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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Kingston Reif

Trump Questions U.S. Nuclear Policies

March 2017

By Daryl G. Kimball and Kingston Reif

The Trump administration is preparing to undertake the fourth Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) since the end of the Cold War. The study could set in motion significant changes in the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, the plans for maintaining and upgrading nuclear forces, the nuclear force structure requirements and costs, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order on “rebuilding” the armed forces, as Vice President Mike Pence (left) and Defense Secretary James Mattis watch on January 27, at the Pentagon. (Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)This comes as President Donald Trump has declared his ambition to “greatly strengthen and expand” U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, which are already substantial, and has criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, suggesting he may be looking to change nuclear policy in significant ways.

Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted such a comprehensive review. The most recent one, completed in April 2010, said that the top priority of the U.S. nuclear agenda should be the pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons through U.S. leadership to bolster the nonproliferation regime and achieve further reductions in nuclear arsenals.

In his Jan. 27 executive order titled “Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces,” Trump directed Defense Secretary James Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, an NPR, and a ballistic missile defense review. The directive language on the NPR, just one sentence long, states that the review should “ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.” 

Impact on Arms Control, Budgets

The new NPR will be completed as the Trump administration is making decisions with long-term security and budgetary implications. Trump will need to decide, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whether to extend New START and its monitoring regime for five years beyond its February 2021 expiration date, negotiate a follow-on agreement, or go forward without legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. This decision, among other factors, will determine whether the United States is seen to be meeting its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which obligates nuclear-weapon states to pursue nuclear disarmament. 

The NPR may also affect the current plans to sustain and upgrade each element of the U.S. strategic arsenal, including new long-range, stealthy strategic bombers; a fleet of 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles; a new fleet of 14 strategic submarines; 400 new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles; and upgraded nuclear command-and-control systems. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost at more than $400 billion in fiscal years 2017-2026 and perhaps more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years—a price tag that could squeeze out other high-priority national security programs.

Changes Ahead?

Unlike then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who campaigned for the presidency in 2008 with a detailed nuclear-risk reduction strategy, Trump has not presented his thinking in a formal way. Rather, he has made a series of controversial, seemingly impulsive, and sometimes contradictory comments on nuclear weapons. If translated into policy, some of Trump’s pronouncements would represent a radical break from long-standing U.S. policies to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. In some cases, Trump’s own Cabinet members have disagreed with his statements, raising further questions about the direction of the administration’s policies.

Early in the campaign, Trump was asked on Jan. 3, 2016, if he would rule out the use of nuclear weapons against terrorist groups. He said, “I’m never going to rule anything out…because, at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use it, OK?” 

That’s at odds with the Obama administration’s viewpoint as stated in a Jan. 15 speech by Vice President Joe Biden: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary, or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means.”

Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson testifies January 11 at his Senate confirmation hearing to become secretary of state, where he said he supports engaging with Russia to verifiably reduce nuclear-weapon stockpiles. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)In a March 26, 2016, New York Times interview, Trump suggested, “I’m not sure it would be a bad thing for us” if Japan acquired nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea. When asked about that at his confirmation hearing Jan. 11, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he did not agree. “I don’t think anyone advocates for more nuclear weapons on the planet,” he said, while also asserting that “one of the vital roles of the State Department…has to be the pursuit of nuclear nonproliferation.” 

On Dec. 22, President-elect Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later was reported to have told a television host that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” any potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. In a Feb. 23 interview with Reuters, Trump vowed that “if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

The 2010 NPR determined that “Russia remains America’s only peer in the area of nuclear weapons capabilities.” The United States and Russia are estimated to have 4,018 and 4,500 warheads, respectively, stockpiled and assigned for military use. Under New START, each will be limited to 1,550 strategic deployed warheads on no more than 700 nuclear delivery vehicles until 2021. The next largest nuclear arsenals are those of France, with 300, and China, with 280 warheads of all types.

In a pre-inauguration interview with the The Times of London, Trump said that “nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially.” Yet, in his first telephone call with Putin after taking office, Trump seemed to put U.S. support for New START in doubt. According to a Feb. 9 Reuters account, Trump denounced the agreement when Putin suggested the two countries might agree to extend the treaty for five years, an option provided in the treaty’s terms. In a Feb. 23 Reuters interview, Trump called New START a “one-sided” agreement. 

In response, the head of the Russian Federation Council’s defense committee, Viktor Ozerov, told the RIA Novosti news agency on Feb. 24 that Russia is “categorically opposed” to the termination of New START and will push for an extension because it is “fundamental to global security.” 

