Donald Trump’s Nuclear Envy Problem, and Ours
The Republican front-runner isn't the only one stoking fears about Russian missiles. But size doesn’t matter when it comes to nuclear arsenals.
Look, it’s a long time until November, and Donald Trump is going to say a lot of stupid things about nuclear weapons in the intervening months. I am not really sure how many columns I want to write about the terrifying idea of his stubby finger on the nuclear button.
But he’s gone and done it again. This time, during a rambling speech in Atlanta best known for a Twitter account of the crowd, Trump said, “Our nuclear is old. Putin’s is tippy-top, from what I hear. We’ve got to be careful.”
I feel like I should say something.
I’ve already written one column on Trump’s nuclear musings, in which I tried to make the rather subtle point that The Donald’s views on the bomb, while expressed brazenly, do not radically depart in substance from a lot of what passes for “thoughtful” nuclear deterrence analysis. I didn’t mean that as a compliment, either to Trump or the field of nuclear strategy.
The “tippy top” comment is, in fact, a further example of precisely the same phenomenon – an instance where Trump’s statement differs only in rhetoric, not in substance, from the views of most so-called nuclear weapons experts. If his words are plain and vulgar, perhaps that’s because our conceptions about nuclear weapons strategy are equally so. We are talking about mass murder, after all.
This is Trump’s gift. He is unmatched as a spirit guide to the dark recesses of our brains, the place that convinces us the best guarantor of peace and security is the unending and permanent threat of nuclear holocaust.
So let’s do this: Every time Trump puts his elfin finger on something uncomfortable about our nuclear strategy, I’ll see if I can use it to illustrate something deep and enduring about how we think about nuclear weapons. Oh, and stupid. Something deep, enduring, and stupid about how we think about nuclear weapons.
The notion that Russia’s nuclear weapons are tippy-top, while ours are not, is the perfect place to start.
There is probably no idea about nuclear weapons that is simpler, older — or more harmful — than the idea that we ought to measure our nuclear weapons against theirs. The idea is a simple one, and it befits Trump, a man who sincerely seems to believe that size matters in all things. But Trump isn’t alone. Consider the debate six years ago over the New START arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia. Bob Joseph, a former Bush administration official, testified that the agreement put the United States “at risk of sacrificing or changing … a nuclear posture second to none.” Joseph then took a jab at the treaty with a little pun, “I think we are approaching a nuclear posture second to one.” It struck me as a pretty dumb line, so naturally Joseph committed to using it all the time. A couple of years later, Joseph used the “second to one” catchphrase again in an article, and the editors at the National Review liked it so much they used it as the title.
The worry about being “second to one” is as old as the arms race – which is to say, as old as nuclear weapons themselves. From the beginning of the Cold War, there was an understandable impulse to measure American nuclear forces against those of the Soviet Union. If you know one thing about the arms race, it is probably the infamous “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy alluded to during the 1960 presidential election – which turned out, contrary to his claims, to be running in our favor.
The line that Joseph used to great effect in 2010 isn’t even his. It belongs to the late James Schlesinger and dates to at least the mid-1970s. That was the period when the Soviet nuclear buildup finally erased whatever illusion of superiority we might have held and comparisons of the nuclear balance reached peak silliness.
This debate about whether the United States was winning or losing the arms race unfolded inside government and out, but nowhere was the question tackled more memorably than in a series of articles in Foreign Policy over six issues in 1974-1975 — back when Foreign Policy was published in that slim format designed to slip into a man’s suit pocket. (Ladies, it seems, need not have bothered their pretty heads with such difficult talk.) The opening salvo was a pair of articles by Albert Wohlstetter arguing that there was no arms race because the United States was not competing. We had simply conceded nuclear superiority, Wohlstetter wrote in his inimitable hyperbolic style, to the Soviets.
Those two articles set the tone for much of the conservative assault during the 1970s on efforts to negotiate arms limits with the Soviets. One result of Wohlstetter’s campaigning was an unusual exercise called Team B, in which the CIA empaneled a group of outside experts who criticized it for underestimating the Soviet threat. And by “outside experts” I mean a Stars Wars cantina of hawks whose minds had been made up. Those estimates are now declassified. They don’t fare very well in hindsight. (I’ll leave the detailed assessment to Anne Hessing Cahn.) The important point is that, right or wrong, the Team B exercise provided the political support necessary for the defense buildup that we now associate with the Reagan administration.
The many articles written and published in response to Wohlstetter’s missives, in Foreign Policy and elsewhere, argued endlessly over details about how to compare forces and whether we were behind. How do you measure nuclear superiority? Sheer numbers of weapons? The total mass of weapons than can be delivered by missiles in throw-weight? The total explosive force of the weapons in mega-tonnage? What about other measures? The average age of the weapons? Accuracy? They make for a fascinating window into a very strange debate at a very strange time.
One of the replies, however, stands out for its elegance. Rather than being drawn into the absurd exercise in nuclear bean-counting, Paul Warnke wondered about the vey metaphor of a race that was essential to the entirety of Wohlstetter’s argument. “A true race needs a finish line.” Warnke had a very different metaphor in mind for the arms competition between the United States and the Soviet Union: “Maybe the continued expenditure of billions for quantitative additions and qualitative improvements does not bring doomsday any closer,” Warnke said. “Instead, it may be that we are jogging in tandem on a treadmill to nowhere.”
Warnke’s metaphor was a vivid illustration of his point. The editor of Foreign Policy at the time, Richard Holbrooke, went the added mile by titling the article “Apes on a Treadmill.” The text contained no references to primates other than our own sad species — which is to say, blame, or credit as it were, for the subsequent anger it inspired in policymakers and nuclear wonks probably belongs to Holbrooke.
