The realpolitik foundation of the new National Security Strategy emphasizes the idea of peace through strength. This underpins the Trump administration’s take on nuclear weapons.
President Trump thinks the U.S. doesn’t have enough. It needs more nuclear warheads in its stockpile to counter what the administration sees as growing geopolitical threats, such as a renewed rivalry with Russia, China’s increasing global role and rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran.
The rebuilding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not isolated to Trump. Former President Obama had authorized upgrading the country’s nuclear arsenal at a $1.2 trillion price tag over 30 years.
While Obama supported modernizing America’s existing nuclear arsenal, however, he also urged policymakers to reduce the overall stockpile to persuade other nations to do the same. Trump is moving in the opposite direction, preparing not only for an expansion of the nuclear arsenal, but also the development of a new generation of weapons — a marked shift from nearly three decades of efforts to wind down the global arms race precipitated by the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War, of course, did not make the threat of nuclear war irrelevant. It just changed the nature of the players.
At its peak during the Cold War, the U.S. had 13,002 strategic warheads in 1987; the Soviet Union had 11,320 in 1989. In 2018, the Arms Control Association estimates that the U.S. will have 6,550 nuclear warheads, Russia will have 6,850, China will have 280 and North Korea will have 15. Russia and the U.S. make up more than 90 percent of today’s global arsenal.
Under Obama, the U.S. made overtures to Russia within its reset framework, spearheaded by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. With Dmitry Medvedev as president at the time, Obama’s outreach was well received. Obama and Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010. As of February this year, the treaty dictates that the U.S. and Russia must each cap their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 and deployed heavy bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles to 700.
In August 2017, the U.S. met the limits imposed by New START, and Russia followed in February 2018. Both countries can keep tabs on each other’s arsenal with a data exchange every six months.
New START will remain in force until February 2021, with the possibility to extend it up to five years. If Trump refuses to renew the agreement, the U.S. and Russia would be free to enlarge their nuclear arsenals without any constraints.
After Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, Russian officials claimed “important verbal agreements” were reached on New START and other arms control treaties, but White House officials haven’t confirmed (or seem to know) what took place during the closed-door meeting. Any agreement would mark a turnaround for Trump, who seems to bristle at the restrictions set by New START.
Trump has also been positioning the U.S. to grow, not reduce, its nuclear arsenal by developing low-yield weapons that are smaller and more targeted in destruction. But critics say there is no such thing as a “small” nuke and that because these weapons are intended to be more precise, there may be a greater temptation to use them, thus lowering the threshold for nuclear war. The administration has also suggested expanding the circumstances under which the U.S. could launch a “first use” nuclear strike — say, in response to a crippling cyber attack on the country’s infrastructure.
The Defense Department’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), however, claims this new approach does not lower the nuclear threshold but in fact does the opposite. “Rather, by convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate, it in fact raises that threshold,” the report says, warning that states like Russia are rapidly modernizing their militaries.
Like the U.S., Russia is jumpstarting its nuclear buildup, presumably to counter NATO’s defense capabilities. Russia plans to upgrade its intercontinental ballistic missile systems, plus its nuclear bombers. The country is in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which does not allow the U.S. or Russia to have ground-based ballistic or cruise missiles with 300- to 3,400-mile ranges. The culprit is an intermediate-range cruise missile that Russia has supposedly tested and deployed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. wants submarines armed with low-yield nuclear warheads to deter Russia from using one of its smaller warheads in a limited attack against U.S. allies, which could force the U.S. to choose between a full-scale nuclear retaliation or a less-successful conventional weapon. The administration has asked for $23 million more in the upcoming budget to flight-test low-yield warheads on a Trident submarine, particularly the new W76-2 warhead, as Paul Sonne of The Washington Post reported on June 13.
But arms control advocates disagree that the threats posed by Russia and other powers justify the staggering costs of expanding America’s nuclear arsenal, a move that could backfire by prompting other countries to follow suit. They also point out that the U.S. already boasts the most well-funded, powerful military in the world. Even if its conventional forces aren’t enough to deter an attack, the U.S. still has thousands of nuclear warheads capable of obliterating entire countries. Whether the U.S. responds with an 18-kiloton nuclear warhead or a newly developed 11-kiloton bomb, they say, will make little difference in an adversary’s strategic calculus.
