Trump misfires on nuclear weapons boast

A day after he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” President Donald Trump distorted the facts when he boasted that his “first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal” and “it is now far stronger and more powerful than ever.”

It’s true that Trump directed his secretary of defense to initiate a Nuclear Posture Review. But that review was not his “first order”; it was not unexpected; and it won’t be done until the end of the year, so it has yet to result in any improvements.

All U.S. presidents since Bill Clinton have undertaken Nuclear Posture Reviews, or NPRs, at the beginning of their administrations. The Obama administration’s review, which was completed in April 2010, resulted in a $400 billion modernization plan that includes new nuclear submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles and Navy bombers.

“The renovation and modernization of the arsenal that is going on now is all the result of decisions that were made by the Obama administration,” Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told us. “The Trump administration NPR might decide to adjust or increase capabilities but that is yet unclear.”

Trump’s Tweet

Trump appeared to be alluding to U.S. nuclear weapons on Aug. 8, when he was asked about North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear ambitions. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters (at about the 4:30 mark). “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”


A day later, Trump boasted that he has taken steps to “renovate and modernize” the nation’s nuclear weapons program, which he said is “now far stronger” than ever.

First, let’s look at the order that Trump issued “to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.”

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Trump issued a presidential memorandum on Jan. 27 that, among other things, directed the secretary of defense to initiate a Nuclear Posture Review “to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

Such a review is not unusual. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, every incoming U.S. president has conducted a Nuclear Posture Review at the beginning of their administrations. So Trump is no different in that respect.

The Defense Department officially began its review on April 17, and it is expected to be completed by the end of the year — so Trump’s order has not made the U.S. nuclear arsenal “far stronger and more powerful than ever.”

It also wasn’t his “first order.” Trump’s first executive order was on the Affordable Care Act, and the first presidential memorandum was about regulations. Both were issued on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. That first presidential memo was issued by his chief of staff. The first presidential memo signed by Trump came three days later on Jan. 23, and it dealt with abortion.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst who heads the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that he did not see “how there is any factual basis to support” the president’s tweet.

“Clearly this was not, literally, his first order … and nothing has changed in the nuclear arsenal,” Harrison said. “To be fair, even if he wanted to make changes nothing would have changed by now.”

Modernization of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

There is an ongoing modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, but it was initiated under Obama, not Trump.

Robert Gates, Obama’s defense secretary, released his department’s Nuclear Posture Review on April 6, 2010. The report called for “much-needed investments to rebuild America’s aging nuclear infrastructure.” It also concluded that the United States will maintain a triad of nuclear weapon systems on land (intercontinental ballistic missiles), sea (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) and air (nuclear-capable heavy bombers).

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After the report was issued, the Obama administration began making plans to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons program. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the modernization program would cost about $355 billion over 10 years, from 2014-2023. It has since increased that estimate to $400 billion over 10 years, from 2017 to 2026. Those estimates include maintenance and operation costs, as well as modernization costs. Over 30 years, the cost could reach $1 trillion, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The Defense Department is now in the early stages of modernizing its fleet of nuclear submarines, Navy bombers and land-based missiles:

  • In January 2011, the Navy began a program to replace its Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines with a new fleet dubbed the Columbia that will cost more than $100 billion, according to a March 2017 report (page 117) by the Government Accountability Office.
  • In October 2015, the Defense Department announced that Northrop Grumman won the contract to build a new long range bomber — the B-21 — that is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. The new fleet will replace the aging B-52 and B-1 bombers under a contract that is expected to exceed $55 billion, according to Defense News.
  • In July 2016, the Air Force issued a request for proposal for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missile weapon system to replace the aging land-based Minuteman III ICBMs.

Kristensen told us that the Obama administration’s nuclear review also resulted in plans to extend the life of existing programs, such as the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, and modernize “key early-warning and nuclear command and control facilities and capabilities.”

“The Obama administration set in motion an incredibly ambitious and expensive set of programs to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, told us in an email. “Most of these programs are still in their early stages of development.”

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Reif added that “the Trump administration’s first budget request submitted in May for fiscal year 2018 largely continues the existing Obama programs of record.”

As for whether the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “now far stronger and more powerful than ever,” as Trump said, Kristensen responded: “The arsenal has just about the same capability today as it did when Trump took office. Same weapons. Same readiness level. Same strike plans.”



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