5 February 2018

Trump's Troubling Nuclear Plan

By Adam Mount

Like President Donald Trump, the Pentagon’s new nuclear policy document sees a dark and threatening world. It argues that potential U.S. adversaries such as China, North Korea, and Russia are rapidly improving their nuclear capabilities and gaining an edge over the United States. But rather than laying out a plan to halt this slide into a more dangerous world and working to decrease reliance on nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) hastens its rise by accepting the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and affirmatively embracing nuclear competition. 

The central claim of the Nuclear Posture Review is that the United States must expand its reliance on nuclear weapons to protect the country and its allies—a complete reversal of the Obama administration’s effort to reduce reliance. To this end, the NPR proposes not only replacing an aging nuclear arsenal but further “supplement[ing]” it with two new missiles. It expands the circumstances in which the United States would consider employing nuclear weapons to include the ambiguously termed “non-nuclear strategic attacks” against infrastructure. 

The review also includes a litany of other measures that could usher in a future in which nuclear competition is commonplace: increasing capacity to produce plutonium pits in case the United States urgently needs to expand its arsenal dramatically; training conventional forces to fight alongside nuclear ones; improving the readiness of the 150 or so nuclear weapons stationed in Europe for what had been symbolic reasons; and a new distrust of arms control measures, to name a few. 

Uncharacteristically, the review contains several clumsy, contradictory, and misleading statements. For example, it gives opposing standards for deciding when the 1970s-era B83 1.2 megaton gravity bomb should be retired. Even prior to the review’s release, there were concerns that Trump’s retaliatory stance would raise the possibility of a disproportionate use of nuclear force, such as against a cyberattack. General Paul J. Selva, the nation’s second-ranking military officer, was forced to deny such claims as “fundamentally untrue.” (However,

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