Some of Trump’s comments conflict with the findings of 2013 Pentagon nuclear strategy report that said the United States could meet its security obligations and “maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent” with “up to a one-third” reduction in deployed strategic warheads from the level established by New START. 

Trump’s suggestion that the United States must increase its nuclear “capacity” may encourage those who would like to overturn existing policy and allow for the pursuit of new types of nuclear warheads. The Defense Science Board, an advisory panel, urged the new administration in a December 2016 report to consider producing lower-yield weapons to provide a “tailored nuclear option for limited use.” It also questions the ability to maintain warheads in the absence of explosive testing, which is prohibited by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified. Some Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have already signaled their opposition.

With the majority of subcabinet positions at the Defense, State, and Energy departments unfilled, the shape, direction, and pace of the new review is uncertain. But there is little doubt it will have far-reaching implications.

The president declares the United States must be “top of the pack” in nuclear weapons. 

New Interceptor Missile Scores a Hit

March 2017

By Maggie Tennis and Kingston Reif

The United States and Japan last month conducted the first successful test of a new ballistic missile defense interceptor that will increase the capability of U.S. and allied regional defenses in Europe and Asia. 

Meanwhile, a January report from the Pentagon’s top testing official strongly criticized the missile defense system designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack from North Korea or Iran, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. The successful Feb. 3 test and the critical report on the GMD system from the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation come as the Trump administration prepares to conduct a formal review of U.S. missile defense policy and posture. 

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Japan Ministry of Defense, and U.S. Navy sailors aboard USS John Paul Jones successfully conducted a flight test February 3, resulting in the first intercept of a ballistic missile target using the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA off the west coast of Hawaii. (Photo credit: Leah Garton/U.S. Missile Defense Agency)In the February test, a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA launched from the USS John Paul Jones off the western coast of Hawaii successfully destroyed a medium-range ballistic missile target launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii. The SM-3 IIA is being developed cooperatively by the United States and Japan to defeat medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The interceptor is part of the Aegis missile defense system and can be fired from specially designed Aegis ships or land-based sites. 

The Aegis system is a central component of the U.S. missile defense architecture in Europe and Asia. As of Feb. 3, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has conducted 41 intercept tests of the system, of which 34 were successful. 

The Defense Department is planning to deploy the SM-3 IIA missile in Poland in 2018 as part of the third phase of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach. (See ACT, June 2016.) The approach is the U.S. contribution to NATO’s missile defense system and is designed to protect Europe against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. 

Russia has strongly opposed the planned Polish site and claims that the alliance’s missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. U.S. and NATO officials have stated repeatedly that the SM-3 system will not be able to shoot down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In a Feb. 8 email to Arms Control Today, Christopher Szkrybalo, an MDA spokesman, said the SM-3 IIA “was neither designed nor planned to defend the U.S. against ICBM threats.” 

Although the SM-3 IIA was successful in its first intercept test, the Pentagon’s testing office raised concerns about the viability of the GMD system. Consistent with prior assessments, the office’s 2016 annual report states that the system “has demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” 

The report notes that the “reliability and availability” of the system’s interceptors “are low” and the MDA “continues to discover new failure modes during testing.” The report also notes that “[f]ew cybersecurity assessments have been performed” of the system to date. 

The GMD system consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California. A total of 44 interceptors are scheduled to be deployed at these locations by the end of fiscal year 2017. 

It remains to be seen whether and how President Donald Trump will adjust missile defense policy. In a Jan. 27 executive order, he ordered Defense Secretary James Mattis to conduct a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review “to identify ways of strengthening missile defense capabilities” and “rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities.” Such a rebalance could lead to greater emphasis on and funding for expanding the GMD system, including by building a third GMD site in the eastern United States, at the expense of regional defenses such as the Aegis system. (See ACT, January/February 2017.

Last year, Congress voted to open the door to expanding national missile defenses beyond the currently limited goal of defending against Iran and North Korea as some, predominantly Republican backers eye actions that some worry could upset the nuclear balance with Russia and China. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

A ballistic missile interceptor scores a hit, but there is renewed criticism of a missile defense system.

New ICBM Replacement Cost Revealed

March 2017

By Kingston Reif

The high end of an independent Pentagon cost estimate to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system put the project at roughly $100 billion after adjusting for inflation, an informed source told Arms Control Today.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test September 5, 2016, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Photo credit: Michael Peterson/U.S. Air Force)The $100 billion figure in the estimate completed last August is more than 60 percent greater than the $61 billion cost set last summer by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the new ICBM program. His announced figure was at the low end of the independent projection and, even so, exceeded the initial cost estimate produced by the Air Force. (See ACT, October 2016.)

