these kinds of numerical disparities could undermine strategic stability, noting that
the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War. But large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced.
It is in this context that changes in Russian nuclear warfighting doctrine can best be understood. Granting the U.S. superiority in conventional forces, Russian doctrinal writings appear to conclude that—through a combination of unconventional forces, information operations (including electronic warfare and cyber), and nuclear threats—Russia can exercise what its officials call "cross-domain coercion" and prevail in a conventional conflict. But if it cannot, the doctrine suggests Russia has every intention of escalating to nuclear use to win any conflict.
Russia's perceived sense of nuclear superiority has also led to a growing number of increasingly bold nuclear threats to U.S. allies primarily over missile defenses. Denmark, Norway, Poland, Romania, and others have been subjected to this form of political coercion in the past several years. Moscow's willingness to threaten nuclear use may be related to more than nuclear force levels. Russia's decisions to invade Ukraine, annex Crimea, and intervene militarily in Syria may also be linked to Vladimir Putin's sensing a lack of resolve on the part of the United States. Whether it was the failure to enforce the chemical weapons red line in Syria, or the failure to provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, or the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, or some other display of weakness, it is clear that Putin has seen President Obama as weak. And for Putin, a man who thinks and acts in power terms and abhors weakness, this has been an opportunity to restore Russia's status as a great power and assert its dominance against its neighbors and beyond.
Fact four: President-elect Trump's comments on U.S. nuclear forces are a clear repudiation of the pursuit of unilateral disarmament by the Obama administration. Trump's statements signal a return to many decades of U.S. policy under both Democratic and Republican presidents. It was President Kennedy who said it most succinctly—the U.S. nuclear arsenal should and will be "second to none." The reason is clear: An imbalance in nuclear forces is inherently destabilizing and can more easily lead to crisis, miscalculation, and conflict. Stability through the demonstration of strength is essential for deterrence success and the best means to dissuade Moscow from further aggression.
There is an interesting parallel between the present circumstances and those that existed when President Reagan took office in January 1981. Following another president considered weak by Soviet leaders, Reagan charted a course based on the longstanding proposition that peace is best protected through strength, not weakness. Reagan did hope for a future in which all nuclear weapons would be eliminated, something that today's disarmament advocates are fond of citing. But these same advocates ignore the fact that Reagan understood that deterrence was based on a demonstration of resolve and the possession of unmatched capabilities. As a consequence, he embarked on the largest offensive nuclear modernization in U.S. history, along with the development of strategic defenses. While many in the disarmament community criticized Reagan at the time for engaging in an arms race, his policies and actions contributed significantly to the end of the Soviet Union. One can hope that Putin understands this lesson and will recognize that the robust nuclear modernization America needs heralds a real change in the White House.
Robert Joseph was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005-2007; Eric Edelman was undersecretary of defense for policy, 2005-2009.
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