WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump says the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been beefed up since he took office in January. Not quite.
As the world digested the president’s remarks on Tuesday threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, Trump said in a tweet Wednesday, “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
Nuclear policy and military analysts say nothing of the sort has taken place, and the only plan in the works — initiated by former President Barack Obama — has a 30-year timeline and an estimated $1 trillion cost. Most of that spending would come after 2022.
“Nothing has changed with our nuclear warheads or bombs in any significant way that makes them more powerful,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s no real reflection in the budget, it’s just a continuation — they didn’t stop anything, they didn’t slow anything down and they also didn’t accelerate anything.”
The upgrades are driven by the age of systems such as the Minuteman III missiles, first deployed 40 years ago, and the fleet of 14 Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines, which already had their service lives extended to 42 years from 30 years. The Air Force last year chose Northrop Grumman Corp. to develop and build a new nuclear-capable bomber at a projected cost of $80 billion as a successor to the Eisenhower-era B-52.
Trump demonstrated his interest in the nuclear arsenal before taking office, tweeting in December that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
But his fiscal 2018 budget proposal largely continues the nuclear modernization programs begun during his predecessor’s administration, and many of those programs are just getting off the ground.
“President Trump was informed of the growing threat last December, and on taking office his first orders to me emphasized the readiness of our ballistic missile defense and nuclear deterrent forces,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement Wednesday.
Trump’s own review to start thinking about how to upgrade the air-land-sea nuclear triad isn’t complete, much less the turning of wrenches to modernize it, according to a Senate Republican aide who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Trump signed an executive order in January directing the Pentagon to do a new nuclear posture review — a standard move for incoming administrations. The review started in April but isn’t expected to be completed until the end of the year, according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association. It could continue into 2018, and any decisions would take more time to implement, he said.
For now, at least, the arsenal is shrinking.
The New START treaty limits the U.S. to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 long-range delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers. Those treaties must be met by 2018.
“The size of our ICBM force has gone down under this administration,” not because of the president’s efforts, but because it was already under way, Harrison, the defense analyst, said. “It’s gotten smaller, not larger.”
Mattis, speaking Wednesday to the crew of an Ohio-class nuclear missile submarine in Bangor, Washington, endorsed the idea of retaining the triad of subs, nuclear bombers and ICBMs.
“An enemy would have to shoot so much to take them out,” Mattis said. “I think we are going to keep all three legs of the deterrent.”
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