At the high end of the estimate, recapitalizing the Minuteman III could be more expensive than replacing the nation’s aging fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines and exacerbate the affordability challenge posed by current plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces. 

The independent estimate was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in support of the program’s so-called milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process. Frank Kendall, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved the milestone A decision on Aug. 23, the Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release.

CAPE provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. The office’s estimate for the missile program, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), is measured in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars. When measured in then-year dollars, which includes inflationary increases expected over the period to acquire the new ICBM system, the low CAPE estimate translates to $85 billion while the high estimate could top $140 billion, according to the source. 

The Air Force in 2015 published a preliminary cost estimate of $62.3 billion in then-year dollars for the replacement program. (See ACT, July/August 2015.) That estimate covered a 30-year time horizon. The time period covered by the CAPE projection is unclear. 

Even at the level of the CAPE low estimate, the Pentagon will need to find more than $1 billion in additional funding to pay for the GBSD system than it anticipated in the fiscal year 2017 budget request, which was based on the Air Force projection. 

The dueling Air Force and CAPE estimates reflect both the different assumptions used to estimate the cost of the new ICBM program and the significant uncertainty about program costs.

In CAPE’s annual report for fiscal year 2016, published in January, former CAPE Director Jamie Morin said that although the Air Force “relied” on historical Minuteman and Peacekeeper program data, CAPE’s estimate “used additional data from the Navy Trident II and the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Interceptor.” 

Morin added that “it was unusually difficult to estimate the cost of a new ICBM program because there was no recent data to draw upon, and the older historical data was of very questionable quality or was nonexistent.” 

“This leads to considerable uncertainty and risk in any cost estimate,” he said. 

In an interview last fall with Defense News, Morin said the biggest driver of the difference between the low- and high-end CAPE estimates had to do with different assumptions about the price escalation of labor costs. The value of the escalator used by CAPE in each estimate is unclear. 

Morin expressed hope that the current plan to buy more than 600 new missiles would result in efficiencies that bring down the overall cost. 

The CAPE estimate illustrates the significant high-side cost risk of the new ICBM program and is likely to prompt continued questions about whether the Pentagon is pursuing the most cost-effective approach to sustaining the ICBM leg of the triad beyond 2030. 

Many ICBM proponents argue that they are the cheapest leg of the triad to maintain and modernize, but the $100 billion CAPE high estimate is roughly the same as the Navy’s constant-dollar cost estimate for the program to replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with submarines of the Columbia class. In then-year dollars, the CAPE high estimate of approximately $140 billion exceeds the projected cost of $128 billion for the Columbia-class submarine program. 

The Air Force argues that a new ICBM is necessary because the Minuteman III is aging into obsolescence and losing its capability to penetrate adversary missile defenses. (See ACT, April 2016.) The current recapitalization approach assumes that 400 deployed ICBMs, which is the same number the United States is planning to deploy under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, will be required for the entire 50-year service life of the new missile system. 

But some analysts claim that if the requirements for 400 deployed missiles, a 50-year service life, and new capabilities are relaxed, then it is possible to extend the life of the Minuteman III for a period of time beyond 2030 and at less cost than the GBSD system. (See ACT, October 2016.)

A high-end cost estimate raises the prospect that the missiles will cost far more than anticipated.

Trump Inherits Nuclear Budget Time Bomb

The daunting fiscal challenge posed by current plans to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal is now President Donald Trump’s problem. If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not reshape these plans—or worse, accelerates or expands upon them—spending on nuclear weapons will pose a major threat to higher priority national security programs, to say nothing about Trump’s pledge to expand the non-nuclear military. That’s the key takeaway from a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released Wednesday on the projected cost of U.S. nuclear forces over the next decade...

Russia Must Immediately Resolve INF Treaty Noncompliance Issue



For Immediate Release: February 14, 2017

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 105

(Washington, DC)—The New York Times report based on U.S. government sources that Russia has allegedly deployed an operational unit of ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is extremely troubling and requires the immediate attention of senior policymakers in Moscow and Washington.

According to the report, Russia has not only tested noncompliant systems but has apparently deployed INF Treaty noncompliant missiles, a breach of a key cornerstone of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture that helped to halt and reverse the Cold War-era nuclear arms race and remove a significant threat to Europe.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signing the INF Treaty in Washington, DC, December 8, 1987 (Photo:Wikimedia)The INF Treaty required the United States and the then-Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

We call on Russia to immediately decommission the noncompliant missiles systems and return to compliance with the INF Treaty.

