War Stories

Don’t Bring Out the Nukes

Trump’s unnecessary, self-defeating plan to rev up a nuclear arms race with Russia.

Trump and Putin walking together, seen in silhouette.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G-20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is planning to rev up the nuclear arms race a few weeks into his second term, if he gets one.

The New START strategic arms-reduction treaty, signed by President Barack Obama and Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, will expire on Feb. 5 unless the two countries agree to extend it by another five years. Trump has indicated he has no interest in extending it unless the Russians make certain concessions, which have nothing to do with the treaty and which they have no interest in making.

According to Politico, aides to Trump’s arms-control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, recently asked senior military officers how long it would take to remove the few thousand nuclear warheads we have in storage and load them onto long-range bombers and submarine-based missiles, if New START expires. (The U.S. has 1,750 nuclear warheads on long-range missiles and bombers, while Russia has 1,500; both countries also have a few thousand more warheads in storage.)

One official told Politico that, by making the request public, the Trump administration was trying to create an “incentive for the Russians to sit down and negotiate.” The ploy is consistent with several of Billingslea’s remarks. In the spring, for instance, he said, “We know how to win these [arms] races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”

If Trump is trying to put the threat on the table as a bargaining chip, he’s going into the game with a weak hand. First, especially in the COVID economy, we can’t spend any adversary into oblivion without spending ourselves into oblivion too.

Second, Russia has even more nuclear weapons in storage than the United States—about 2,700 to about 2,000. The Russians have also been modernizing several of their nuclear missiles. Under New START, Russia is required to discard the old missiles as the new ones are deployed; without New START, they could simply expand the size of their arsenal. By contrast, the United States isn’t scheduled to field any new nuclear missiles or bombers until the end of the decade.

In other words, anything Trump can threaten to do in this realm, Vladimir Putin can match and then some. Under those circumstances, Trump’s bargaining strategy is self-defeating.

Third, the Trump administration’s conditions for agreeing to extend New START are, from the Russians’ point of view, unreasonable. The 2010 treaty reduced the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear forces—the bombers and missiles having the range to attack each other’s territory. Billingslea says Trump won’t extend New START unless the Russians agree on the broad outlines of a future treaty, which would also limit Russia’s shorter-range missiles. Russia is unlikely to accept any such limits ahead of time, in part because the U.S. has very few short-range missiles.

Russia wants the U.S. to limit its anti-missile interceptors in exchange for any further reductions in offensive weapons; Trump has refused even to consider the idea. Trump and Billingslea also want China to take part in the next round of arms talks. China has no interest in doing so—and it’s an odd idea to invite them, in any case. China has about one-fifth as many active nuclear weapons as the U.S. or Russia; it is not engaged in an arms race with either of those countries, though roping them into trilateral arms talks might spur Chinese officers to demand equality in nuclear weaponry—thus creating a new arms race where there isn’t one now.

Finally, the United States simply does not need a larger nuclear arsenal. During the negotiations for New START and the ratification debate afterward, no senior U.S. military officer argued that the treaty was placing onerous restrictions on our nuclear arsenal or on our ability to carry out national-security policy.

In fact, soon after the treaty was signed, several Obama officials went through a monthslong exercise with the top officers at U.S. Strategic Command, examining the nuclear war plan in excruciating detail, questioning whether, in the event of nuclear war, all the Russian targets needed to be attacked and how many U.S. weapons were needed to destroy them. In the end, the officers concluded that the U.S. could reduce the size of its arsenal by one-third without doing any harm to national security. (In a separate discussion with Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they would not endorse such a reduction unless the Russians reduced their arsenal as well. I describe these events in depth in Chapter 10 of my book, The Bomb.)

There’s another reason for preserving New START. The treaty’s terms include extensive provisions for mutual inspection, to verify that neither side is cheating. It creates a forum to exchange data and discuss disputes. And in the decade since the treaty was signed, the Russians have complied with the treaty. (This is acknowledged even by those who accuse Russia of cheating on other treaties.) The treaty also puts a cap on pessimistic projections of how many nukes the Russians can build in the next decade and, therefore, how many nukes we need to start building. Without a treaty, the cap goes off: The military will say the Russians could build a lot more nukes and, therefore, will argue that we need to build a lot more too.

The big point is this: No one is arguing that the U.S. needs more nuclear weapons. It would be much simpler, and cheaper, simply to extend New START for another five years. The Russians have said they’re willing to do that unconditionally. We would gain no advantage from pushing them into an arms race.

It would be an act of common sense—not weakness or appeasement—to keep the current limits in place. But Trump isn’t interested in common sense when it comes to nuclear weapons; he’s interested in bluster and meaningless measures of strength. This is another reason for ensuring that Trump is not still president on Feb. 5.