Trump’s Security Strategy and the New Nuclear World

Trump’s Security Strategy and the New Nuclear World
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The Trump administration will release its National Security Strategy on Monday, December 18. This white paper, required by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, is the most authoritative guide to America’s allies and adversaries alike about the administration’s approach to foreign policy. Likewise, the Pentagon is also scheduled to release its Nuclear Posture Review by the end of the year, which outlines what the role of America’s nuclear weapons in its overall strategy should be. These reports will shed critical light on the White House’s strategic worldview and how the administration will seek to address the rapid deterioration of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Growing Nuclear Threats

North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs have dominated headlines in recent years and will no doubt figure prominently in Monday’s release. However, the administration should also take note of the growing strategic challenges from existing nuclear states.  Pentagon officials reportedly fear that Russia is planning to expand its own arsenal to as many as 8,000 deployed warheads a decade from now.  Moscow has also systematically violated arms control agreements throughout its history, but most recently has breached the 1987 INF Treaty by testing and deploying missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers.

Not to be outdone, the Department of Defense reports that China is “is developing and testing several new variants of missiles, forming additional missile units, retiring or upgrading older missile systems;  and developing  methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.” Furthermore, as the National Institute for Public Policy noted, “China is expanding its strategic nuclear forces; the question is the limit of that expansion,” the Obama administration estimated it to be “several hundred,” while some independent estimates are far higher. The administration should inform this debate with a fresh analysis and detail how it will attempt to reverse Beijing’s efforts to strategically dominate the Western Pacific.

Furthermore, both the Carnegie Endowment and Stimson Center assess that Pakistan will triple its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, even while it is beset with challenges from radical Islamists. Other states are also considering expanding their nuclear program. Saudi Arabia announced in October that it would domestically extract uranium as part of a “self-sufficient” nuclear program. U.S. policymakers are concerned that Riyadh has even greater nuclear ambitions.  The Daily Beast reported in 2014 that the Saudis have sought to master all elements of the fuel cycle, including enrichment, and in recent years “has quietly been developing the engineering and scientific knowledge base” to do so, and is “hiring the scientists and engineers needed to build the cascades of centrifuges needed to produce nuclear fuel.”

North Korea, in a worst-case estimate by the U.S-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, may have enough material for as many as 100 nuclear weapons by the end of this decade. In light of these troubling advances, South Korea’s conservative opposition leader, Hong Joon-pyo, is calling for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the country or creating nuclear weapons of their own. According to recent public opinion polling, 68 percent of South Koreans support the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the peninsula and 60 percent support South Korea developing nuclear weapons of its own.

A New Approach for a New Century

As the third decade of the twenty-first century approaches, the nuclear world bears little resemblance to the dyad of the Cold War. Instead, there will be several nuclear-armed with significant stockpiles, and several more states that are either nuclear-capable or pursuing capability. For this new environment, the United States needs craft a new approach to defend the United States and our allies and restore confidence in America’s nuclear deterrent.

The simplest and most necessary action that Washington can take is bolstering its missile defense systems. Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council notes that over the past decade, “spending on US homeland missile defense has actually decreased by roughly 46 percent from $3.7 billion to $2 billion.” If the U.S. is to quantitatively and qualitatively remain ahead of the growing nuclear threat, then it will require substantial re-investment in our missile defense budget. For instance, as Michaela Dodge from the Heritage Foundation observes, the United States will have only 44 ground-based interceptors (GBI) deployed next year, and they are the only U.S. system capable of intercepting an ICBM in the middle of its flight. “Current interceptor inventory plans,” she warns, “do not support sustainment at this level past 2018, leaving the impression that the ballistic missile threat will diminish by then. That is unlikely … The United States ought to plan for sustaining 44 deployed interceptors at a minimum.”

An April 2017 report from the Atlantic Council outlined additional measures that the United States can take to rebuild its missile defense capability. A first step would be to complete and fill the planned missile fields in Fort Greely, Alaska, which would allow America to maintain as many as 104 GBIs. The United States could also establish an interceptor site on the East Coast, which would allow for as many as 60 more GBIs. The Trump administration should also consider pursuing new technologies to reduce America’s reliance on the GBI system and create a truly-layered shield against attack, including boost-phase intercept, directed energy, and space-based sensors or interceptors.

President Trump has also pledged to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in November that this effort would cost $40 billion a year for the next 30 years. The CBO finds that the “total cost of nuclear forces would represent about 6 percent of all spending on national defense over the 2017–2046 period.” This is a value, however, when one recognizes the unique and essential role that America’s nuclear weapons play in its national security. A bipartisan group of former civilian and military leaders determined in 2014 that America’s strategic forces “continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring U.S. allies and partners around the world.” In light of the “looming obsolescence” of America’s nuclear arsenal, the panel found that modernization of the force is “essential.” It is vital that the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review reiterate this message for fiscal conservatives in Congress, who remain wary of increases to defense spending. In the words of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “America can afford survival.”

Finally, while the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review will likely outline the administration’s approach to Iran and North Korea, they should also emphasize the importance of rolling them back to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime. As these regimes advance their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, other rogue states may feel emboldened to pursue their own such programs, and the faith of U.S. allies in America’s nuclear deterrent may dwindle.  The Trump administration’s policy should be the complete and verifiable denuclearization of both countries, and it should pursue every method to establish sufficient leverage against Tehran and Pyongyang to compel them to do so.


In 1963, President John F. Kennedy warned that “I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, 15 or 20.” His efforts and his successors helped slow the spread of nuclear weapons, but now his nightmare of a rapidly proliferating world is becoming a reality. The National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review will be vital in showing if the president shares Kennedy’s fear and what his administration will do to address it.

Evan Moore is a foreign policy analyst based in Washington, D.C.

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