WASHINGTON – On Dec. 22, just weeks from taking office, then President-elect Donald Trump shook the military and nuclear communities by tweeting out that the U.S. "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."
It was a stunning statement, as the push to limit expansion of atomic arms has been a cornerstone of American policy since the height of the Cold War. But Trump doubled down the next day.
"Let it be an arms race," the president said, according to Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe. "We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
Now, having ordered a new review of America's nuclear arsenal, the world is watching to see how Trump will follow through on those comments.
In a Jan. 27 executive order signed at the Pentagon, Trump directed Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to "initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] to 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."
It’s wide open language, leaving Mattis with significant leeway over how the study will be run, who will be involved, and even the timetable, all factors that are certain to affect the study's conclusions. Or, as Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, puts it: "Trump is basically turning nuclear policy over to Mattis, whether Trump realizes it or not."
But how much will really change? Analysts largely agree the modernization plan put forth from the Obama administration will probably remain intact -- but note it's the policies around the edges, and who gets to shape those policies, that will be key to watch.
While many of the Obama-era plans are facing scrutiny from the new administration, nuclear experts believe that major changes to the current modernization program under Trump are unlikely.
That’s largely because the Obama administration had set the Pentagon on an ambitious modernization course that will see almost the entire nuclear weapons complex renewed.
The Pentagon is preparing to spend billions of dollars over the next 15 years to develop and procure the new B-21 bomber, a new fleet of nuclear submarines, and a new design for intercontinental ballistic missiles. In addition, the Pentagon plans to develop new command and control capabilities as well as a new cruise missile.
Rebecca Hersman, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says she would be surprised to see "major changes" to the nuclear posture. At the same time, there will probably be some tweaks as the new administration seeks to "comfortably own the decisions they have to carry forward on modernization and the rest of the portfolio," she said.
She points out the security environment has changed since the last NPR, finalized in 2009, so doing a new reviews makes sense. But, at its core, "the forces of consensus" currently in place will likely win out, especially on the Hill.
"Probably more changes at the margins, probably reconsideration of some of the threats, and perhaps I would expect from this team we would see a bit more emphasis on the importance and primacy of deterrence," she said, referring to Trump's key national-security officials.
Kingston Reif, an analyst at the Arms Control Association, said it is difficult" to tell how the NPR might shake out because so many key positions remain vacant at the Pentagon. But, he added, the most important voice is the one spot that is already filled.
"I think Mattis is the wildcard," Reif said. "I think he is more likely to be a check on excessively Strangelovian impulses rather than an enabler. The nature of the process, based on how it has been conducted in the past, will give him disproportionate influence over the outcome if he chooses to exercise it. What that will ultimately mean for the end result remains to be seen."
Aside from Mattis, Reif predicts the emerging Pentagon leadership will push for a traditionally conservative nuclear posture, one that prioritizes deterrence and modernization over nonproliferation.
Said Lewis, "I would expect it to look a lot like the Bush one, which was an unrealistic wish list of the conservative defense types that went nowhere. I presume Mattis and [Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work] will push for a pro-forma internal study that ratifies what they already want to do."
Peter Huessy, a senior defense consultant with the Air Force Association, predicts a "stay the course -- plus" policy to emerge, continuing the modernization efforts of the Obama administration but looking to fill perceived near-term gaps in the nuclear posture. That potentially includes trying to speed up the procurement of the big modernization programs, as well as flowing extra funding to the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), where the modernization of a new wave of warheads is ongoing.
The agency, part of the Department of Energy, is pursuing a modernization plan known as the "3+2 Strategy," under which the NNSA is consolidating the American arsenal of warheads into five variants. Five bomb and cruise missile warhead types are being consolidated into two replacement warhead designs, the W80-4 and the B61-12. Meanwhile, the five ballistic missile warheads now in service are being consolidated into three new interoperable warheads known as the IW-1, IW-2, and IW-3.
"I think NNSA and the labs need more money. I also think they have to do a better job, and it’s a continuing fight to do better with what money they have," Huessy said, referring to experts' concerns about aging NNSA infrastructure.