We also urge President Donald Trump and administration officials to reiterate U.S. support for the agreement and convene another meeting of the treaty's Special Verification Commission (SVC) to address and resolve the compliance issues.

The SVC was convened in November 2016 at the request of the United States for the purpose of addressing U.S. charges that Russia had conducted several tests of the INF Treaty prohibited system.

We also call upon the administration to seek new ways to provide further details about the nature of the Russian violation, particularly to U.S. allies threatened by the missiles. The inability to share more information has made it easier for Russia to deny a violation exists and harder for U.S. allies and other countries to put additional pressure on Russia.

Retaliating to Russia's violation by withdrawing from the INF Treaty, or stopping U.S. implementation of the successful 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), would be counterproductive and self-defeating.

A wide-range of U.S. national security leaders, as well as U.S. military officials, continue to assess that New START remains squarely in the U.S. national interest and that terminating or withdrawing from the agreement would undermine U.S. security.

Without continued U.S. support for existing nuclear arms control agreements and other types of cooperative nonproliferation engagement, Russian forces would be unconstrained. Not only would the United States have little leverage or basis to constrain Russian forces other than military and economic measures, it would not have verification measures in place to assess what Russia is doing.

The United States should pursue firm but measured steps to reaffirm its commitment to the defense of those allies that would be the potential targets of these new INF Treaty noncompliant missiles.

But it would not be militarily useful for the United States to deploy new offense missiles in Europe or seek to accelerate or expand U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities in Europe, which would not increase the security of our allies and would only give the Russians a cynical excuse to withdraw from the treaty.

1) The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance (February 2017)
2) U.S., Russia Discuss INF Disputes (Arms Control Today, December 2016)


Press Release: Russia Must Immediately Resolve INF Treaty Noncompliance Issue

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Trump Ill-Informed About Value of U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty



(Washington, DC)—According to an exclusive Reuters story published this afternoon, President Donald Trump denounced the landmark 2010 New START agreement in his first telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reuters also reported that when Putin raised the option of extending New START, Mr. Trump had to ask his aides what the treaty was.

Signing of Russian-US Treaty on Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. With US President Barack Obama, April 2010. (Photo: Office of the President of Russia)The 2010 New START agreement has advanced U.S. and global interests by lowering and capping the two nation’s excessive strategic deployed nuclear arsenals, both of which remained poised on launch-under-attack alert status, meaning that thousands of nuclear weapons could be launched by the U.S. and Russian leaders within minutes of the go order.

The most important responsibility of any American president is to reduce nuclear dangers and to avoid nuclear catastrophe. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump appears to be clueless about the value of this key nuclear risk reduction treaty and the unique dangers of nuclear weapons.

A wide-range of U.S. national security leaders, as well as U.S. military officials, continue to assess that New START remains squarely in the U.S. national interest and that terminating or withdrawing from the agreement would undermine U.S. security. Ending New START would irresponsibly free Russia of any limits on its strategic nuclear arsenal and terminate the inspections that provide us with significant additional transparency about Russian strategic nuclear forces.

It has been longstanding U.S. policy to seek to further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy. The five most recent U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, negotiated agreements with Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. During his confirmation hearing last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed his support for New START and continued engagement with Russia and other nuclear-armed countries on seeking further verifiable reductions of nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Trump and his team must get smart about New START and the unique dangers of nuclear weapons. Before the end of his term in office, Trump will need to decide whether to invite Russia to extend New START for another five years and/or negotiate a new arms reduction treaty.

The United States and Russia should work together to build down, not build up. With up to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons allowed under the 2010 New START agreement and no limits on the tactical nuclear weapons possessed by each side, Russia and the United States have far more weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by another nuclear-armed country.

Further nuclear reductions would also save both countries tens of billions of dollars in their ongoing programs to replace their current arsenals and would strengthen global nonproliferation and nuclear risk reduction efforts.

In 2013, President Barack Obama, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other elements of the national security establishment, determined that the United States can reduce its nuclear force by another one-third below New START levels and still meet deterrence requirements.

As President Obama said in his last news conference Jan. 18 “… there remains a lot of room for both countries to reduce our nuclear stockpiles.”


  1. U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces Under New START (February 2017)
  2. Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Under New START (October 2016)
  3. New Report Calls for Russia and the West to Move Back from the Brink (June 2016) 
  4. New START at a Glance (August 2012)

In his first call with President Putin, Trump denounced the 2010 New START agreement despite not being aware of what the treaty was.

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