Trump wants to make nuclear weapons easier to use — and his plan is ‘a roadmap for nuclear war’

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“Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
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Getty Images; US Navy; illustration by Business Insider

  • HuffPost has published a leaked, January 2018 draft of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, due out in February.
  • While the document echoes the Obama administration’s nuclear modernization plan, it contains major differences and is laced with “dark perspective.”
  • One reversal is a push for additional “flexible” and “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the US arsenal.
  • One US Senator said the document’s contents “are a roadmap for nuclear war.”

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on January 13, 2018, at 11:15 a.m. ET.

A little more than a year ago, Donald Trump made two of the most alarming statements of his political career. Now they appear poised to become US policy, in light of a government document leaked to HuffPost.

The first statement occurred on December 22, 2016, when Trump tweeted that the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump’s aides claimed he wasn’t starting a nuclear arms race. But he betrayed their spin the following day with a second statement.

“Let it be an arms race,” Trump reportedly told MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski over the phone, adding: “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations have worked for decades to reduce US and global nuclear weapons stockpiles, so Trump’s views represented a reversal of longstanding efforts at denuclearization. Because he was president-elect at the time, doubts existed as to whether he – once sworn in and surrounded by presumably experienced and competent cabinet members – would act on them.

But what little room for doubt is left has shrunk considerably.

The first page of a January 2018 Nuclear Posture Report draft.

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The first page of a January 2018 Nuclear Posture Report draft.
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DoD via HuffPost/DocumentCloud

On Thursday, HuffPost senior reporter Ashley Feinberg published what appears to be a January 2018 draft of the Nuclear Posture Review.

An NPR, as it’s also called, is a roadmap for US nuclear strategy published every four years. It is assembled by the Secretary of Defense, who is currently Jim Mattis, and other administration officials based on the president’s input.

The 64-page document is not a call for stockpiling massive numbers of new atomic bombs, but it outlines the Trump administration’s plans to not only expand nuclear weapons capabilities, but also make the devices eminently easier for military forces to use.

When asked about the document’s authenticity, Feinberg told Business Insider via tweet that it “comports with what industry people/lobbyists/the people quoted in my post have heard and seen.”

A final version of the NPR is slated for publication in February, according to HuffPost, and – given a year of work put into the report – it is unlikely to change much by that time.

And that should frighten us all, with some members of Congress going so far as to label it “a roadmap for nuclear war.”

Why Trump thinks the US needs more nukes

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands before what may be part of a miniaturized thermonuclear warhead.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands before what may be part of a miniaturized thermonuclear warhead.
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KCNA/Reuters

Trump is worried about the nuclear weapons modernization efforts of Russia, which in 2014 violated a key arms reduction treaty. He’s also concerned with North Korea’s maturing intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear test programs.

His tough-guy response to these threats, however, echoes escalatory Cold War-era logic: outmatch your adversaries, or risk a nation-destroying preemptive strike.

For example, during a gathering of national security officials in July 2017, NBC News wrote that Trump said he wanted the US to boost its active stockpile to 1960s levels (a tenfold increase). This was reportedly after Trump was shown a chart of the US nuclear arsenal since 1945, and how its size changed over time.

A chart showing the changes in the size of the US nuclear arsenal by presidential administration over 70 years.

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A chart showing the changes in the size of the US nuclear arsenal by presidential administration over 70 years.
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Federation of American Scientists

His attitude not only ignores disquieting facts about nuclear weapons and risks their proliferation in foreign countries, but also threatens to increase the chances of nuclear accidents and catastrophes.

The draft 2018 NPR is far from a rubber stamp of Trump’s desires. Its goals resemble former President Barack Obama’s 30-year, $1.2-trillion plan to modernize the US nuclear arsenal along with the sorely outdated command-and-control systems required to use the weapons. The text also acknowledges international agreements not to create more weapons.

But the report contains notable differences – such as reversing Obama’s move to limit “low-yield” nukes – and is lined with contradictions and “dark perspective,” arms control experts told HuffPost.

The biggest problem is its logic behind giving the US arsenal more nuclear weapons which pack smaller blasts and are easier to use.

The slippery slope of ‘flexible,’ ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

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US Department Of Energy

The US and Russia have committed to taking thousands of warheads offline since 2010 (as part of the New START treaty). However, technological proliferation can occur when the total number of nuclear weapons decreases.

The new NPR cites the advances in Russia’s battlefield-ready nuclear arms, then effectively reverses the Obama-era position of not making similar “low-yield” and “flexible” nuclear weapons to match them.

“To be clear, this is not intended to, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’ Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression,” the NPR states. “It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.”

But “low-yield” is a misnomer: This category of weapons can rival the atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan in 1945, each of which led to about 100,000 casualties.

Modern low-yield weapons are also easier to deploy than larger, more powerful weapons, leading to a higher likelihood that they will be used in what may have previously been traditional combat. They’re also more accurate.

For example, the US military’s B61-12 gravity bomb – available to fighter jets in 2021 – will recycle four older-style bombs that fell to targets with a precision of about 300-550 feet. But weapons experts say the gravity bomb is effectively a new weapon with new capabilities, since the rebuilt bombs will have new pop-out fins and thrusters to guide them to a target with a precision of under 100 feet.

