During his campaign for the presidency, President Donald Trump made a number of statements about nuclear weapons that were characterized by both Republicans and Democrats as deeply concerning and ill-informed about the unique dangers the weapons pose.
Trump’s statements since the election have done little to clear up this concern or bring greater clarity to what his administration’s nuclear nonproliferation and risk reduction strategy will be.
However, the recent confirmation hearings for three of the president’s top cabinet choices–Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, James Mattis for Secretary of Defense, and Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy–suggest there will be support within the administration for continuity with the Obama administration on some key arms control and nonproliferation priorities.
Trump tweeted in December that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told a television host that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. However, in an interview earlier this month with the Times of London said that “nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially” and proposed scaling back sanctions imposed against Moscow for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty in a deal to reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Increasing the number, diversity, and/or role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy would mark a radical shift in U.S. policy that could accelerate global nuclear tensions and complicate the job of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. And while both the United States and Russia have far more nuclear weapons than they need for their security, the terms of a possible agreement matter. Linking further cuts to the removal of sanctions would be unwise and impractical.
Significant questions remain about what the Trump administration’s policy will be to
address of a number of pressing nuclear challenges. These include addressing the affordability of proposed U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans, responding to North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear program, reducing the risk of conflict with Russia, and responsibly enforcing the nuclear deal with Iran.
Exacerbating this uncertainty is that the president has yet to fill key Defense, State, and Energy Department positions below the cabinet level.
Below is a summary of some of the key responses from Mattis (who has since been confirmed by the Senate) and Perry during the their January confirmation hearings. For a summary of responses from Tillerson, see here.
U.S.-Russian arms control agreements
The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), negotiated by the Obama administration, is due to expire in 2021. The Trump administration will need to decide whether to continue implementing New START through its expiration date or withdraw from the treaty, as well as whether to seek to extend New START for up to another five years or negotiate a new agreement with Russia. Ending New START would free Russia of any limits on its strategic nuclear arsenal and terminate the inspections to monitor compliance within the treaty’s limits. Secretary Mattis did not comment on New START during his nomination hearing.
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have been trading accusations about noncompliance with the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The Obama administration has accused Russia of flight testing a ground-based cruise missile with a range prohibited by the agreement. In December, the two countries held their first formal meeting of the Joint Verification Commission, an implementation mechanism established by the treaty, to try to resolve the matter.
On the INF treaty, Mattis did not suggest a departure from the Obama administration’s approach. In response to an advance question from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said that Russia’s violation “could erode the foundations of all current and future arms control agreements and initiatives” and that “Russia’s violation of the treaty will lead to no significant military advantage.”
On the issue of the broader U.S.-Russian relationship, Mattis noted during the hearing that while the United States “should always engage and look for areas of cooperation” Washington must also “recognize reality and what Russia is up to and there's [a] decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and [an] increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.”
U.S. Nuclear Force Posture and Spending
In a response to an advance question, Mattis said the role of nuclear weapons is to “deter nuclear war and to serve as last resort weapons of self-defense.” At the hearing Mattis expressed support for continuing to maintain a nuclear triad and for proceeding with current modernization plans for all three legs and the associated command and control system.
The cost of these efforts is likely to exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Numerous Pentagon officials and outside experts have warned about the affordability problem posed by the current approach and that it cannot be sustained without significant long-term increases to defense spending or cuts to other military priorities.
Commenting on the cost of nuclear modernization, Mattis told Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) that “additional funding has got to be found because it will squeeze out everything else.”
While Mattis endorsed the plans to buy new fleets of ballistic missile submarines, ICBMs, and nuclear-capable long-range bombers, he would not commit to purchasing a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).
“I need to look at that one,” he told Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “My going-in position would be, it makes sense, but I need to look at it in terms of its deterrent capability.”
Mattis is wise to further examine the rationale for a new ALCM. The planned replacement program is redundant, lacks a unique mission, could have a destabilizing effect, and is not worth its estimated $20-$30 billion acquisition cost.
While Mattis will be charged with implementing the modernization plans for nuclear delivery systems and command and control, Rick Perry will oversee the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) ambitious and costly plans to upgrade nuclear warheads (via the so-called “3+2” strategy) and rebuild their supporting infrastructure.
During his confirmation hearing Perry emphasized his commitment “to protect and modernize the nation's nuclear stockpile.” Asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) if he would be open to altering the pace and scope of the current modernization plans if significant taxpayer savings can be achieved while still meeting deterrence requirements, Perry either did not understand or did not want to answer the question. He incorrectly stated that funding decisions would lie outside his purview.
Twenty years ago, the United States was the first country to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which now has 183 signatories. Today only one state–North Korea–conducts nuclear test explosions.
But the treaty has not yet formally entered into force because the United States and seven other states have not yet ratified the pact. Nevertheless, Democratic and Republican administrations have supported the U.S. nuclear test moratorium in place since 1992 and the global monitoring system to detect and deter nuclear testing, and we have worked hard to prevent the resumption of nuclear testing by others.
Unfortunately, there have been reports that the incoming Energy Secretary may be under pressure to veer away from the current bipartisan consensus against resuming testing and building new weapons.
There is no technical reason to resume testing to maintain the current U.S. arsenal nor is there a military requirement or need for new nuclear warheads for battlefield use.
Asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) whether he would support a ban on nuclear testing, Perry said that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “modern and safe.” “I think anyone would be of the opinion that if we don't ever have to test another nuclear weapon, that would be a good thing, not just for the United States but for the world,” he added.
The Iran Deal
When Mattis was questioned about the nuclear deal with Iran at his hearing, he called it imperfect and acknowledged that it was “not a deal I would have signed.” However, Mattis said it is important for the United States to follow through on the agreements it makes. This is consistent with Mattis’ past comments on the deal. Last April he said there is no going back on the agreement absent a clear violation by Iran.
Mattis’ approach differs from Trump’s hawkish position on the nuclear deal. In a March 21, 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Trump said his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” On the campaign trail, Trump frequently called the agreement the worst deal ever negotiated and said he would seek to renegotiate it.
To oversee implementation of the deal, Mattis said he would suggest Congress form a joint committee to oversee the deal’s implementation and monitor compliance.
Mattis also called for working with Gulf state allies on a combined missile defense capability.
Perry did not express a view on the merits of the agreement during his hearing. He said that “nonproliferation is a good thing in a general sense” and that his priority would be “to make sure that the Iranians are living up” to their obligations.
Among the most urgent national security challenges facing the Trump administration and this Congress is North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear weapons capability. Despite ever tougher UN Security Council-mandated sanctions, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile testing under Kim Jong Un.
During the campaign, Trump made statements suggesting he would support a strategy of pressure and engagement with regard to North Korea. He said he would be willing to talk with North Korea’s leader, and he has also suggested China can do more to help enforce existing UN sanctions. Trump also said in December via Twitter that he would prevent North Korea from developing an ICBM.
When asked by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) about Trump’s tweet, Mattis refused to characterize it as a "red line." He said that no options should be taken off the table to prevent North Korea from developing an ICBM.
Later in the hearing, Mattis told Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) that addressing the North Korea threat is “going to take an international effort,” including working with Russia and China.
Mattis emphasized the need to continue to strengthen U.S. homeland and regional missile defenses and said the administration should “have to look at our negotiation stance and working with” the State Department, “see if we have the right stance for the way ahead.” Mattis did not provide details on what he thought the U.S. diplomatic position should be.