(Actually, to say people were angry is an understatement. A few years later, when Jimmy Carter nominated Warnke to be director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, his opponents attacked him in the pages of FP, and in testimony before Congress. Paul Nitze’s testimony against Warnke was particularly hostile, leading a congressman to ask if Nitze really meant to impugn Warnke’s “character as an American citizen.” “If you force me to, I do,” Nitze responded. Not planning to ever subject myself to confirmation for anything, I dream of writing something that makes a modern-day Nitze so angry that he accuses me of being a bad American.)
The notion that we are falling behind isn’t a purely rational judgment so much as a pose. As the debate about arms limitations unfolded, proponents of negotiating with the Soviets found a fairly simple way to let the air out of claims that U.S. nuclear forces were inferior to those of the Soviets. Time and again, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, members of Congress asked military and defense officials a variant of: “If the Soviets are superior, does that mean you would prefer to trade nuclear forces with them?” That question was asked of both chairmen of the Joint Chiefs during the period – David Jones and John Vessey – and both said no, they would not trade. Even Caspar Weinberger declined to trade, citing the “immense edge in technology” of American nuclear forces. Les Gelb has said that he consistently asked military officers the same question over a 25- to 30-year period and never got a different answer. (I have shamelessly ripped off the same line during congressional testimony.)
Over time, the sort of folks who are worried about falling behind our nuclear competitors have gotten a little smarter about how they stoke fears of Russian superiority. A few years ago, the Bush administration made an argument for maintaining numerical parity with Russia and a significant advantage over China in terms of the number of deployed strategic warheads. The administration didn’t even bother to try to argue that parity inherently mattered, it simply asserted that our allies would be unnerved if we didn’t maintain the perception of equivalence. I am usually skeptical of such arguments — invoking the views of “allies” in a nuclear debate should make us as suspicious as when someone asks for advice, or a favor, on behalf of “a friend.” It manages to elide the substantive question of why parity should matter by simply asserting that it does, assigning that view to an abstract interlocutor who can’t be interrogated, and demanding you take the speaker’s word that his imaginary friend is deeply concerned about the nuclear balance.
Imaginary friends have many virtues, particularly their amenability. While arguing that the United States should maintain parity in deployed strategic weapons with Russia, the Bush administration also dramatically reduced the U.S. nuclear stockpile without requiring Russia to do the same. Our imaginary friends were totally fine with this. Unexplained is why parity in deployed strategic forces matters more than parity in the stockpile, particularly since Russia retains many thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. Presumably, our imaginary friends would be unnerved by the substantial Russian advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, but what I do know? I guess I don’t get invited to the right conferences.
The point is that all these arguments are rarely about the underlying facts, but rather whether facts can be marshaled in support of nuclear wonks’ typical preferred policy – nuclear modernization. The Team B experiment was 40 years ago – and that means the nuclear forces that were built upon its assessments during the Carter and Reagan administrations are now reaching the end of their service lives and must be replaced. As part of the political deal to win support in the Senate for the New START treaty, the Obama administration committed to the simultaneous modernization of all three legs of the triad – a fleet of new ballistic missile submarines (the SSBN-X), new bombers and cruise missiles (B-21/LRSO), and a replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM. Washington is in the middle of another debate about superiority and inferiority because it is time to make big decisions about how much money to spend.
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where I work, has gotten a lot of attention –good and bad — for our guess that the 30-year cost estimate for the Obama administration’s rather ambitious modernization effort will clock in at about 1 trillion bucks. Whether we are right or not, a more immediate problem is whether the replacement schedule can be executed at any cost. The problem is that the Defense Department needs to replace all these systems at the same time and on schedule, or existing systems will begin to age out faster than they can be replaced. The fact that all the programs peak around the same time has prompted some defense officials who support a robust modernization effort, like John Harvey, to warn of a so-called modernization mountain looming in the late 2020s. Trying to replace all three legs of the triad is pretty much a guaranteed path to deep cuts.
Enter Trump’s warning that our nuclear is old, while Putin’s is “tippy-top.” It isn’t any different from more respectable justifications for undertaking an impossible modernization – Bob Joseph’s warning that we’ll be “second to one” or the Bush administration’s concern that our forces might be “perceived as inferior.”
A few years back, I gave Harvey — who is, to be fair, really a pretty decent guy and one of the few people genuinely willing to work on a nonpartisan basis for any administration — a hard time about one of the slides in a PowerPoint presentation he had developed to justify a replacement nuclear warhead. I removed all the words from it, leaving just the two images he had used as illustration — one representing “legacy” warheads in a burnt orange that faintly evoked rust, another representing a replacement warhead as nice and shiny. One might even say it looked tippy-top. The words on the slide weren’t the real message.
Too often the question left unasked in our finely tuned analyses of nuclear quality and nuclear superiority is: So what? Why would deterrence require that weapons be tippy-top? Would it matter if you were incinerated with a new shiny warhead rather than an old rusty one? These comparisons are ultimately appeals to emotion, not logic. And those appeals work only if we accept the metaphor that the nuclear dilemma is a race and our only escape is to cross the finish line first. But what if Warnke had it right? What if there is no finish line other than nuclear catastrophe and that the United States and Russia are jogging in tandem on a treadmill? What do we do then?
Warnke had an answer to that. “We can be first off the treadmill,” he wrote. “That’s the only victory the arms race has to offer.”
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images