If Trump Can Figure Out How to Pay for $1 Trillion of New Nukes, God Bless Him

The president-elect wants a shiny, new nuclear football to play with. But he doesn’t realize what it’s going to cost him.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - DECEMBER 9: President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - DECEMBER 9: President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Well, look at that. Donald Trump just wrote a Nuclear Posture Review in 140 characters.

Well, look at that. Donald Trump just wrote a Nuclear Posture Review in 140 characters.

It was a tight fit. Trump had to use every single one of those 140 characters. There was not even room for a period to punctuate the sentence. Or for an emoji. That’s too bad. I think a ? would have really summarized the sentiment.

As we collectively freak out about an apparent promise to increase the U.S. nuclear arsenal, I think we are misreading Trump.

The context of the tweet is clearly the series of meetings he had at his Mar-a-Lago resort. You see, Trump invited a glittering gaggle of generals and admirals — “I met some really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS today … Very impressive people!” — to discuss reducing the costs of various defense programs. (Yes, Trump invited the brass to his 128-room Palm Beach mansion to discuss the importance of economizing.)

Trump’s primary target appears to be the F-35 program. He’s now tweeting about replacing the F-35 with an F/A-18 buy. In this context, Trump’s comment about greatly expanding and strengthening U.S. nuclear capabilities is more about not cutting them than evidence of any well-thought-out plan to grow the nuclear stockpile.

Of course, Trump will now double down on what he said. When he was told his efforts to shake down Japan and South Korea would lead them to build a bomb, Trump said Tokyo and Seoul could enjoy themselves. Now he’s reportedly responding to warnings that he’s starting an arms race by saying, “Let it be an arms race.” He never cops to saying the wrong thing.

But it’s the F-35 that is Trump’s target. And The Donald wants us to know his apparent concern about the cost of certain military systems does not extend to the nuclear triad.

And why should it? When Trump talks about nuclear weapons, he has a tendency to enviously describe Vladimir Putin’s nuclear force. Remember that bit about Russia’s nuclear being “tippy top”? It’s clear to me that, for Trump, one of the great perks of being president is having his stubby little finger on the button of a great and glorious nuclear arsenal. For Trump, the bomb serves the same function as Mar-a-Lago or a trophy wife. The ability to end the world in a matter of minutes is the ultimate status symbol. Sure, he might be asking Boeing for a deal on Air Force One or trying to wring some savings on the F-35, but when it comes to his personal luxuries, The Donald spares no expense.

And thus the tweet. But it is an interesting question whether Trump could, if he wanted, “greatly strengthen and expand [U.S.] nuclear capability.”

The United States is attempting to replace all three legs of its strategic “triad” of nuclear forces: bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. These programs include the new B-21 bomber, a new cruise missile called the LRSO, the Columbia-class submarine, and nascent plans for a new ground-based strategic deterrent. Also, I should note that the United States is modernizing the delivery system for its sole tactical nuclear weapons capability — by purchasing the F-35. Yup. The one Trump wants to cut.

Along with some colleagues at the Middlebury Institute, we added up the official estimates for the full cost of all these programs and got something like $1 trillion. Former Defense Secretary William Perry thinks we’re right, but if you don’t like that number it’s OK. The Congressional Budget Office calculated the costs at a mere $348 billion over the next 10 years, which is right before we think the really big expenses kick in.

As I have warned, the problem isn’t $1 trillion averaged over something like 25 or 30 years. It’s what defense officials are calling the modernization mountain — a period of very high expenditures during the late 2020s.

Trump might think that modernizing the deterrent is like renovating a dilapidated mansion or building a casino, but it’s far more complicated than that. Modernizing the nuclear deterrent requires a stunning level of project management — simultaneously executing multiple defense programs that must remain on schedule and on budget over several decades.

The existing force of bombers, submarines, and missiles is set to reach the end of its operational lifespan at about the same time. That means the United States must replace, more or less simultaneously, all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad. If these replacement programs go over budget and fall behind schedule, it means the number of U.S. nuclear weapons will start to fall as systems age out before their replacements are ready. So there’s some real need here.

But plenty of Pentagon officials worry that the modernization of nuclear systems will start to choke other priorities. There are plenty of signs that the Navy and Air Force realize this, which is why both have pushed to move spending on nuclear systems out of their service budgets into a separate bucket. It’s also why officials like Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, joked that Obama administration officials had no idea how to pay for planned modernization and were “thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.”

The problem isn’t, as Republicans allege, that Obama is not dedicated to spending what it takes. The problem is that the current modernization plan, as implied by the promises made to win Senate ratification of the New START treaty, is an unexecutable political commitment that neither Obama nor his opponents in Congress have had the courage to face squarely. If the metaphor is a modernization mountain, then my prediction is that the story ends like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. There is a moment when the climbers realize that they can’t summit Everest in time to avoid the storm. And yet they keep going. For the most part, they pay for it with their lives.

We’re now at the same point, realizing just how far we are from the mountain’s summit and how the fiscal winds have shifted against us. This summer, I wrote, “The Obama administration might not be in office when the bills come due, but someone will.” I had hopes that Hillary Clinton would have to “make the hard choices about where to modernize and where to economize,” but some number of my fellow citizens disagreed. And Trump’s tweet shows he plans to keep charging up the mountain, even as the storm clouds gather.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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