The Administration

Trump, do we really need more nuclear weapons capabilities?


On Dec. 22, 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted:

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

{mosads}Why would the U.S. need to strengthen its nuclear capabilities? Our current capacity is approximately 4,500 nuclear weapons, which includes 900 nuclear warheads on high alert, ready to launch within 30 minutes of warning. More than half of these are on 14 invulnerable submarines.


Each sub typically carries 20 missiles with a total of close to 100 independently targeted nuclear warheads (MIRVs). Each warhead is at least seven times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs; these were the equivalent of 15 to 20 thousand tons (kilotons or 0.015 to 0.020 megatons) of TNT.

In Hiroshima 35 percent of the population was dead after one year including 90 percent of the doctors and nurses who were clustered near the city center.

Each of the submarine-based warheads can be separately targeted, so that each could destroy an entire city, as did the less powerful Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. In fact, each of our 14 submarines typically carries a total of more than 10 million tons (megatons) of explosive power; this is five times the total explosive power launched by all the allies over the course of World War II.

The explosive power of one nuclear submarine can effectively destroy the targeted country. In addition, it could cause a significant worldwide decrease in global temperatures and agricultural output that could lead to widespread famine.

But our firepower is not limited to just one submarine; we typically have approximately half of the fourteen on patrol, each of which could unleash a similar bombardment. This does not include the comparable firepower of our land- based missiles and nuclear-armed bombers.

We are not alone in our overkill capacity. Russia has a comparable nuclear arsenal. This includes about 900 nuclear weapons on high alert (similar to our alert status).

Of particular concern is that Russia’s early warning system has been allowed to atrophy. It is rarely discussed how vulnerable we are to the state of this system.

A mistaken signal of a U.S. attack could precipitate a massive “preventive strike” from Russia. (Erroneous attack signals have actually happened before and in one case a potential disaster was averted only by the prudence of the Russian officer on duty.)

The likelihood of such an event significantly increases when there is mutual tension and suspicion between our two countries. Even our more robust system is not completely immune to possible errors, as is any complex engineering and human enterprise. The consequences of a failure of the early warning system of either country is not only potentially disastrous for both countries but for the entire world.

To make matters worse, both the U.S. and Russia are modernizing their already formidable nuclear arsenals, making them even more deadly; these plans extend over several decades.

The Obama administration’s budget is projecting a trillion dollars’ worth of maintenance and upgrades to all three nuclear weapons delivery systems, land and submarine based ballistic missiles and bombers as well as the associated nuclear weapons.

These plans represent enormous expenditures, which are likely to crowd out important other uses for the funds. It is even more ironic that these increased expenditures will leave both countries, and the rest of the world, with a significantly increased risk of an accidental nuclear war.

President-elect Trump, in view of the present overkill capability of both the U.S. and Russia, isn’t it time that “the world comes to its senses regarding nukes?”

Wouldn’t we all be a lot safer if you suggested to President Putin that starting negotiations to reduce this terrifying arsenal is your highest priority?

Aron Bernstein is Professor of Physics Emeritus at MIT and a board member of Council for a Livable World. He has been working on arms control issues for decades, focused on educating policy makers and the public on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

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

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