Beyond the renewed rivalry between the U.S. and Russia, other nuclear players are complicating the picture. North Korea has demanded global recognition as a nuclear power, and so far there appears to be no substantive progress on denuclearization following Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un.
Trump also abandoned the Obama administration’s landmark deal with Iran that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Most experts agreed that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal, which significantly delayed the “breakout period” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. While the European Union still backs the deal, without U.S. sanctions relief, it is all but dead, leaving Iran to potentially restart its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, persuading North Korea to give up a nuclear arsenal that it believes is existential to its survival will be infinitely harder, especially considering that by some estimates, the North already has 20 to 60 nuclear bombs (compared to zero for Iran).
To discuss the new global nuclear landscape, The Washington Diplomat turned to John Tierney, a former nine-term Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who is now the executive director of the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. While serving in the House from 1997 to 2015, Tierney sat on the House Intelligence Committee and spent considerable time advocating on nuclear nonproliferation and national security issues. He shared his thoughts on the resurgence of the nuclear arms race and the new international playing field:
Nuclear arms are returning to relevance. How would you characterize this new arms race versus the Cold War era?
John Tierney: Thankfully we are nowhere near the size and scale of the Cold War arms race, but as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry has said, we are in danger of sleepwalking into a new arms race. The new weapons and/or capabilities that nuclear weapons states are seeking are dangerous and unnecessary.
There does seem to be a current trend toward smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons. Such weapons are extremely destabilizing, as they might lower the threshold for use.
What’s worse is that we already know how this story ends. We were lucky to escape a nuclear disaster in the 20th century. Why would we want to tempt fate again?
Let’s focus on specific countries — the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. What is the geopolitical rationale behind each country for building or bolstering its nuclear arsenal?
Tierney: For the United States, there is a tendency to maintain the status quo. Our current arsenal is aging, so in order to maintain status quo, those weapons must be refurbished. It is in that process that some military planners like to push for new, enhanced capabilities. There is also concern that any Russian buildup must be met with a reciprocal American buildup. That is not, in the opinion of many, necessarily sound reasoning, but it is promoted by nuclear hawks who seem to have come out from hiding under this administration.
For Russia, they are interested in new nuclear capabilities for both status and strength. They know they cannot afford to build a conventional military to match NATO, so they rely on their nuclear arsenal for deterrence purposes.
While China has marginally expanded its capabilities, they continue to maintain a minimal deterrent. While that is preferable to a massive buildup, it is disappointing that China ignores its international commitments to engage in serious disarmament discussions.
The rationale behind the North Korean program is regime survival.
Iran does not have nuclear weapons and agreed to restrictions on their nuclear infrastructure through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement. Due to President Trump’s inexplicable choice to violate that agreement, those restrictions could collapse. Arguably, Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons capability was defensive in nature to ward off regional threats.
The Diplomat: From observation, does adding or enhancing nuclear capabilities actually deter ‘bad behavior’ by countries?
Tierney: No. It just encourages more arms racing.
The Diplomat: Let’s talk about technicalities. Can you describe what the push to develop smaller nukes is yielding in terms of new and developing technologies — their size, cost, amount of damage they can do, how long it will take to develop them, etc.?
Tierney: Smaller nuclear weapons were originally developed for battlefield use. Military planners in the Cold War then came to their senses, understanding that a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, no matter the yield. After all, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was technically a low-yield nuclear weapon. They may be smaller than today’s standard deployed strategic weapon, but they are still city destroyers.
The Trump administration is currently pushing for a low-yield variant to the Trident submarine-launched missile. Congress is close to authorizing the creation of that weapon and approving the funds for it. The new warhead could be fitted on a missile within a couple years. There are considerable reasons not to go down this path, destabilization being but one.
The Diplomat: The nuclear option has expanded as a response to cyber attacks. Can you describe a hypothetical cyber attack scenario that might warrant a nuclear response and what that response might look like?
Tierney: The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review changed previous policy to include ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attacks’ as an extreme circumstance where the employment of nuclear weapons could be considered in response. Many experts, including myself, interpreted that language to include cyber attacks against the United States.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not thoroughly explained their language, so it is unclear what type of cyber attack would warrant a nuclear response and what that response would entail. This lack of clarity is highly destabilizing and fuels uncertainty about when the United States would use nuclear weapons.