He also predicts the Pentagon will try to provide as many nuclear options to Trump as possible, as evidenced by a recent study of an outside Pentagon advisory panel.
A December report by the Defense Science Board, first reported by CQ Roll Call, called for the department to consider "a more flexible nuclear enterprise that could produce, if needed, a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use should existing non-nuclear or nuclear options prove insufficient."
What that means is somewhat unclear, said Reif, who notes that the modernization of the B61-12 nuclear bomb and the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), which will replace the current nuclear capable cruise missile, would seem to fit that niche already. He said the study's language is troubling because it could be used in the context of the NPR to embolden those seeking "dangerous solutions to deterrence gap mirages, such as new nuclear warheads with new military military capabilities - including new low-yield options - new types of delivery systems, and abandoning the goal of achieving a sole purpose declaratory policy.".
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has done little to allay those fears.
Speaking to reporters Feb. 7, Goldfein said he was "absolutely" open to considering all options from the NPR, including the potential for new, low-yield weapons, adding that as long as key discussions about policy are also being addressed. "I don't have any issue about having a dialogue about numbers and yields."
Time, Input and Policies
While much of the focus of the NPR will be on deciding whether the Pentagon's current modernization strategy is the right way forward, Goldfein stressed that he believes a higher-level conversation about the nature of deterrence is needed.
"I do believe that we're going to have discussions about munitions. I do believe we're going to have discussions about yields. I do believe we're going to have discussions about the numbers of munitions required," he said. "But I'm also hoping to expand the dialogue into a broader discussion about deterrence in the 21st century, and what does the nuclear deterrent piece look like when you actually step back and you look and broaden the dialogue to say, when you have capabilities in space, when you have capabilities in cyber, when you have capabilities in the global commons, and you add that to what you can do relative to the nuclear deterrent, what does deterrence in the 21st century look like?"
Hersman, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction during the last NPR, said one key question facing the NPR review team is how open they want to be for ideas from outside the Pentagon.
"They can draw a conclusion on how inclusive to be. Inclusive is good, it was good to go out and share with allies and manage apprehensions they might have and I think we benefited from that," she said, referring to her own experience during the previous review. But, she added, the more voices involved can make a review "harder, more time consuming and complicated."
The timing of the upcoming nuclear review is unclear, leaving the question of exactly when Congress would be asked to foot the bill for whatever its recommendations are.
A Pentagon spokeswoman confirmed that Trump’s order does not establish "a specific timeline" for the review.
"I think you could maybe add some things into the ‘18 budget that are absolutely necessary but you’d have to do a pretty quick study, and you’d have a hard time drilling down too much because you don’t have the people in place," Huessy said. "It has to be done carefully and explained well. I don’t know if it will be a quick and short NPR. I know there are people who think it should be. We’re going to be doing about three defense bills in the next year. So there is an emphasis on getting decisions done quickly."
And, as Lewis notes
"Some big choices about affordability are coming and the Pentagon will struggle to make them so long as the NPR is chugging along."
Finally, there is the question of whether the NPR under Trump will move away from the nonproliferation goals of previous administrations, especially given Trump's comments about a new arms race.
Hersman sees enough bipartisan support for nonproliferation as a geopolitical tool that it can't be ignored, but she added, "I think the way they rack and stack the issues and do some of the tradeoffs, that may shift." As an example, she points out there maybe be less emphasis on meeting the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Another topic that has been discussed in the community is whether the Trump administration puts support behind the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, something former Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to focus on in late 2015 -- with little success.
Huessy looks at it from a practical view. Other nuclear states already exist, and working out nonproliferation policies for the current geopolitical world is a sensible thing to do, in particular given the pressures around the Korean peninsula and the tensions between India and Pakistan.
But many in the nonproliferation community are less confident there won't be fundamental changes to how the U.S. views the use of nuclear capabilities.
"Any move to undo the 2010 NPR three 'Nos' -- no new warheads, capabilities, and missions -- would not only be unnecessary, destabilizing, and financially costly, it would also be deeply divisive domestically and internationally, including among close allies," Reif said. "And it would inflame already acute and widespread fears that Trump can't be trusted with the nuclear codes."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.