Trump’s nuclear modernization dilemma

Trump’s nuclear modernization dilemma

The Trump administration’s ambition to expand US nuclear capabilities marks a radical shift away from the prevailing rationale during the Obama era. This change of paradigm could give rise to a new arms race with Russia and China.

The Trump administration’s position on the nuclear issue could reshape the strategic balance in place since the end of the Cold War. Prior to taking office as President, Mr. Trump had already declared that the United States should “expand its nuclear capability” in order to “outmatch” Russia and China in an arms race.

Since the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) entered into effect on February 5, 2011, the United States and the Russian Federation are both limited to a maximum of 1,550 offensive nuclear weapons on 800 launchers, of which no more than 700 can be deployed at any time. New START was negotiated within the context of the Obama administration’s desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. However, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made it very clear that he intended to be a very different sort of president. One week after his inauguration, Mr. Trump signed a national security presidential memorandum heralding “a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.” Although Mr. Trump’s hawkish rhetoric regarding the necessity of a nuclear build-up might be viewed as another attempt to erase his predecessor’s legacy, such an expansion would have significant political consequences.


A Russian Topol ICBM in Moscow at a 2008 Victory Day parade.

The risk of a new arms race

The overall cost of the Obama administration’s nuclear modernization program is estimated at around $1 trillion. In particular, the plan includes the replacement of the Minuteman III missiles by next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. In agreement with the New START, the plan will not provide for new capabilities in warheads. This decision was criticized by Mr. Trump after taking office, who described the New START as asymmetrical due to the treaty’s overly restrictive nature on warheads. Even though the Trump administration has not yet initiated this sort of buildup, the repeated tweets and statements by the President about the need for maintaining nuclear supremacy may impact foreign perceptions about Washington’s goals regarding its nuclear arsenal.

In fact, the consequences of this provocative rhetoric are already observable. In January, the Chinese government took several steps consistent with a nuclear buildup: Beijing decided to deploy Type 094 ballistic missile submarines and to arm its DF-5B ICBMs with multiple warheads. Furthermore, by violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), Russia has also responded to Mr. Trump’s provocations: in February, Moscow proceeded to the deployment of the new SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile. In this way, international tensions are running relatively high only 5 months into the new President’s term.

Perception matters

Worldwide nuclear stability is not only a military issue: it is also strongly connected to foreign perceptions of US intentions regarding its nuclear stockpile. Therefore, when the Trump administration publicly announces that it will request the lifting of the 2011 Budget Control Act threshold with the aim of sharply increasing the Defense Department spending, other powers will perceive this as an attempt to destabilize the nuclear balance to the US advantage.

Historical precedents validate the influence of perception over the international nuclear balance. When the Reagan administration used the ‘Soviet-threat’ rhetoric as a way to vindicate massive defense expenditures, the antagonism between Washington and Moscow increased dramatically. Faced with the threat of nuclear war, the American public mobilized and 1 million Americans demonstrated against the arms race. In a similar way, in the context of the preemptive-war doctrine following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s proposal for Reliable Replacement Warhead was not well received. Inversely, the Obama administration’s ‘3+2’ Plan for Warheads, which aimed at developing a new type of interoperable warheads, was not perceived as a strategic threat for the international nuclear balance. This is mostly due to the fact that the plan will not enter into force between 2022, and thus served as a long-term vision of the nuclear agenda.

The US Air Force tests a Minuteman III ICBM.

The need to rethink US nuclear modernization

If the Trump administration wants to avoid an arms race, it will have to send out clear signals of a restrained nuclear policy to its major nuclear rivals, namely Russia and China. The United States currently has five different types of nuclear weapons: ICBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles, strategic bomber aircraft with cruise missiles, strategic bombers with gravity bombs, and tactical fighter bombers with gravity bombs. One way for Washington to reduce proliferation risks would be to phase out the ICBMs from its arsenal. In September 2016, former Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, wrote in the New York Times that the ICBMS were “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world“, which could trigger “an accidental nuclear war“, and that “retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs.”

During the Cold War, ICBMs formed the cornerstone of the US deterrance. However, this type of missile is no longer adapted to US needs, as Jon Wolfsthal, who was formerly the Senior Director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council, has pointed out. According to Mr. Wolfsthal, ICBMs are “easy to target because they are stationary; cannot be recalled once launched; and serve little role in deterrence other than as what warfighters call a ‘sponge’.” Ceasing ICBMs production would provide two important benefits: on the one hand, it would save more than $100 billion in estimated costs for building the new missile; on the other hand, it would send a powerful and positive message to other powers regarding the administration’s nuclear doctrine, and would likely ease tensions around the US arsenal. However, considering that the Trump administration is reviewing whether it will reaffirm the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, at the present time, a reduction of Washington’s nuclear strike capability seems unlikely.


Categories: North America, Security

About Author

Leo Kabouche

Leo is a Toronto-based analyst who has worked for several consulting firms in Canada & Europe. His areas of expertise include the intersection of energy and geopolitics in oil and gas markets, in climate policy as well as in national security. His research also delves into the relationship between political risk and extraterritorial regulations tackling corruption and money-laundering practices on the international stage. He holds a MSc in International Affairs from the University of Montreal.