The nuclear weapons posture of the United States of America can make the world safe, or lead us to Armageddon. It generally does not get the attention it deserves, as public concern about nuclear weapons issues declined after the Cold War ended.
President Donald Trump is about to issue a radical Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which breaks sharply from a bipartisan consensus that has endured since the Reagan administration. Trump’s NPR, a draft of which was leaked to HuffPost last week, will needlessly add three new nuclear weapons systems to the already formidable U.S. arsenal, pouring tens of billions of dollars into a new American arms race and making nuclear conflict more likely.
Since Reagan, the policy of the U.S. has been to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, and to prevent an arms race through verifiable arms control agreements. President Obama made progress on both fronts. But it seems that the Trump administration is tossing these bedrock goals out the window.
There are two possible explanations for the set of nuclear policies and programs described in the draft NPR. One is that Trump is deliberately styling himself after Reagan, initiating a massive buildup in our nuclear forces to position the U.S. to negotiate the arms control deal of the century with the Russia, and perhaps other nuclear weapons states. On the other hand, Trump might be initiating a massive buildup in our nuclear forces simply because he can. Unlike any other national security issues, our nuclear weapons posture and decisions on using them are dictated solely by the president.
Aside from placing new nuclear weapons in the hands of Trump and Trump alone, the design and promotion of the new weapons in the draft NPR makes it more likely that they’ll actually be launched, to disastrous effect. Two of Trump’s new nuclear weapons will be mounted on dangerously destabilizing stealth cruise missiles, and the third on a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Each of these will have “low-yield” options that proponents claim would make them more attractive for a president to use in so-called limited nuclear war-fighting scenarios. They would be much smaller than the ones the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The stated rationale for these three new nuclear weapons ― that our adversaries might not believe the U.S. is willing to use bigger nuclear weapons that would kill millions of people, so we must have low-yield ones in our arsenal to maintain deterrence ― is worrying. According to this line of thinking, it is more believable to our adversaries that we would actually use nuclear weapons that may each kill and sicken fewer people ― including innocent civilians. Let’s call these “humanitarian nuclear weapons,” another contradiction in terms.
The first of Trump’s three new nuclear weapons is a research and development project started during the Obama administration, and Obama deferred a decision on moving forward with it to his successor. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and I opposed this new air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff cruise missile (LRSO), in a 2015 op-ed, because it is dangerous, destabilizing and unnecessary.
Unless Congress acts to block it, this year Trump will turn this R&D project into a full-fledged program to build a new nuclear weapon. The U.S. Air Force has announced its intention to buy over 1,000 LRSOs, at a total estimated cost of $30 billion. This system can be launched without warning from stealth bombers in a decapitating first strike. Worse, there is no way for adversaries to know if it is carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead.
Unlike any other national security issues, our nuclear weapons posture and decisions on using them are dictated solely by the President.
Trump’s second new nuclear weapon will be a submarine-based sea-launched cruise missile. President George H. W. Bush took a similar system off-line in 1991, and Obama formally retired it in his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
The third new weapon will be a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a low yield warhead. Again, a more usable, “humanitarian,” nuclear weapon.
During my 30 years of public service countering weapons of mass destruction, I was intimately involved with nuclear weapons issues, and I worked to prevent the U.S. from creating more usable nuclear weapons. Many nuclear experts around the world shared this goal. But Trump’s NPR sets a path toward greater instability and increases the odds of sparking conflict, whether intentionally, by human mistakes (think last weekend’s false missile attack alarm in Hawaii), or by miscalculation.
The danger of moving forward with these three new nukes is that they deliberately blur the line between nuclear and conventional weapons. Due to their low yield, a country might not even know it had been hit by a nuclear weapon. Conversely, even a low-yield nuclear attack could evoke a massive nuclear retaliatory response. These new weapons vastly increase the potential for miscalculation, and erode the 70-year taboo against using nuclear weapons.
In short, they will make nuclear war more likely.
Another danger of the Trump plan is the new global arms race it will ignite. Other countries will respond by building additional new types of nuclear weapons, and the cycle could get out of control as it did during the Cold War. The landmark Reagan-Gorbachev Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, which eliminated an entire class of destabilizing nuclear weapons, is already on life support due to Russian development of a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.
Instead of imitating Russia’s bad behavior, the U.S. should push Russia back into compliance, and support the ongoing international effort to eliminate all nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Indeed, Russia has expressed interest in expanding elements of the bilateral INF Treaty to include other countries like China. Eliminating this most dangerous and destabilizing class of nuclear weapons would greatly reduce the risk of nuclear war and head off a new arms race. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems committed to doing precisely the opposite.
Trump may have the final say on using nuclear weapons, but he’s not the only one with the power to stop this madness. As with many of his dangerous policies, the public and Congress can limit the damage. Americans should learn where their elected representatives stand on Trump’s three new nuclear weapons, and call on them to take a stand and block funding. While I support a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent, we must work together to stop these three new nuclear weapons.
Andrew C. Weber was assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs for five-and-a-half years under President Barack Obama.