Foreign Policy

From Cold War to Gold War: It’s Trump’s nuclear arms race now


The United States and Russia are heading into a dangerous nuclear arms race, one that will rob scarce funds from higher priority military and domestic needs and could push us to the brink of atomic catastrophe. And that was true even before Donald Trump stormed into the White House.

Now, with his overheated tweets, uninformed pronouncements and misguided policies, Trump is putting the nuclear pedal to the metal.

Less than two months in office, President Trump is already making the world a more dangerous place. The president has stated that he wants to build up U.S. nuclear forces — a policy not seen since the height of the Cold War — and is putting new money in his budget to do just that. At the same time, Trump is implying that he might withdraw from the very treaty that limits the number of nuclear weapons the United States and Russia can have ready for use.

Taken together, what message does this send to Russia? As they say at the Indy 500, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!”

Congratulations, President Trump: This is your nuclear arms race now.

The engine-revving started last month, when Trump, in his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, trash-talked the New START agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. Trump reportedly called New START a “bad deal” and lost an important opportunity to seek agreement with Russia to extend the pact. If allowed to expire in 2021, both nations will be free to build and deploy as many weapons as they want.

As if to emphasize this point, a few weeks later Trump said that he wants the U.S. nuclear arsenal to be at the “top of the pack” — never mind that it already is — and that the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity.” He once again called New START “just another bad deal.” (Tell that to Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who testified to Congress this week that he is a “big supporter of the New START agreement” and that, without it, “the risk would be an arms race.”)

And just last week, Trump announced plans to seek an additional $54 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2018, taking funds from the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and others. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that a key priority would be “restoring our nuclear capabilities,” meaning more money for nuclear weapons.

To be fair, Trump did not start this arms race. That dubious distinction goes to former President Obama, who set the United States on a misguided course to spend more than $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next three decades. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated the cost of Obama’s plan at $400 billion over the next 10 years alone.

Obama green-lighted what has morphed into a wasteful spending spree by promising to refresh the U.S. nuclear arsenal in exchange for Republican support of New START in 2010. But that political deal was reached before Congress passed the bipartisan Budget Control Act in 2011, and since then there has been less money for everything. And Obama’s commitment to upgrade the force did not specify that weapon systems would have to be replaced (as opposed to reconditioned), nor did it specify total funding levels, numbers of systems or production schedules.

In other words, the nuclear arsenal renewal plan is now much larger than envisioned when New START passed the Senate. Once the nuclear bureaucracy got a hold of it, each atomic mission and weapon became essential. There was no internal debate about how many nuclear weapons, or of what kinds, the country would need for the future. Instead of fresh thinking, we got the same old Cold War nuclear overkill, only much more expensive.

Do we really need a baker’s dozen of nuclear-armed submarines? A new generation of penetrating bombers, armed with both new gravity bombs and cruise missiles? Brand-new land-based ballistic missiles, even though we could extend the life of the current ones? Nothing less will do.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Barack Obama went from a disarmer in his first term to a re-armer in his second. Sadly, he allowed the nuclear enterprise to highjack his legacy.

But there is a new sheriff in town, and this plan to revamp the nuclear arsenal is no longer Obama’s. Once Trump puts it in his defense budget, he owns it. And by all indications, it’s in there.

Moreover, if Trump were to withdraw from New START or oppose its extension, the entire political deal to rebuild the arsenal would be null and void.

These new dynamics should change the way Congress thinks about these issues. Democrats who once defended the arsenal rebuild plan out of deference to Obama no longer need to do so. They are now free to question the need, in particular, for the new nuclear cruise missile and land-based ballistic missile.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and seven others just introduced a bill to cap spending for the nuclear cruise missile. This weapon is expensive, redundant, and, above all, dangerous. It is a first-strike weapon that could be used to start a so-called “limited” nuclear war. In the hands of President Trump, it could increase the risk of nuclear catastrophe.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified this week that he would support talks with Russia to ban nuclear-armed cruise missiles. “I think I would say that we should take [a nuclear cruise-missile ban] to the table and negotiate it in a bilateral, verifiable way.” Selva was arguing to build the cruise missile and used it as a bargaining chip. But does it really make sense to spent $30 billion on a new weapon that you intended to negotiate away? Hardly. We have the current cruise missile for that.

Neither the United States nor Russia can afford a new nuclear arms race. That money could be much better spent on infrastructure, healthcare and education. Yet that is the dangerous direction President Trump is taking us. We must resist. The nuclear arms race is now under new management — and that may make all the difference.


Tom Z. Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C. He served as lead editor of the recent Ploughshares Fund report, “Ten Big Nuclear Ideas for the New President.”

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Cold War Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Ed Markey New START Nuclear arms race START

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