WASHINGTON — The U.S. nuclear arsenal of 6,800 warheads is plenty strong, to be sure.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on Wednesday, underlined that, saying President Trump was informed of the growing threat from North Korea last December and has since stressed the need to enhance U.S. readiness. Mattis warned North Korea, which he referred to by its initials, that it would lose a nuclear showdown with the United States and its allies badly.
“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on earth,” Mattis said in a statement. “The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.
"The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people," Mattis said.
But is the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as Trump boasted in a tweet earlier on Wednesday “now far stronger and more powerful than ever before”?
And almost certainly not because, as he also tweeted, that his first order as president “was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.”
First of all, it wasn’t his first order — there were orders and memos on the Affordable Care Act and a hiring freeze, for example, that came before it, according to a USA TODAY database of his memos and orders.
More to the point, the renovations and modernization to the arsenal that he suggests were part of that order were put in motion by the Obama administration. Moreover, Trump’s order of Jan. 27 to rebuild the armed forces directed Mattis “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.”
That launched a review, not any new nuclear weapons programs. The review, typical for a new administration in the post-Cold War era, is ongoing and won’t be completed for months.
Even more salient: bolstering the nuclear arsenal takes time usually measured in years and decades, not weeks and months, said Kingston Reif, director of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan think tank. New missiles, submarines and aircraft capable of delivering new nuclear warheads won’t be put in silos, hit the water or cruise the sky until the mid-2020s, he said.
“The only thing he has done is order a nuclear policy review,” Reif said. “It’s ongoing. Nothing of actual substance has a chance of happening for years.”
Then there’s the question of cost.
The Congressional Budget Office in February put the price tag of nuclear modernization at $400 billion from now until 2026. The so-called nuclear triad, which candidate Trump struggled to describe on the campaign trail in 2016, consists of aircraft, missiles and submarines capable of delivering nuclear weapons. It underpins U.S. strategy, deterring adversaries from attacking because they would be assured of obliteration.
The CBO noted that the Pentagon has not built new nuclear systems since the end of the Cold War, and that the weapons and means to deliver them are nearing the end of their expected life spans. Almost all of them will have to be refurbished or replaced over the next 20 years.
The Obama administration started the current course toward modernization. Trump’s first defense budget largely builds upon that, but won’t be put in place until Oct. 1 at the earliest.
Last week, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience that nuclear forces account for 3.5% of the Pentagon’s budget. The current course would consume 6% of the budget.
Pentagon records show the military wants to buy new variations of submarine-based missiles, land-based ballistic missiles, and land- and sea-based cruise missiles, among other items.
Those costs will have to be weighed against rebuilding conventional weapons and systems, like tanks, trucks and planes, that have been degraded by more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reif said he doubts Trump has made those calculations.
“While the bragging and saber rattling are not helpful, it’s clear from his tweet that does not have a clue about upgrade and sustainment costs,” Reif said. “The fact is the current plans are likely to face major affordability challenges.”