Last week The Board took a look at Trump’s Christmastime Tweet that the United States should strengthen and expand its nuclear forces. As I pointed out that since Trump has never issued any official position papers on nuclear policy there is simply no way to understand what he means by this. And in a telephone interview he said “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass.” as if arms races by themselves achieved anything. And all of this is after Trump seemed to want to withdraw from US strategic commitments. With no clear communication about the US strategic mission, The Board can only conclude that there isn’t one.
But maybe Trump’s Tweet wasn’t about strategy at all. Trump is very clued in to a certain part of the American psyche. I think the Tweet may in fact be about domestic policy. “Make America Great Again!” What’s better than nukes to make us feel great? What’s better than some shiny new weapons systems to make everyone feel safer? Well, I don’t feel safer with the prospect of nuclear arms expansion in the absence of clear nuclear policy, but I think a lot of people do. Trump knows this. It’s the sort of thing he’s good at knowing.
So what would an arms race look like?
Short answer. Not a lot different from what things might have looked like without Trump, at least as far as new weapons systems are concerned. The strategic stance we’re in might change drastically, but deploying new weapons systems takes time. The United States has pursued almost every course of action allowed under the 2011 New Start agreement. Real reductions seemed possible back in 2011, but since that time, both parties to the treaty have been moving toward the maximum allowable limits under New Start.
If I am correct that Trump’s Tweet was about domestic policy, we will see much boasting about new developments in US strategic systems. Trump will take credit for them even though all the development and budgeting had been done over the last eight years.
Lets take a look at what we may be seeing in the next few years.
B61 Mod 12:
The Mod 12 has ben widely criticized as Obama’s golden bomb. The Mod 12 series will be completed within the next two years. Some Mod 12’s have already been deployed. It is expensive, but quite sturdy and seems to have all the reliability of earlier versions of 61 series. You can read my take on the so-called nuclear bunker buster in this post.
Thats the 2006 Mod 7 B61 team in the picture. Mod 12 is almost identical in size and shape. I included this picture so that readers could have a sense of scale.
This is a weapon that really only works if you have forward bases for tactical air delivery. There are currently about 180 in Europe, mostly in Germany and Turkey. And that’s the point. It’s no good simply having the B61, you also need a place to deploy it where its strengths make a difference. In other words, the mission matters.
The Long Range Standoff Missile (LRSO):
If any strategic weapons program of the Obama era was more controversial than the B61, it was LRSO. Sometimes you might hear this missile described as a “stealth standoff” missile. I think this is a misnomer because cruise missiles have been stealth standoff weapons since they were first developed in the late 1970s. The LRSO will be a replacement for the classic Cold War era AGM-86. I don’t know what it will look like, but it might look sort of like the failed Advanced Cruise Missile which was decommissioned 2007 after a brief deployment:
Like the AGM-86 and the ACM, the LRSO will carry a warhead in the W80 series with at least a dual yield capability of 5 kilotons to 150 kilotons.
And these warheads are already being refurbished for this purpose. It’s a very light and compact weapon. Here is a picture of them being stockpiled back in the 90’s:
One of these very weapons may end up in a LRSO. Funding for the LRSO was voted on last year and the Air Force will be choosing between two designs this Fall. If, as I suspect, Trump’s nuclear policy is really domestic policy, expect lots of publicity about this.
B-21 (Formerly the LRS-B, now the 21st Century bomber) :
This is a replacement for the B-2 stealth bomber and the B-52. It is currently under development by Northrop-Grumman, but is probably still at least a few years away from seeing service. Even if funding is increased, it’s unlikely even a prototype will fly in the next four years. All we have is this artists conception from the Air Force:
As you can see, it’s similar to the B-2. It’s supposed to be smaller and lighter, with lower operating costs and better performance than a B-2.
Columbia Class Ballistic Missile Submarines:
These submarines are already funded and under development. They will replace the Ohio Class subs:
The as yet unnamed first submarine of this type is scheduled to be completed in 2021. The Ohio class submarines will begin withdrawal in 2027.
Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD):
GBSD is a program to replace the Minuteman III force. US ground based missiles were once a prestige branch of the Air Force. They have long been neglected and the Air Force has at times proposed downsizing the force, but Congress has voted against this. Morale is low among missile crews and the computers are the most advanced available in the late 1970s. This force has problems and scandals. But there is a long range plan to retire the Minuteman and replace it with a new system.
GBSD is still in the planning stages, but if Trump’s nuclear policy is domestic policy, expect announcements that progress is being made in this area. I don’t think Trump really understands anything about this, but ambitious people near him will seek the prestige of being in charge of a program. I think some ambitious officer in conjunction with defense lobbyists is likely to use Trump to get ahead. I expect we might be hearing something within a year about GBSD, though no replacement missile will be available for several years.
So, you are saying an arms race is impossible?
Pretty much yes. Every reasonable upgrade to US nuclear capabilities is already in planning, already funded, or already under development. Trump will have nothing truly new to show the public. That won’t stop him from taking credit for these upgrades as they develop.
Trump’s arms race will not really happen. It will simply seem to happen, My only hope is that we don’t make strategic blunders that make us weaker as he claims to make us stronger.
Epilogue, just for fun:
But what about unreasonable upgrades? Trump promised expansion. Now, most of his promises are worthless, but suppose I got appointed to some Dr. Strangelove type advisory position at the Department of Energy. It could happen. One of my cousins hunts ducks (what did ducks ever do to her?) with a guy who sort of knows Rick Perry, our new Energy Secretary. So, imagine Perry is impressed with The Board enough that he puts me in charge of the nuclear research labs and Trump commands that I produce a new nuclear delivery system in two years.
I can do it! I can make an ALBM in no time at all. Now if you read the link you can see that Skybolt was cancelled back in 1962. How can I revive a 50 year old technology and adapt it to the modern age? And no nation has ever thought ALBMs were a good idea. How can I be so sure that I scan succeed in such a short time?
The secret is that the United States already has an ALBM:
There it is being pushed out the back of a cargo plane on wooden skids attached to a parachute. The parachute orients the skid with the missile pointing upward, and the engine fires. There you have it, an ALBM. But why have you not heard of this? That’s because its actually used as a target for tests of missile defense systems like Aegis and THAAD. The good folks at OrbitalATK have been making them for years. There’s space in the nose for chaff and jammers, so there’s space for all those refurbished W80’s. Orbital has been using the Skybolt-inspired Pegasus launch system for 25 years.
We could dump them out the back of freight planes or sling them under surplus commercial airliners. It would be the cheapest and fastest deployed nuclear missile ever.
But don’t worry, I would also use my powers for good. As a DOE administrator I would start a secret research department at Oak Ridge called CABDA, the Coastline and Border Defense Agency, a super secret black budget project to defend against the most serious emerging threat to our nation. That emerging enemy is the sea. CABDA will be devoted to energy technologies and global warming mitigation. I will end my term as director of this project by making available the fruits of our research at no cost to anyone who wants implement them.
Sadly, I don’t really think I’ll end up being Trump’s Strangelove.