There he goes again. In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Donald Trump boasted “if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.” He then blasted the “one-sided” New START treaty with Russia that caps both side’s nuclear forces equally.
Trump is doubling down on his earlier claim that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” And his macho brag to Mika Brzezinski of Morning Joe, “Let it be an arms race.”
This is insane. The United States already has the most modern nuclear death machine on the planet. No U.S. general would trade our nuclear forces for those of any other nation. We have 4,000 nuclear warheads in our military stockpile, each many times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As The Washington Post reporter Dan Zak tweeted, “The current U.S. nuclear arsenal has the power to end human civilization, like, 30+ times over.”
What does Zak mean? If we were to use every weapon in our military stockpile, the United States could drop a hydrogen bomb on every city of the world with population over 100,000. That would end most human and animal life on earth.
But ending human civilization is easier. You don’t actually have to destroy all the cities. You could just destroy all the food.
Scientists now calculate that as few as 100 nuclear weapons used in a war in South Asia would put enough smoke and particulates in the atmosphere to enshroud the Earth in a cloud for 2 to 3 years, dropping global temperatures about 2 to 3 degrees. That, as it turns out, is enough to devastate most food crops in the world. The resulting famine could kill one billion people. The panic, global mass migrations, desperation and chaos would likely result in the end of nation states.
Make it a war with 200 or 300 nuclear weapons, and all that human beings have accomplished over the millennia would be wiped out. We would be well into Mad Max scenarios.
There are some 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The U.S. and Russia have almost 95 percent of them. That is much more than we need for any conceivable military mission. China, for example, only has about 260 weapons, yet that seems to do a pretty good job of deterring anyone from attacking them.
So, where does Trump get the idea that we need more nukes? From the far right.
For years, the Heritage Foundation has been pushing the ideas that we need more weapons. According to them, U.S. nuclear weapons are too weak to deter aggressors.
And there are new, young and attractive Dr. Strangeloves promoting this line. Matt Kroenig, who wrote an entire book on why America should start a war with Iran, also says we need more nukes. Debating me on the PBS NewsHour in December, he said: “So, there is a gap of about 400 warheads… So, this is one of the measures that a new president can take to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal to increase the size of the arsenal, at least to the limits allowed for under New START.”
Kroenig is right… about the numbers. Independent estimates suggest that while we have some 4,000 nuclear warheads in our active stockpile, Russia has about 4,300. And, right now, the official count for “operationally deployed strategic warheads” limited by the New START treaty (that is, nuclear warheads on missiles and submarines, plus individual bombers ready to launch across the oceans) stands at 1,367 for the United States and 1,796 for Russia.
Wait! So, Russia is the leader of the pack? No. The numbers of declared warheads under the treaty that Trump hates so much, goes up and down depending on deployments. Sometimes we have more, sometimes Russia has more. But both cannot have more than 1,550 by the time the treaty limits go into effect next year.
More to the point, as I told Kroenig: “At these levels, those numbers don’t matter. We both have enough weapons to destroy the world several times over. We don’t need to expand this. And here’s the real problem, when the two big guys, the people with 95 percent of the world’s arsenals… say we need more, what is China to think... do they start building more? How about India and Pakistan?”
In fact, over the 72 years of the nuclear age, there was rarely nuclear parity. For decades, we had more weapons than the Russians. Then they had more than us. Only in the past ten years or so have the arsenals been roughly equal. But this disparity had no correlation with stability or aggression or the wars each nation waged.
In 2013, the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that the United States could cut our arsenal by one-third and we could still accomplish all the assigned military missions. And it didn’t matter what Russia did. That is, we could go down to about 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads and still deter Russia and meet all our security objectives, even if Russia stayed at 1,550 or cheated on the treaty.
We are already the leader of the mass destruction pack.
The fact that the president of the United States doesn’t know this should trouble you.
For the first time since Richard Nixon, in the last days of his presidency, drunkenly wandered the halls of the White House talking to the pictures on the wall, we have an unstable president in charge of our nuclear weapons.
We can't let him race us into a nuclear war.