In Reuters Interview President Trump Flunks Nuclear 101


By Hans M. Kristensen

President Donald Trump in an interview with Reuters today demonstrated an astounding lack of knowledge about basic nuclear weapons issues.

According to Reuters Trump said he wanted to build up the US nuclear arsenal to ensure it is at the “top of the pack.” He said the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapons capacity.”

Building up the US nuclear arsenal would be an unnecessary, unaffordable, and counterproductive move. It is unnecessary because the US military already has more nuclear weapons than it needs to meet US national and international security commitments. It would be unaffordable because the Pentagon will have problems paying for the nuclear modernization program initiated by the Obama administration. And it is counterproductive because it would further fuel nuclear buildups in other nuclear weapon states.

The claim that the US has “fallen behind on its nuclear weapons capacity” is also wrong; the US has the nuclear weapons capability it needs to meet its national and international security commitments. All nuclear-armed states have different nuclear weapons capacities depending on their individual needs. Nuclear planning is not a race but a strategy.

In terms of capacity, the United States is already at the “top of the pack” with highly capable nuclear forces that are backed up by overwhelming conventional forces. See here how the US nuclear arsenal compares with other nuclear-armed states.

Trump also called the New START Treaty “a one-sided deal” and a “bad deal.” Once again he is wrong. The treaty has equal limits for both the United States and Russia: by February 2018, neither side can have more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed launchers and no more than 800 total deployed and non-deployed launchers.

Next month the new bi-annual aggregate data set will be published; the previous one from September 2016 showed Russia with 1,796 warheads on 508 launchers compared with the United States with 1,367 warheads on 681 launchers.

Some people got very excited about that saying the larger number of Russian deployed warheads somehow gave Russia an advantage and showed they didn’t intend to comply with the treaty. Warheads can be moved on and off launchers relatively quickly; the important number is the number of launchers where the US was counted with 173 more than Russia.

Indeed, according to the Pentagon and Intelligence Community, Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty…” (Emphasis added.)

But nitpicking about numbers misses the bigger point: the New START treaty was signed with overwhelming support from the US military, Congress, former officials, and experts because the treaty caps the nuclear forces of both countries and continues an important on-site verification system and data exchange.

President Trump may have been briefed by the Pentagon on his role in the nuclear war plan. But his latest interview with Reuters shows that he urgently needs to be briefed on the status of US nuclear forces, other nuclear-armed states, and the basics of the arms control treaties the United States has signed. But that briefing needs to be done outside the White House bubble and include bi-partisan and independent input. Otherwise all indication are that President Trump will be extraordinarily poorly equipped to make informed decisions about the nuclear policy.

Additional resources:

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

6 thoughts on “In Reuters Interview President Trump Flunks Nuclear 101

  1. Hans, take a deep breath. We’re going to go through this at least every week for months. Months! Maybe years… Forget what President Trump says and let’s watch carefully what he actually does. Or, what he actually can do. He’s been the US President for a month and we’ve not started any “new” wars or launched nuclear weapons at anyone. Of course, it’s only Thursday.

    Everything is a negoatation on the way to a “deal”. Remember, he is not a Republican. There is no historical information we can reach back for. We can only watch and wait.

    Frank Shuler
    USA

  2. What is truly “disarming” is that this President of the United States/Commander-in-Chief would be unlikely to pass any of the psychological or other background examinations required of any member of the armed forces entrusted for clearance to have access to and responsibility for employment of nuclear weapons under DOD’s Nuclear Weapon Personal Reliability Program (PRP).

  3. Agree with Frank S. After all, the Obama admin didn’t OK a trillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan to put the US in second place to anyone.

  4. I don’t entirely agree with article. Yes nuclear weapons need to be eliminated, however to be realistic, that won’t happen anytime soon.
    That said, to be specific, it’s the nuclear weapons DELIVERY systems that need updating not so much the warheads themselves, or the quantity.
    The Minuteman ICBM is technology from the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The SLBM Trident D5 are systems developed in the early 1980’s. I will never understand why the Air Force ever killed the Peacekeeper ICBM system and the Midgetman mobile based systems. Of course budget, and end of the cold war. The Peacekeeper was a highly capable ICBM, that offered better accuracy than the Minuteman. The Midgetman was fully mobile and was more accurate and with a range slightly less than the Peacekeeper. Since the majority of the R&D has already been completed, I think the Air Force should dust off the plans from the missiles systems and use them as a starting point for a completely new delivery system. Doing so might save time and the taxpayers money.

    1. With the W88/Mk5 on the Trident II, and the advent of the W76-1/Mk4A, they didn’t need MX Peacekeeper to hold at risk hard targets. The Minuteman will get increase hard-target efficiency with the W87/Mk21 fuze upgrade. The new ICBM (GBSD) will probably have similar capability as the Trident II W88/Mk5.

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