The Diplomat: The Nuclear Posture Review came out earlier this year. What is your take on the Trump administration’s nuclear strategy?
Tierney: Overall, the Nuclear Posture Review is destabilizing and increases the chances of a renewed nuclear arms race.
While some aspects of the Nuclear Posture Review reiterate previous policies, the document also significantly departs from the U.S. post-Cold War consensus about nuclear weapons. For example, the Trump administration has expanded the circumstances in which the United States would use nuclear weapons and/or explosively test nuclear weapons, which the United States has refrained from doing since 1992.
Moreover, the Nuclear Posture Review pushes for a new low-yield nuclear option and a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, despite the fact that the United States has not built a new nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War. Both are unnecessary, destabilizing and dangerous.
The document also fails to even mention the word ‘disarmament’ in relation to U.S. commitments, despite an international legal obligation to pursue just that.
The Diplomat: In your opinion, is there a ‘magical ratio’ of the number of nuclear weapons in a country’s arsenal necessary to enhance diplomacy?
Tierney: There is no magic number for nuclear deterrence.
However, in 2013, a Department of Defense review concluded that the United States could safely reduce its deployed nuclear arsenal by up to one-third. Unfortunately, the Obama administration wanted to make those cuts in coordination with Moscow. The Russians declined to engage and then proceeded to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Now, the Trump administration is pursuing new nuclear capabilities.
Future administrations should seriously consider safely reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal with the ultimate goal of the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons — the stated visions of Presidents Obama and Reagan.
The Diplomat: Can you discuss some of the work your organization is doing with regard to nuclear arms control?
Tierney: On the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s agenda has been a concerted effort to work with members of the House and Senate and their office and committee staffs to inform on policy and present analysis of the policy options, including administration policy on the NPR, so-called ‘modernization’ and proposed new systems, the anticipated Missile Defense Review, Iran (JCPOA) and North Korea negotiations, and relations with Russia concerning nuclear matters.
The Council for a Livable World is busy this election cycle determining endorsements of federal candidates — we have a questionnaire and interview process leading to a vote of our board of directors — assisting those endorsed with conduit fundraising via the Candidate Fund, and advising endorsees’ campaigns on related policy. Additionally, the council continues to lobby current House and Senate members and staff on legislative policy issues pertaining to nuclear weapons, the Pentagon budget and related matters.
The Diplomat: Any predictions on what will happen next with regard to nuclear posturing by the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea and Iran?
Tierney: Predicting the future is difficult, but the United States and Russia, and to a lesser extent China, are all moving in the wrong direction with regard to nuclear weapons.
The United States and Russia are spending vast amounts of money — $1.7 trillion in adjusted dollars over 30 years in the United States’s case — to modernize their nuclear arsenals, and both countries are openly pursuing new nuclear options. This is all occurring while relations between the two countries are at their lowest point since the Cold War.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Both countries must prioritize increased dialogue about nuclear weapons and should, at a minimum, extend the New START Treaty, which equally limits the number of deployed nuclear weapons on each side and maintains broad support.
The Trump administration made a major strategic blunder by pulling out of — and openly violating — the Iran nuclear agreement. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran was in full compliance with the agreement, which severely constrained its nuclear program. Without U.S. participation, the deal may collapse in the future, and all constraints on Iran’s nuclear program would be lost. Under the current political situation, there is no indication that Iran would resume a nuclear weapons program, but that could change in the future. The bottom line is that the United States is far less safe now that we are not participating in the Iran deal.
On North Korea, the Trump administration has made the right move engaging in diplomacy with Pyongyang. However, despite false statements by President Trump, the negotiations have produced no substantive gains, and North Korea remains a real nuclear threat. Now that the pageantry of the Singapore summit is over, it’s time for skilled, career diplomats to take over and attempt to come to a realistic agreement that severely constrains or eliminates North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure.
As I have noted before, for President Trump, the reality TV segment is over, and now the reality of diplomacy must take over, and the U.S. needs to engage the experts in the field to help navigate the path to successful resolution of differences.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.