WASHINGTON — In 140 characters, President-elect Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the national security community yet again with a tweet that signaled continued support of the nuclear triad — but could also suggest a much more drastic expansion to the nuclear arsenal.
"The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," he tweeted Thursday at 11:50 a.m. Eastern time.
Throughout his campaign, Trump's comments on nuclear capabilities were often difficult to penetrate, giving hope to arms control advocates that he could reduce the size of the enterprise. But Trump's comments on Thursday offered his strongest statements yet in support of the nuclear arsenal, although he offered no specifics on the policy or procurement steps he could take to grow nuclear capabilities.
All three legs of the nuclear triad, comprised of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and ballistic missile submarines, are aging and in need of replacement starting in the mid 2020s. The Air Force and Navy are in the beginning stages for three modernization programs — the B-21 bomber, Ohio replacement submarine, and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent — to do just that.
However, it's unclear whether Trump's remarks indicate a commitment to the current programs of record, or if they portend a larger expansion of US nuclear capabilities, such as additional warheads or new weapons systems.
Trump's comment follows a meeting with a number of the US military's top policy and procurement officials, including Vice Adm. James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency and Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy Air Force chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
"These are great people," Trump said after the meeting, according to a pool report. "These are amazing people and I'm very impressed with them. And they are good negotiators."
The president elect's transition team had met with Weinstein previously. During an interview with Defense News earlier this month, Weinstein and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said they were hopeful that the Trump administration would be supportive of the nuclear triad.
"Nuclear has been foundational to the defense of our nation through seven administrations. I don’t see it changing for this one," Weinstein said then. Nuclear threats, weapons modernization, and changes to the nuclear enterprise were some of the topics discussed in a previous meeting with the Trump team. "It was a really open, transparent and really productive meeting."
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.