Trump's nuclear threat policy is moving US in the right direction

Trump's nuclear threat policy is moving US in the right direction
© Greg Nash

This administration’s tenure may be rife with staff turnover, tweetstorms and scandals, but there’s one thing it’s gotten right so far: Its nuclear strategy is a well-reasoned response to the most pressing nuclear threats in the world today.

The new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in February 2018, made a splash among critics who wanted to portray the strategy document as wildly divergent from previous strategies. The New York Times editorial board took potshots at the missile defense objectives, and a columnist at the Washington Post declared that the NPR “announced a renewed round in the nuclear arms race, one inevitably bringing us ever closer to the unthinkable — a nuclear war of catastrophic consequences.”

In reality, the document is primarily a continuation of existing nuclear strategy, with just two deviations: a strategic buildup of low-yield nuclear weapons, and a sizable buildup of U.S. missile defense capabilities. Both developments are intended to protect the United States, and both are logical extensions of U.S. deterrence strategy. What’s more, as a result of this NPR, the United States will be in a better position in the case of provocations by either Russia or North Korea.


A limited, strategic push for certain nuclear capabilities may appear out-of-line to those who see nuclear weapons as relics of the Cold War. Yet for better or worse, nuclear weapons remain central to the U.S. defense strategy and continue to serve as a pillar of our deterrence posture. This is not a Republican or a Democrat stance either — the Obama administration requested funds to modernize our nuclear forces to the tune of $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046.

The decision to build up our low-yield nuclear capabilities is actually a response to reports that Russia has a strategy for limited first use of low-yield nuclear weapons and has already deployed such weapons. 

In building up our own low-yield capabilities, the United States wants Russia to know that we would not back down if Russia decided to use a low-yield nuclear weapon against us or our allies. Without low-yield nuclear weapons at our disposal, in the case of a Russian low-yield strike, we would either be forced to ramp up the conflict by using our higher-yield weapons or to let the low-yield strike go without a response for fear of triggering an all-out nuclear war — which clearly would be in no one’s best interest. Yet with an arsenal of our own low-yield nuclear weapons, we could better deter Russia from believing it could use a low-yield nuclear weapon without incurring a U.S. response.

Strengthening U.S. missile defense is similarly a boon to U.S. defense capabilities and may be even more necessary in an era where a dictator likes to threaten us with nuclear strikes. Missile defense is not only part of a larger defense strategy, it is limited in nature and serves a noble goal of protecting innocent people in case the unthinkable happens.

The New York Times tries to sell the concept that missile defense “alone” would not save the United States from a North Korean nuclear attack — as if that’s damning evidence against a program. The editorial board argued that Trump should not make miscalculations about the efficacy of missile defense in ways that would lead him to attack North Korea while assuming the United States would be fully protected, and advises him to instead pursue diplomacy and sanctions.

When President Ronald Reagan pushed for missile defense in the 1980s, naysayers argued that it would increase the risk of conflict — just as analysts argue today. Yet Reagan argued that it was immoral to leave people whom he could protect vulnerable to nuclear attack. The goals of missile defense remain the same today. We should reject the same tired argument that tools of protection are more dangerous than leaving people vulnerable in the face of potentially deadly threats.

Additionally, arguing that the United States should not invest more in technology that could protect people if a rogue actor like Kim Jong Un followed through with his threats doesn’t seem to align with an approach that uses all reasonable tools to push for denuclearization and to protect the United States and its allies. Assuming the focus should be on diplomacy and sanctions instead of missile defense is a strawman argument; it shouldn’t be an either-or.

Historically, the United States has not dealt with nuclear threats through missile defense alone, nor though sanctions alone, nor through diplomacy alone. We have defended and should continue to defend ourselves with all the tools at our disposal while creating incentives for our adversaries to denuclearize.

Few of those authors critical of our nuclear posture acknowledge that missile defense has always been about just that. Missile defense has never been about protecting the United States from a large-scale attack; it has always been about providing limited defense. Even when missile defense was first conceived during the Cold War, it was sold to the American public as a defense against the emerging Chinese nuclear capability of a few nuclear bombs, not the Russian nuclear capability of thousands of nuclear weapons.

Today, while our missile-defense capabilities are imperfect — and certainly cannot protect us against a barrage of 1,000 nuclear missiles flying at us from Russia — ground-based midcourse defense and other elements of our ballistic missile defense system do show promise in the case of a limited strike on the U.S. homeland. What’s more, the NPR’s promise of continued investment will only increase the reliability of these systems.

That is significant. As missile defense becomes more reliable, on the chance that a rogue actor targets us or our allies with a limited nuclear strike, it is going to become less and less likely that it will reach its target. The United States would respond with a full range of its capabilities, and almost certainly come out ahead militarily. This should actually increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to deter adversaries from taking such a risk — an adversary may not be able to reach its target, and it will suffer enormous consequences if it tries.

The NPR is surely imperfect. It relies on assumptions about the world; it makes calculations and takes risks in suggesting how the United States should move forward in developing its capabilities and refining its nuclear strategy. Yet it is also fulfilling its goal: It’s offering real steps to put the United States in the best position to deter its adversaries and protect its citizens.

Arthur Rizer is the director of justice and national security policy at the R Street Institute. Megan Reiss is a senior national security fellow at the R Street Institute.