President-elect Donald Trump has once again caused the elite’s (talking) heads to explode with a Tweet. Yesterday, he did so by simply declaring, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
With these words, Mr. Trump was channeling Ronald Reagan – a Commander-in-Chief whom I had the privilege of serving for four-and-a-half years as his point-man in the Pentagon with responsibility for nuclear forces and arms control policy. In his day, the Gipper was responding to the immense nuclear build-up that had been undertaken by the then-Soviet Union. Today, the Donald is recognizing the utter bankruptcy of Barack Obama’s plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons, starting with ours.
Indeed, Russia’s current nuclear modernization program is in some respects more ominous than what we faced at the height of the Cold War. At the moment, Putin is putting the finishing touches on a wholesale replacement of his arsenal with advanced missiles, submarines, and bombers. He is also introducing state-of-the-art hypersonic and maneuvering warheads explicitly designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses and a high-speed, unmanned underwater drone said to pack a doomsday 100-megaton nuclear weapon. And he is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying prohibited theater nuclear missiles. (Look here for more about the nuclear and other ominous facets of “Putin’s reset.”)
Bear in mind, that this massive Kremlin investment in nuclear weaponry has been made during a period when there has been basically no upgrade of America’s arsenal. If anything, the United States has been unilaterally disarming. This dynamic calls to mind Soviet practice in the so-called “arms race.” As President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, put it in January 1979: “When we build, they build; when we cut, they build.” It was that pattern that Ronald Reagan upended, as Donald Trump must do now.
Then there’s China. For years, we have been encouraged to believe that the PRC has only 300-400 nuclear warheads. But the Chinese have also been building an array of new nuclear delivery systems. Even more worrying, they have gone to great lengths to conceal and protect their arsenal – including in submarine pens built into a mountain and 3,000 miles of hardened underground tunnels. The truth is, it is anybody’s guess how many weapons Beijing now has targeted on this country, unconstrained by any nuclear arms control regime.
Notwithstanding Bill Clinton’s deal to prevent the North Koreans from getting nuclear weapons, they are deploying ever larger numbers of more diverse and more capable nukes, making no secret of putting us and our allies in their cross-hairs. The same will inevitably flow from the Obamabomb deal with Iran, later if not quite soon.
The truth is that every acknowledged nuclear weapon state and a number of wannabes are busily acquiring and/or upgrading their respective arsenals. In shorthand terms, Donald Trump prosaically described this as a world that hasn’t “come to its senses regarding nukes.” Actually, in such a world, it is only the United States that has lacked the good sense to make sure that its deterrent is safe, reliable and effective.
At this point, we have gotten ourselves into such a deep hole that it will take considerable effort and investment to get back to the point where our arsenal has those qualities. (See, for example, the report of the 2009 Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.) We will need not only to replace platforms that are aging to the point of obsolescence; in the case of the B-52, the planes are over fifty years old. We will have to develop, produce, test and deploy as well a new generation of weapons that are suited to our present strategic environment – and, therefore, credible as deterrents – and have all of the safety and control features modern technology can provide. To do all this will require, moreover, a serious upgrading of the associated industrial base and trained workforce that have been allowed to atrophy disastrously.
The first step, however, is to have a president who understands the imperative of assuredly deterring our enemies and is committed to expanding and strengthening our ability to do that. For the first time since Ronald Reagan, America will be led by such a Commander-in-Chief.
Frank J. Gaffney acted as an Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. He is currently the President of the Center for Security Policy.