What Trump Doesn’t Know About Nuclear Weapons

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

If there is one thing that Donald Trump knows little or nothing about, it is nuclear weapons, although as he told The Washington Post editorial board on March 21, “The biggest risk for this world and this country is nuclear weapons, the power of nuclear weapons.”

That, however, does not stop him from saying things off-the-cuff about “not taking them off the table” when it comes to using them against the Islamic State, while at another time telling the New York Times, “I would very much not want to be the first one to use them.”

Even when he gave his heralded foreign policy speech April 27, using a teleprompter to read from a prepared script, he showed his – or his staff’s – ignorance by saying, “Our nuclear weapons arsenal – our ultimate deterrent – has been allowed to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization and renewal.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines atrophy as “a wasting away.”

Not only has the U.S. nuclear arsenal not atrophied, it is in the midst of a one trillion dollar modernization program that will keep 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on nuclear submarines, ground-based ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), and strategic bombers into the 2080s under current planning.

Meanwhile, someone should have pointed out to Trump that the U.S. today has some 1,528 nuclear warheads – nearly half on 30-minute alert – deployed on Trident nuclear submarines, Minuteman III ICBMs, and B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers.

Perhaps Trump should talk and Tweet less, and this week listen to House members debate the Energy Department plans for its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA runs the nuclear weapons complex) spending some $9.2 billion in fiscal 2017 on the nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, this week, the Senate is scheduled to debate the Defense Department’s fiscal 2017 spending bill, which contains another $3.2 billion for modernizing nuclear delivery systems.

In fact, more people should pay attention to these debates on nuclear weapons because at last, some serious politicians are coming around to thinking the U.S. may be spending too much on rebuilding the nuclear Triad of strategic bombers and submarines, as well as land-based ICBMs. 

For example, last Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised a question in public that for years one only heard from a minority of people familiar with the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

“Do we really need the entire Triad given this situation?” McCain asked an audience at the Brookings Institute after summarizing what he described as the “very, very, very expensive” costs of a new strategic submarine, plus “tens of billions of dollars” that would be needed for a new long-range, strategic bomber.

It’s all spelled out in a Congressional Budget Office report of March 10, 2016 entitled, “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” by Amy F. Woolf, CBO’s specialist in nuclear weapons policy.

Woolf dramatically points out the growing costs of the Navy’s new strategic submarine, SSBN(X), now called the Ohio-class Replacement Program.

Once expected to cost $6 billion or $7 billion each in 2010 dollars or about $80 billion for 12, a March 2015 Government Accountability report put its cost at about $95.8 billion in 2015 dollars.

Now the Navy expects the total cost to run about $139 billion in current dollars.  

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has told Congress that unless the legislators provide extra funding, “the production of 12 new ships to replace the Ohio-class submarines could ‘gut’ the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for more than a decade.”

That’s hardly the whole story, because one also has to consider modernization of the Trident sub-launched ICBMs and their nuclear warheads.

To reduce costs, the Navy is designing the new submarines to carry only 16 ballistic missile launch tubes. The current subs can carry 24, although that capability will be reduced to 20 to comply with limits of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

Nonetheless, the Navy plans to spend $4.8 billion on modifications for the current Trident II missile over the next five years, having already spent $2.3 billion the past two years in a program that included redesign of the guidance system and missile electronics packages.

There are more costs involved with the nuclear warheads on the Navy’s sub-launched strategic missiles. NNSA is in the midst of spending more than $2 billion on the life extension program for over 2,000 W-76 warheads (which can deliver a 100 kiloton explosion, four times that of Nagasaki) that goes on the Trident missile.

According to Congressional Research Service, the more modern W-88 warhead (with a 475 kiloton yield) is going through a “development engineering phase…to replace the aging arming, fuzing, and firing components” that began three years ago and will run through 2020 at an estimated cost of over $800 million.

If those costs for Navy modernization are not enough, think a bit about the costs associated with updating the Air Force’s land-based strategic bombers, its ICBMs, and the nuclear bombs and warheads that go with them.

As McCain noted above, the costs to develop and build some 100, new, B-21 strategic bombers, has already become a matter of controversy, and it’s only in the early pre-production phase. On October 27, 2015, the Air Force awarded a cost-plus contract to Northrup Grumman to be followed by a firm-fixed-price procurement.

The Air Force had set a price of $550 million per stealth bomber, to be either manned or unmanned. The initial contract to Northrop Grumman was for development, engineering, and manufacturing of the first 21 aircraft, but the actual total cost of the contract was kept classified. At a March 8 Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee hearing, McCain asked Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, “Why shouldn’t the average citizen know the cost of a whatever – how many tens of billons of dollars—$80 billion to $100 billion program?”

In McCain’s mind is the 1990s experience with the B-2 bomber, where the initial buy was to be 132 but ended up at 21, because the price per aircraft had ballooned to $1 billion each.

The B-21 is just the beginning. The Air Force is buying a new B-61-12 nuclear bomb whose costs could top $8 billion and a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile where the cost for the missile and the warhead could top $20 billion.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has spent upwards of $6 billion over the past decade upgrading the present Minuteman III ICBMs and their warheads, while developing plans for a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to replace the entire ICBM system, retaining the silo basing mode but having the flexibility to go mobile. The Air Force plans to spend $3.2 billion on GBSD through fiscal 20121 and perhaps $62.3 billion over the next 30 years.

As even Trump could see, the U.S. nuclear program has not atrophied and will not atrophy under past and future planning – as long as the country can afford it.

What Trump and Hillary Clinton ought to be studying and talking about is whether they should join McCain in questioning whether all these nuclear weapons will be needed in the next 50 or more years. 

I can recall in the 1990s when former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said that 500 deliverable warheads would be enough to deter Russia or any other foreign power. They certainly are no help against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or any other terrorist group, one of today’s major threats.

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