Donald Trump tweeted about nuclear weapons on Thursday, and it went about as well as might be expected, with reporters hurriedly seeking explanations from his communications team, arms control experts puzzling over the president-elect’s cryptic words, and a fair amount of we’re-all-going-to-die-in-atomic-fire from Twitter users apparently not overfond of the incoming administration.
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump wrote.
The president did not spell out what he meant by “strengthen and expand,” nor what it means for the world to “comes to its senses.” It was not immediately clear what sparked the abrupt pronouncement from the man who will have his finger on the nuclear trigger shortly after midday on Jan. 20.
But Trump transition team communications director Jason Miller told Yahoo News by email that the president-elect “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.”
And, Miller said, Trump believes in “the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
Trump met on Wednesday with the CEOs of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, something that led one CNBC contributor to wonder whether the tweet had something to do with those companies’ lucrative military contracts. But he also met that same day with a dozen senior military officers, including Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, who specializes in nuclear deterrence.
And just a few hours before Trump’s abrupt announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Moscow needed to pump up its own atomic arsenal.
“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems,” the Kremlin strongman said.
Trump’s official transition website includes a nuclear mission statement of sorts but no details. “A Trump Administration also recognizes the uniquely catastrophic threats posed by nuclear weapons and cyber attacks. Mr. Trump will ensure our strategic nuclear triad is modernized to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent,” the statement reads.
Concerns about the state of U.S. nuclear weapons, designed and built when Washington and Moscow faced off in the Cold War, are bipartisan.
“If we don’t replace these systems, quite simply they will age even more, and become unsafe, unreliable, and ineffective,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in a Sept. 26 speech at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
“The fact is, most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives. So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping them — it’s really a choice between replacing them or losing them,” Carter said, standing in front of a B-52 bomber apparently loaded with cruise missiles.
President Obama, for all of his passionate talk about reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles, has put the country on course for a nuclear modernization effort with a price tag in the hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps as much as a trillion. In order to win Senate approval of his New START arms control agreement with Russia, the president also promised billions to upgrade America’s nuclear research facilities.
During the campaign, Obama questioned Trump’s fitness to manage the U.S. nuclear arsenal. One of the real estate entrepreneur’s rivals for the GOP nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio, warned against giving the nuclear codes to “an erratic individual.”
While the transition website message on nuclear weapons is orthodox, many of Trump’s campaign-trail comments were anything but. He suggested that allies such as South Korea and Japan might need to pay the United States more under military cost-sharing plans if they hoped to remain covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or that they might need to get their own nuclear weapons. He suggested he might be open to using nuclear weapons against the so-called Islamic State. He appeared not to know what the nuclear “triad” is — the mix of submarine, land-based, and bomber-carried missiles that the United States relies on. He said using nuclear weapons is “an absolute last stance” but in the same breath said he would aim to be “unpredictable.”
While the issue of whether and how to modernize the country’s stockpile was never front and center in the campaign, Trump did note his concerns about keeping up with Moscow.
“Our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen,” Trump said during the second debate with Hillary Clinton. “Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.”