Will Congress Let Trump Build More Nuclear Weapons?

The administration and Capitol Hill are on a collision course over the future of U.S. nukes.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on April 26. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley)
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on April 26. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley)

President Donald Trump’s plan to expand America’s nuclear arsenal is encountering sharp opposition in the Democratic House of Representatives, with critics saying the administration is creating unnecessary risks to world peace—particularly by adding new tactical nuclear weapons that can be used in a conventional war.

The debate is potentially set to come to a head in June, when the House will begin marking up the annual defense policy bill.

The clash comes at a pivotal moment for global arms control. The Trump administration is seriously considering dismantling at least one treaty with Russia that has set arms control policy for the past 30 years. Meanwhile, China, which is largely unbound by Cold War-era arms control agreements, is swiftly building up its military arsenal, including both nuclear and conventional missiles. And in the background, North Korea and Iran are both developing their own nuclear arsenals.

The question Congress and the administration must resolve is one that has been at the core of arms control debates for decades and has no easy answer: If potential adversaries begin to challenge U.S. dominance in nuclear weapons, is the world safer with an unmatched U.S. deterrent, or without it?

Former President Barack Obama initiated the current plan to modernize America’s aging arsenal of nuclear weapons: the Air Force’s bombers, nuclear cruise missiles, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as the Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines. In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Obama administration’s plan to replace and maintain the arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion, including $400 billion for modernization alone. Congress largely supported Obama’s plan.

But in 2016, then-President-elect Trump signaled a shift in strategy, tweeting that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” Trump released a new Nuclear Posture Review in February 2018 that reaffirmed and expanded the Obama administration’s modernization plan, calling for new warheads and missiles, including additional tactical nuclear weapons, in order to maintain an effective deterrent against Russia’s and China’s expanding arsenals.

Trump’s new plan is expected to cost almost $500 billion over 10 years—an increase of about 23 percent from Obama’s—according to the Congressional Budget Office’s 2019 estimate. Of that, $17 billion over the next decade will go toward building two new tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons and increasing U.S. capacity to produce plutonium pits, the core of nuclear weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used on a conventional battlefield, rather than launched from afar, and are generally smaller in explosive power.

Implementing Trump’s plan requires Congress to approve funding, both to continue modernizing the nuclear triad and to develop the new weapons. Democrats have already signaled their opposition to the plan: This past fall, several lawmakers introduced legislation to ban the Pentagon from developing a new, low-yield nuclear warhead.

The Nuclear Posture Review argues that the development of two additional weapons will make nuclear war less likely, not more. The move “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable ‘nuclear war-fighting.” Rather, it will “raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”

But Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and is a key player in writing U.S. defense policy, has come out strongly against the Trump administration’s plan, particularly the new low-yield weapons.

Smith even went so far as to say publicly that the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad, one that has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan congressional support, is not necessary to deter Russia and China. He has since softened that stance but stuck to his argument that the United States needs fewer, not more, nuclear weapons.

“I think a deterrent policy, having enough nuclear weapons to ensure that nobody launches a nuclear weapon at you because you have sufficient deterrent, I think we can do that with fewer warheads,” Smith said in March during an appearance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I’m not sure whether that means getting rid of one leg of the triad or simply reducing the amount in each leg.”

A new report by the Arms Control Association, provided to Foreign Policy ahead of its release, echoed Smith’s comments, calling Trump’s nuclear expansion “unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe.”

“The United States maintains a larger and more diverse nuclear arsenal than is required to deter and respond to a nuclear attack against itself or its allies,” according to the report, which was written by Kingston Reif and Alicia Sanders-Zakre. “The plans would increase the risks of miscalculation and unintended escalation, and accelerated global nuclear competition.”

The authors presented several alternatives that would cost less but still allow the United States to maintain “a devastating nuclear deterrent.” Simply eliminating the additions to the Obama-era program proposed by the Trump administration, for instance would save an estimated $28.8 billion over the next 30 years. Another, eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad and decreasing the number of strategic warheads from 1,550 to 1,000, would save an estimated $282 billion, according to the report.

The report also called on the Pentagon to divulge the value of the contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2015 to develop the B-21 Raider stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, to replace the legacy aircraft. The Defense Department has kept the exact number under wraps for security reasons.

But Elbridge Colby, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, argued in a piece last fall for Foreign Affairs that if the United States does not maintain a credible deterrent, it will have “painful and possibly disastrous consequences for U.S. interests in the world.” This means more than just modernizing the current arsenal, designed “to inflict unimaginable damage in an apocalyptic war”; the United States needs weapons that could also be used in a smaller-scale, conventional conflict. This means low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons, Colby argued.

It is not yet clear which side of the debate will prevail. But what is clear is that as America’s nuclear arsenal ages out, the U.S. government must make tough choices.

“It’s a huge strategic choice for our nation,” said Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “I would be all for getting rid of all nuclear weapons in the world if possible … but that doesn’t work when you are dealing with regimes such as those that now rule in China and Russia.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman