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Just before Christmas, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the US ‘must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability’. The following day, the media reported that Trump had clarified his comment, stating ‘let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all’.
Trump’s comments are significant, because they go well beyond the current US Department of Defense planning, as well as Republican Party policy.
Under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the US delayed replacing its land-based Minuteman III missiles and Ohio-class submarines through a range of life extension programmes.
As a result, Washington is now confronted by the fact that all three of its nuclear platforms – its SSBN fleet, its ground-launched ICBMs and its B-2 strategic bombers – will reach the end of their lifespan within the next ten to fifteen years.
Therefore, American nuclear policy will now be dominated by the Pentagon’s efforts to secure Congressional support and funding for a comprehensive nuclear weapons modernisation. While those efforts are designed to create a qualitative improvement of the existing nuclear force, they are not intended to initiate a quantitative increase in the number of warheads.
However, Trump’s comments suggest that his administration may seek to go beyond the limited goals of securing modernisation, in order to expand the US arsenal itself. This would reverse the policy of gradually reducing the size of the stockpile, which has enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington since the end of the Cold War.
Given his penchant for sometimes making outlandish, nuclear-related statements, it is worth emphasising that Trump’s latest proposition is not inherently dangerous. The relationship between nuclear numbers and international stability is not directly proportional.
Furthermore, the role US nuclear weapons play in underpinning extended deterrence guarantees in Europe and Asia means that they serve, perversely, as tools of non-proliferation.
In effect, Japan, South Korea and a host of NATO nations have little incentive to go down the nuclear path by virtue of the nuclear umbrella afforded to them by Washington.
Likewise, the impact of a Trump administration decision to expand the US arsenal would likely have negligible impact on so-called ‘horizontal proliferation’. No non-nuclear weapons state would suddenly rush to develop a nuclear capability simply because the Trump administration increased the number of US-held nuclear weapons.
It is also worth noting that bilateral deterrence relationships can often be stabilised by greater numbers. A key dimension of the US-Soviet deterrence relationship was the scale of the forces maintained by both sides. Strategic stability was enhanced by the deployment of thousands of warheads across multiple platforms, themselves spread out across vast territory.
The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction rested upon the inevitability of a retaliatory response to any first strike nuclear attack, something enhanced by the heightened survivability afforded by large arsenals.
Indeed, one of the dangers that plagues many of today’s deterrence relationships is the absence of such a dynamic. Defence planners in Moscow fear that Russia’s second-strike capacity could be neutralised by the increasing effectiveness of US missile defences.
Likewise, the small nature of the North Korea’s nuclear arsenal means that any major military contingency on the peninsula could confront the Kim regime with a ‘use it or lose it’ dilemma that would incentivise first-use.
Nevertheless, Trump’s latest musings are misguided. First, expanding America’s nuclear arsenal now would serve no practical utility. The US is in little danger of its second-strike capability being compromised, and its current nuclear force is more than sufficient to reassure its allies.
In addition, securing Congressional support for modernisation – a multi-billion dollar enterprise – will be hard enough without adding the additional and superfluous goal of procuring additional warheads.
More importantly, Trump’s call for more nuclear weapons defies strategic logic. The fundamental weakness of current US deterrence posture lies not at the nuclear level, but at the sub-strategic end of the escalation spectrum.
Russia, China and North Korea, the three nations US nuclear weapons primarily serve to deter, are all proving increasingly adept at manipulating escalatory risk. Each is moving to perfect the art of swift interventions, capable of adjusting the status quo in their favour, without triggering a nuclear response by the US.
Accordingly, the danger Washington is likely to face in the coming years is not the prospect of being ‘outmatched’ or ‘outlasted’ in terms of nuclear numbers, but being confronted by a conventional, asymmetric or hybrid challenge, for which it lacks credible response options.
Should irregular Russian forces move to seize territory in Russian-speaking areas of the Baltic states, Chinese naval forces move to capture island territories claimed by Japan or North Korea undertake limited conventional military action against the South, additional warheads would offer no means of curtailing or reversing the aggression.
Rather than expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal, the Trump administration should take steps to strengthen Washington’s overall deterrent posture, in order to better deter sub-strategic interventions.
Two specific measures warrant greater consideration from the incoming administration. The first is to adjust existing conventional defence plans in order to devolve greater responsibility to local allies.
Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has frequently intervened to restrain allies and partners – such as South Korea and India – from escalating in response to aggression.
Pronouncing an end to that approach would help to prevent escalatory cycles from being triggered in the first place, by signalling to would-be aggressors that any use of military force is likely to be met with a kinetic response.
It would also be in keeping with the tenor of the Trump campaign, which placed a heavy emphasis on allies taking a broader role.
In addition, the Trump administration should invest political capital in securing Congressional support for the development of the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile, which offers a means to credibly threaten nuclear force in Anti-Access/Area Denial environments.
In Trump, America has elected a president with a keen interest in nuclear weapons. However, if his administration is to execute a successful nuclear policy once in office, it should dedicate itself to securing support for modernisation, and focus attention on defending against emergent challenges to its deterrence posture.
Any nascent plans it has to expand the nuclear arsenal should be set aside.
Timothy Stafford is a Research Fellow with Pacific Forum-Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Banner image: A US Air Force LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Courtesy of defenseimagery.mil/Wikimedia