At the end of last year, after he won the election but before he was inaugurated, President-elect Donald Trump decided to proactively set U.S. nuclear policy via Twitter.
âThe United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,â he tweetedÂ Dec. 22. It was an out-of-the-blue declaration that made sense only as a response to a comment that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made earlier in the day, in which Putin suggested that his countryÂ planned to strengthen its own strategic nuclear arsenal.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Trump revisited the issue, declaring that the United States has âfallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity.â He placed some of the blame for this on the 2010 New START agreement, a successor to the 1991 START agreement that was signed by President Barack Obama andÂ aimed at further reducing the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. New START, Trump said, was âanother bad deal that the country made.â
âI am the first one that would like to see nobody have nukes,â he said, âbut weâre never going to fall behind any country even if itâs a friendly country. Weâre never going to fall behind on nuclear power.â
âIf countries are going to have nukes, weâre going to be at the top of the pack,â he added.
During his daily news briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the comments by Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.
âWhat he was very clear on is that the United States will not yield its supremacy in this area to anybody,â Spicer said. âThatâs what he made very clear in there. And that if other countries have nuclear capabilities, it will always be the United States that has the supreme â¦ supremacy and commitment to this.â
âObviously, thatâs not what weâre seeking to do,â he continued, apparently referring to expanding the nuclear arsenal. âThe question that was asked was about other people growing their stockpiles. And I think what he has been clear on is that our goal is to make sure that we maintain Americaâs dominance around the world and that if other countries flout it, we donât sit back and allow them to grow theirs.â
Thereâs a reason that the United States is cutting nuclear deals with Russia, of course: Only our two countries have nuclear arsenals of any significance. Itâs a bit like Paul McCartney and John Lennon entering a music competition against two Nickelback cover bands and Jimmy Buffett. There are really only two people in the running.
While itâs impossible to know exactly how many nuclear weapons each nuclear nation has (such things are generally not public information), the Federation of American Scientists puts together estimates. Per its numbers, the United States has an arsenal of about 6,800 weapons to Russiaâs 7,000 â with the next most heavily equipped nation being France at 300.
AÂ lot of considerations come into play when assessing nuclear arsenals, including the nuclear triad, the tripartite delivery system the military relies on for delivery. The Obama administration had proposed modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the triad, though it later sought to scale that back.
The position of the United StatesÂ and Russia as defined in the New START agreement was that both nations desired to âforge a new strategic relationship based on mutual trustâ and, therefore, work to âbring their respective nuclear postures into alignment with this new relationshipâ and âto reduce further the role and importance of nuclear weapons.â
Itâs not clear where Trump sees a threat to our nuclear position, if not from Russia. Itâs not as though North Koreaâs nascent nuclear program is going to suddenly challenge our own, necessitating a quick ramp-up in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. If Trumpâs concerned about Russia having slightly more nuclear weapons than us, well, it has for some time.
According to the FAS, Russia (then the Soviet Union) had passed the United StatesÂ in the size of its nuclear arsenal before Ronald Reagan took office.
Trumpâs assertions in December and to Reuters fit with his broad policy toward military strength: peace through dominance. While Spicer is correct that this doesnât necessarily mean an immediate build-up of nuclear capability, it continues to represent a break from Trumpâs predecessors â and from the negotiated New START agreement, which remains in effect until February 2018.