WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump's comments Thursday about the New START treaty could imperil the political consensus in Washington on modernizing the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal.

In a Thursday interview with Reuters, Trump called the New START treaty a ""a one-sided deal" and a "bad deal," and pledged that "if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack." 

Signed in 2010, the New START treaty limits both the U.S. and Russia agreed to limit their deployed forces to 1,550 warheads over 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and bombers, by 2018.

The deal has been praised by both the non-proliferation community and former Pentagon officials as one that increases global security, but has drawn the ire of Trump previously, with media outlets reporting that he railed against the deal during his first call with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

That set off alarm bells for non-proliferation experts such as Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association, who discussed the issue during the Feb. 19 episode of Defense News TV.

"Any effort to undo the agreement or suggest the administration is not interested in an extension or negotiating a new agreement to replace New START when it expires in 2021 would negatively impact U.S. security and negatively impact an already shaky global nuclear order."

Notably, both Reif and Rebecca Hersman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies expressed the belief that if New START were to be imperiled, the political consensus in Washington over nuclear modernization could fall apart.

That consensus, Hersman explains, is based on tradeoffs that were made by both sides when New START was being negotiated – in essence, nuclear modernization support for treaty support. And indeed, democrats have largely been supportive of the current nuclear modernization plan, much to the delight of defense contractors who are lining up to take advantage of the expected spending spree.

A recent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost of modernizing the nuclear enterprise over the next decade at $400 billion, with other estimates putting the overall nuclear modernization at over $1 trillion when all is said and done.

Among the programs that need funding are the new Columbia-class nuclear submarines (designed by Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding), the B-21 Raider bomber (produced by Northrop Grumman), and the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which will replace the Minuteman III ICBMs (Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are all in competition for the right to build GBSD, with various other companies attached to their bids.) In addition, the nation’s selection of nuclear warheads and its command and control structure are being rebuilt.

"The trick here is that consensus can be frayed from either the right or the left," Hersman explained. "Either a push to not follow through on modernization on one of the key elements, or similarly to add too many new things or threaten the New START treaty or go too far down the road in perhaps new capabilities or warheads. Both sides can start to pull blocks out of the Jenga, game and with that the whole consensus can come down.

Adds Reif, "if there is an effort to pull back from New START, I think you’re likely to see many Democrats and some Republicans who would be deeply concerned by that move, and I think that would raise question about the viability of the modernization projects, as well."

If the political consensus does fail around nuclear weapons, the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) will likely be the one to find itself in the crosshairs. The replacement of the current nuclear-capable cruise missile, the program is still in a nascent stage where it could be more vulnerable.

The non-proliferation community has targeted LRSO as the most destabilizing of nuclear weapons, and Democrats in both the House and Senate have launched attempts to scuttle it. If Democrats sought a way to strike out as a result of any New START break, the LRSO would be a logical target.

The Pentagon is currently beginning a formal Nuclear Posture Review for the Trump administration, which is expected to continue forward with modernization plans, including on LRSO. There is no formal timetable for that report, which may also call for investments that had not been supported under the Obama administration.

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.

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