The United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity,” President Donald Trump said last week, and he wants to make sure the U.S. is at the “top of the pack” among the world’s nuclear powers. He has bluntly criticized the treaty that sets the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals at equal levels as “one-sided.” And he’s called for a formal nuclear posture review.
Words like those cause ears to perk up at Offutt Air Force Base, where Gen. John Hyten, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, is the keeper of the keys to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He’s also the chief adviser to the president and senior military leaders on all matters nuclear.
His top concern, Hyten said in an interview this month with The World-Herald, is not so much the size of the U.S. nuclear force but whether it remains fit to deter its enemies. He believes updating the arsenal — much of it built in the 1980s or earlier — is more important than enlarging it.
“If you look at every element of the nuclear enterprise, it has to be modernized,” Hyten said. “All our stuff is old. It’s still ready, safe, secure, reliable. But it’s old.”
He believes the size of his current force is enough to deter America’s adversaries, and he could even live with cuts — as long as Russia cuts its arsenal too.
“Nobody wants to decrease our deterrent posture,” Hyten said. “Not with Russia the way it is right now, not with China building in the Pacific. And not with, goodness, what’s going on right now in North Korea and Iran.”
He does welcome the nuclear posture review.
“Every new administration that comes in, one of the first things they should do is take a look at our nuclear capabilities, because it is the most sobering, daunting, powerful element of our defensive architecture,” Hyten said. “The way you do that is through a nuclear posture review. I look forward to participating in it myself.”
Hyten said no timetable has been set for the review, but he expects it will take 12 to 18 months. StratCom will be heavily involved.
“In this building there are some of the best and brightest nuclear thinkers, nuclear operators in the country today,” Hyten said. “And we’ll provide the expertise we need to do it.”
Trump has consistently said he wants to be less predictable than his predecessors, and the broad strokes of his nuclear policy have yet to be colored in. In the early days of his administration he has shown a great deal of deference to his new defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis — who also commands the respect of many of Trump’s critics.
“I think Mattis is the wild card here,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the non-proliferation advocacy group Arms Control Association. “He may be the check on some of those more Strangelovian impulses.”
The New START treaty with Russia, signed in 2010, requires both the U.S. and Russia to cut the size of their nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 delivery systems (sea-launched missiles, ICBMs and nuclear bombers) by February 2018 and maintain parity for 10 years. The treaty is up for renewal in 2021, but Trump has complained to Reuters that it is a “one-sided deal.”
Russia’s nuclear force also is old, but the country is several years into a program to modernize its aging nuclear force, while the U.S. remains a few years behind.
That worries Michaela Dodge, a senior policy analyst specializing in nuclear weapons policy with the Heritage Foundation, a national think-tank that generally advocates for conservative causes.
“There already is a nuclear arms race,” she said, “but the U.S. isn’t in it.”
In recent years Republicans and Democrats have more or less worked together on the early stages of funding the expensive new bombers and submarines and gravity bombs Pentagon officials say will be needed to deter future attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
But in an era of strong taxpayer resistance to big spending programs, the reconstruction of the U.S. nuclear force is sure to be one of the biggest. A new report by the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of rebuilding the arsenal at $400 billion over the next 10 years.
And the work will continue for years, or even decades, beyond that. For example, development work on the new Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine already has started, even though the first subs aren’t scheduled for delivery until the early 2030s.
Hyten’s job, as he sees it, is to keep making the case for updating the arsenal — hopefully, stiffening the spines of wavering members of Congress who balk at the price tag. That’s the same thing his two predecessors, Adm. Cecil Haney and Gen. C. Robert Kehler, did during their StratCom tours.
“The good part right now is that we have broad support in the new administration, broad support in the Congress to modernize all elements of it,” Hyten said. “But because they are nuclear weapons and because there will be some expense for the taxpayers, I think that’s why it gets so much discussion.”
As the new chairwoman of the Senate’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer will have a lot of influence over future spending on nuclear weapons.
Like Hyten, she is committed to rebuilding the bombers, submarines and missiles that make up America’s nuclear force — even if the price is high.
“We didn’t build new types of nuclear delivery systems for the last 25 years. I think we need to modernize,” Fischer said in an interview Saturday.
But, she added, “I don’t believe our (arsenal) is second-rate.”
Fischer interprets Trump’s call for expansion as support for the modernization program — which, she notes, President Barack Obama also backed.
“I’m not disputing that it’s going to be expensive,” she said, “but we have to make the commitment.”
In spite of Trump’s criticism of the New START treaty, Fischer believes it’s a framework that the U.S. and Russia should stick with.
“I’m not advocating re-looking at these treaties at this point,” the Republican said. “We are on target right now. We need to meet the obligations, and the Russians need to meet the obligations.”
Although Trump has complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin on his toughness and leadership, Fischer said she has no illusions about the threat the Russian leader poses to the U.S., and to his neighbors.
“I think Putin’s a thug,” she said. “We need to be aware of what (the Russians) are doing. We need to monitor them.”
There’s been some talk in recent years — among anti-nuclear activists on the left and budget hawks on the right — about scrapping the air, land and sea triad that has formed the bedrock of nuclear deterrence since the 1960s.
Like his predecessors, Hyten said all three legs of the triad are essential. ICBMs are cheaper and faster to launch, heavy bombers are highly flexible, and submarine-launched missiles are easiest to hide and most likely to survive a first strike.
“Each element of the triad is fundamental to defending ourselves against any threat on the planet today,” Hyten said.
The last nuclear posture review took place soon after Obama’s famous Prague speech in 2009, during which he called for an eventual end to nuclear weapons in the world. It was undergirded by the assumption that Russia wasn’t an adversary, Dodge said, and that a nuclear confrontation with the Russians was unlikely.
“If you assume Russia is friendly, you probably have a different target set,” Dodge said. “Eight years later we kind of have more evidence that it’s not true.”
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, doesn’t know what form Trump’s call for an expanded arsenal will take. He believes the president will quickly run into economic reality if he tries to propose more weapons, or new ones.
“Trump is going to be more than busy trying to find funding for the modernization program,” Kristensen said. “He cannot afford to come in with fantastic new weapons systems in the nuclear realm.”
Reif hopes Trump will stick with Obama’s policy of pledging no new classes of weapons, no new nuclear capabilities, and no new missions for the nuclear force. He believes the current arsenal is more than capable of defending against even a more aggressive Russia.
“There’s been no military requirement, no need to develop new types of warheads or delivery systems,” Reif said. “There aren’t gaps. The alleged gaps are mirages.”