The military can also “tune” the B61-12’s blast yields from several times higher to several times lower than the first atomic bombs. Submarine cruise missiles with “low-yield” warheads are also in the works, the NPR states.

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has previously criticized the enormous cost of the US nuclear weapons modernization effort, spoke out against the NPR on Wednesday, calling its contents “a roadmap for nuclear war” in a statement.

“Simply put, President Trump wants new nuclear weapons and more ways to use them. We don’t need new nuclear weapons, ‘low yield’ or otherwise, and we certainly should not be creating more ambiguity about the military scenarios in which we might use our nuclear weapons,” Markey said in the statement.” Threatening to use nuclear weapons to respond to and deter conventional threats is unnecessary when we have the most powerful conventional military in the world. President Trump’s approach is destabilizing, makes the world less safe, and increases the risk of nuclear war.”

In addition to lowering the threshold for use and making the taboo against use of any nuclear weapons likely to fall apart, the NPR – if followed – may also increase the chances for catastrophic miscalculation.

People and machines are flawed

Right now, hundreds of US nuclear weapons are already primed to use at a moment’s notice. This dangerous Cold War-era policy means such weapons can be launched within a few minutes of detecting an adversary’s preemptive nuclear strike – or a false signal of one.

Many strategic weapons, like Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) deployed across middle America, can’t be disabled once they leave a silo.

Yet no human creation is perfect. You can build the world’s smartest, most seemingly foolproof machine, and it will still contain flaws. In the case of nuclear weapons systems, such flaws run the risk of accidental launch, detonation, and incredible loss of life.

Tallying up nuclear weapons accidents is exceedingly difficult, especially due to their classified nature, but information that has been released is alarming.

“[M]any dozens of incidents involving nuclear warheads are known to have occurred in the United States – and likely many more that have not been made public,” according to a 2015 fact sheet by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thirty-two known incidents were “broken arrows,” when a nuclear weapon was accidentally launched, fired, detonated, stolen, or lost. Eleven are weapons the US military never recovered, including one of two powerful thermonuclear bombs it accidentally dropped and nearly detonated over North Carolina.

The test launch of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile.

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The test launch of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile.
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USAF

Writer Eric Schlosser has chronicled some of these all-too-common misadventures in “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety“. The 2014 book closely follows the story of a Titan II ICBM that exploded in its silo, nearly setting off a powerful warhead that could have laid waste to Arkansas and nearby states. (The cause? A maintenance worker who accidentally dropped a tool.)

In light of Trump’s statements as president-elect in December 2016, Schlosser revisited some of his book’s material in a recent piece for The New Yorker, in which he described alarming, ongoing technical problems with “aging and obsolete” nuclear weapons and their command-and-control systems.

Schlosser also highlighted the risks of being human. Using Minuteman III system as one example, he wrote for The New Yorker:

“[In 2014], almost a hundred Minuteman launch officers were disciplined for cheating on their proficiency exams. In 2015, three launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, were dismissed for using illegal drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine, and amphetamines. That same year, a launch officer at Minot Air Force Base, in North Dakota, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for heading a violent street gang, distributing drugs, sexually assaulting a girl under the age of sixteen, and using psilocybin, a powerful hallucinogen. As the job title implies, launch officers are entrusted with the keys for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

National leaders who can order nuclear strikes are also fallible humans.

Take Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who publicly rattled his nation’s nuclear sabers in late December after reading (and apparently believing) a fake news article about Israel threatening his country with nuclear weapons.

Making more lower-yield nukes in any country – whether Pakistan or the US – would also heighten the risk of a smaller weapon falling into the hands of terrorists and attacking a city.

What is the solution?

A view of Africa taken by Apollo 11 astronauts on July 20, 1969.

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A view of Africa taken by Apollo 11 astronauts on July 20, 1969.
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NASA/Flickr

The more nuclear weapons that exist – and the easier they are to use – the more likely they are to intentionally or accidentally explode and lead to catastrophe, perhaps a global one.

As Alexandra Bell, a former senior adviser at the State Department and current senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told HuffPost: “[W]e have 4,000 nuclear weapons in our active stockpile, which is more than enough to destroy the world many times over … I don’t think you can make the case that this president needs any more capabilities.”

The solution is not easy but straightforward: Do not expand any nuclear arsenals or their capabilities. Instead, continue to reduce weapons stockpiles, ideally until they are all gone, while making the ones that remain safer.

Plenty of non-nuclear alternatives exist to keep adversarial countries in check until the world rids itself of nukes.

Take cyberwarfare. Given the cleverness and scope of Stuxnet, a computer virus that took down Iran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges, it’s not unreasonable to suggest covert and preemptive attacks on nuclear weapons systems themselves are possible or even ongoing.

Diplomacy, sanctions, embargoes, and treaties may not always be popular, but they have helped prevent countries like Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. They’ve also helped reduce weapons stockpiles by more than a factor of 10. Conventional warfare can also help strip a nation of its nuclear weapons facilities.

Most importantly, however, as Schlosser and others argue, it’s past time that we stop assuming nuclear weapons are safe and irrelevant relics of the Cold War.

Instead, we all need to have frank discussions – in our homes, at work, and with elected officials – about the reality of nuclear weapons, including their numbers, risks, cost, and imminent threat to the future of humanity. Every weapon we dismantle is one step away from the worst kind of mishap imaginable.