President-Elect Donald Trump has signalled that a number of things that he views as the legacy of the Obama Presidency are likely to be in his sights when he enters the White House. The most obvious of these is “Obamacare.” But other areas of Obama’s legacy are also rapidly coming into the cross hairs of the incoming administration. One of these is the modernization of the United States’ nuclear weapons program.
Using his now established “Twitter Diplomacy,” the President-Elect announced just before Christmas that, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Such comments have sent shock waves across the international community. Whereas President Obama laid out his vision of gradual progress towards a nuclear free world in his speech in Prague in 2009, the President-Elect seems, on the face of his remarks, to be setting out on a very different course — one that has echoes of the Cold War.
Of all the words used by the President-Elect in his Tweets, reference to “expand(ing)” the American nuclear arsenal is perhaps the one of greatest interest. Few commentators working in the field of nuclear weapons, and very few members of the public, have a problem with the idea of modernizing nuclear weapons.
Maintaining an effective deterrent crucially depends upon a regular process of updating elements of the devices. As with all weapon systems, nuclear weapons age. They need components replaced. This in and of itself is not an issue. There is, however, another problem; Russia has been deploying its own Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities through the development of the S-500 missile system. The use of such a defense system changes the strategic balance.
As the United Kingdom found out in the early 1970’s, reliance on one submarine to maintain a national strategic deterrent has its limits. An expenditure of 1.3 billion pounds (around $7 billion in today’s prices) was required to ensure the Polaris missile system could remain effective when faced by the Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system located around Moscow.
This, however, was a system that was compliant with the 1972 Helsinki Agreement on the deployment of ABM systems. With its new development of the S-500 system, though, Russia is moving closer to abrogating that treaty, not to mention its withdrawal from the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty signed in July 1992.
This occurred in two stages. Russia first suspended its participation in the treaty when it came up for renewal in 2007. It then “suspended” its participation in the treaty in March 2015 – citing NATO’s de-facto breach of the treaty through its move eastwards as new states joined the alliance. It seems the straws in the wind are suggesting that yet more treaties that created stability in the nuclear security landscape are potentiallygoing to be abrogated unilaterally. One of those at risk is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The CTBT was opened for signature in 1996. Since then, 166 nations have ratified the treaty. Seventeen states have signed, but not ratified the treaty, including the United States, which has voluntarily observed a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing since 1992.
Of the three countries that have not signed the treaty, only North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests. These have quickly been detected and registered by the network of nearly 300 seismic sensors in place around the world. Data recorded by these sensors is then transmitted to an international data center operated by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna for onward routing to signatories of the CTBT.
But to modernize a nuclear weapons program, or perhaps “expand” a country’s capabilities, the need to conduct tests re-surfaces to validate the designs that have been developed. By tweeting the remark that he did, the President-Elect quite literally opened the metaphorical can of worms. Other countries may also feel they can consider withdrawing from the treaty.
Such a perception is readily re-affirmed by the President-Elect’s spokesman Jason Miller. In a statement to NBC News, he stated Trump was emphasizing the “need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
This is a theme that echoes past administrations’ viewpoints on nuclear weapons. But that was during the height of the Cold War. Surely, the President-Elect does not want to see a return to the tense nuclear stand-off that existed after the Cuban Missile Crisis and before the break-up of the Soviet Union. In classic military parlance, that could be considered to be an unintended consequence.
President Obama’s remarks in Prague resulted in a re-appraisal of America’s nuclear posture. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was based upon five key objectives. Arguably, as far as President Obama was concerned, and his subsequent actions in driving forward international initiatives on reducing the risks from nuclear proliferation and the smuggling of illicit radioactive material, the focus was on preventing nuclear proliferation and the associated risk of nuclear terrorism.
The language emerging from Trump’s transition team is different. It appears to downgrade that focus and shift it to building up nuclear weapons capabilities, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, President-Elect Trump ventured well beyond established “norms” of nuclear proliferation policy when he suggested that Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons and that he would “support” such a move.
Should the President-Elect wish to re-write the Obama nuclear doctrine – and his remarks suggests that he does – then many established facets of nuclear policy come under scrutiny. What have been regarded as cornerstones of United States policy with respect to nuclear weapons are suddenly no longer sacrosanct.
Whereas Obama was able to make policy against the overly optimistic backdrop of the world in 2009 where NPR noted, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries,” that situation has changed. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine have fundamentally changed the geo-strategic landscape.
This is a situation compounded by President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy nuclear-capable SS-26 Iskander (NATO Code Name Stone) missiles into the enclave of Kaliningrad, posing a direct threat to a number of different European capitals such as Berlin, Warsaw and all of the Baltic States. For many in NATO capitals, the language and actions of the Cold War have just returned. All they have to do is to replace the SS-26 with its predecessor the SS-20.
In such a fluid situation, unilateral withdrawal from the CTBT is one such possibility. But there are others, anyone of which might indicate that the potential for an increasingly harmonious relationship with Russia, a centerpiece of the Trump doctrine, is a forlorn cause. After all, within hours of the President-Elect tweeting his remarks, Putin issued his own statement confirming Russia’s intent to continue to modernize its strategic nuclear forces.
Despite all the warm rhetoric surrounding the potential relationship between Washington under President Trump and Moscow,the reality is very different. Dark clouds are creating a forbidding nuclear security landscape as the transition team move into the White House.
Perhaps before the next line in Twitter Diplomacy emerges from the hand of the President-Elect, he might like to reflect upon the unintended consequences of shaking the roots of nuclear deterrent doctrine, which as a fundamental guarantor of international peace and security, has not done too badly since 1945.
Dr. Dave Sloggett, Contributing Writer, has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues and supporting law enforcement and military organizations in the United Kingdom and US State Department and Department of Defense. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban and Drone Warfare.