Morning Briefing - October 12, 2017
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October 12, 2017

‘Tenfold’ Increase in U.S. Nukes Would Require Massive Investment, Wonks Say

By ExchangeMonitor

President Donald Trump called it “fake” news and arms control wonks called it impossible: a radical increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal the commander in chief demanded during a private meeting at the Pentagon in July, according to an NBC News report Wednesday.

During the meeting with Cabinet officials and military brass, Trump reportedly said he wanted more nuclear weapons and more military equipment and troops. Trump, NBC reported, “sought what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Today, according to the latest figures from the State Department, the U.S. has roughly 1,400 nuclear warheads deployed on 660 long-range delivery vehicles: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers. Somewhere around 200 tactical weapons are also deployed at several bases in Europe.

Arms control experts on Twitter were quick to point out that a tenfold increase from today’s total would be prohibitively expensive and violate international arms control treaties signed by Republican and Democrat administrations. Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein said ramping up nuclear weapon production to anything near the historical U.S. apex would require a nuclear weapons complex of a scope not seen since the beginning of the Cold War.

At the height of the Cold War, the Hanford Site in Washington state was an active plutonium production site. Rocky Flats in Colorado was a thriving production facility, churning out the fissile cores for U.S. warheads. Uranium refining was in full swing at the Portsmouth and Paducah plants in Ohio and Kentucky. None of those sites operate today.

Capacity today, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico wrote on Twitter, is much diminished.

In May, Trump proposed raising the budget for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — the semiautonomous agency in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons — to about $14 billion in fiscal 2018. That includes a billion-dollar-plus increase for NNSA’s program to manage and refresh the existing nuclear arsenal. Congress has rallied behind the proposal in its budget process.

But the modernization initiative, however quickly completed, would keep the U.S. stockpile below the levels prescribed by the U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

While Trump has the authority to unilaterally launch nuclear weapons, he would still require cooperation from Congress to build more of them. Clues about whether he intends to seek that permission might be part of the  Nuclear Posture Review expected to be published by the end of the year.



Editor’s note, Oct. 15, 2017, 7:25 p.m. The story was corrected to reflect that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the Oak Ridge Reservation had no nuclear mission during the Cold War.

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