By Michael D. Shear and James Glanz
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday on Twitter that the United States should greatly “expand its nuclear capability,” appearing to embrace an end to decades of bipartisan presidential efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defenses and strategy.
Trump’s midafternoon post may have been a response to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who in a speech earlier Thursday called for continued improvement of his country’s nuclear abilities so it can “reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”
Shortly after Putin’s comments were reported by the news media, Trump said on Twitter: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He did not elaborate.
Aides to Trump, asked to clarify what the president-elect meant by the need to “expand” U.S. nuclear ability, responded with a statement that did not address that point.
Jason Miller, the incoming White House communications director, said in a statement that Trump was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it – particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.”
Miller added that the president-elect had in the past “emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
The vagueness of Trump’s Twitter post made it difficult to assess its possible impact on foreign policy once he takes office. Nuclear weapons are so fearsome that only a president can order their use, and deterrence is normally a complicated subject debated in academic treatises and negotiated over years by diplomats, and not normally in thoughts limited to 140 characters.
It remained unclear from his use of the word “expand” whether Trump would try to reverse agreements such as the New START treaty, which Russia and the United States signed in 2010 and commits both nations to modest reductions in strategic nuclear forces.
But the implications of Trump’s post – if it signals the beginning of a new era of U.S. nuclear weapons expansion – could be profound.
The United States and Russia are already racing to modernize their existing nuclear arsenals, replacing aging missile systems with smaller, more modern weapons that are harder to stop and more precise. That effort by Moscow and Washington, while allowed by current arms control treaties, has nonetheless caused fears of a new kind of Cold War-era arms race as the two nations seek technological dominance.
The United States is also moving ahead with a modest system of missile defenses in Europe, a program that has deeply angered the Kremlin, which rejects arguments that it is aimed solely at the threat from Iran.
But if Trump also intends to increase the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, it could represent a significant break in strategic policy that dates to talks between the two nations that began under President Richard Nixon.
It could also be a drastic reversal of President Obama’s approach. In one of his first major speeches in 2009, Obama told a cheering crowd in Prague that the United States would lead an effort to pursue rules and treaties that would result in a world without any nuclear weapons.
“I’m not naive,” Obama said. “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.”
Contrary to Obama’s own conciliatory nuclear posture, and concrete steps in that direction, his administration has also embarked on a sweeping modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that is estimated to cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. It features new factories, refurbished nuclear arms and a new generation of weapon carriers, including bombers, missiles and submarines. The new bombers are to carry a new super-stealthy cruise missile meant to slip through enemy air defenses.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said that he would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons even though he called their potential use “a horror.”
In an interview with the New York Times, the president-elect also suggested that Japan and South Korea might have to obtain their own nuclear weapons, which would be a reversal of U.S. policy that for decades extended promises of protection to allies and foreclosed the need for them to go nuclear.
John Harvey, who from 1995 to 2013 held senior positions overseeing nuclear weapons programs in the energy and defense departments, said Trump’s Twitter post had several possible meanings, ranging from routine to actions that could exceed current treaty limits.
For example, Harvey said, Trump could have simply been voicing support for continuing the “nuclear modernization” program, which is a bipartisan program to upgrade nuclear delivery systems – bombers, land-based missiles and nuclear-missile-carrying submarines – and refurbish existing weapons in the arsenal.
But Trump might also have been suggesting that he wants to substantially increase the number of bombers, missiles and submarines.
“I don’t think we can discern between the two possibilities from what he said,” Harvey said.
Probably less likely, Harvey said, Trump may mean that he intends to increase the number of nuclear warheads in the stockpile, a total that has been limited by treaties with Russia.
David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed dismay at Trump’s choice of Twitter to discuss nuclear weapons policy.
“It’s a pretty blunt instrument to be trying to say something intelligible on what his plans are,” he said. “It sounded to me more like an advertisement to appear to be strong to the world as opposed to an assessment of what the U.S. may or may not need.”