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Trump Vows Major Expansion of US Nuclear Arsenal

February 14, 2018
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy & Conn Hallinan / Dispatches from the Edge

Talking up his new budget priorities, President Trump announced plans to conduct a massive expansion of the US nuclear weapons arsenal, with an eye toward building a number "far, far in excess of anybody else" -- once again overlooking the fact that the US already has the strongest nuclear arsenal on the planet. The Pentagon also wants to develop a new generation of smaller "usable" nuclear weapons to allow more flexible targeting abilities -- which would actually make nuclear war more likely.


Trump Vows Major Expansion of US Nuclear Arsenal
Says Spending Will Mean Strongest Military Ever 'By Far'

Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com

(February 12, 2018) -- Talking up his new budget priorities, President Trump has told reporters that the US intends to conduct a massive expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal, with an eye toward building a number "far, far in excess of anybody else."

The US already has the strongest nuclear arsenal on the planet, a fact President Trump has often overlooked in previous comments about needing to increase spending. Numerically their warheads are roughly in line with Russia's, and either of those two has far more nuclear arms than the whole rest of the world.

President Trump insisted the US would stop building nukes if everyone else stopped, but insisted that since "others are doing it," the US needs "a nuclear force that will be absolutely modernized and brand-new."

Estimates on what nuclear modernization would cost were already in the trillions of dollars, and that was not including President Trump's intention to make the arsenal much bigger than it already is, which will surely add to the expense of the already ungainly arsenal.

The World Doesn't Need Any More Nuclear Strategies
The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review
answers questions nobody should be asking

Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

(February 6, 2018) -- The non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 is a great achievement that we take for granted all too often. Although the number of states possessing nuclear weapons has slowly increased over the past seven decades, no country has used a nuclear weapon since 1945, and despite some worrisome incidents, I know of no case where a nuclear-armed state ever came really close to firing a nuclear bomb at another country. Continuing this lucky streak for as long as possible -- ideally, forever -- should be a paramount goal for all human beings.

There are a number of obvious reasons why nuclear weapons have never been used. Attacking another nuclear-armed power is obviously foolhardy, because it risks one's own destruction and because no political gains could possibly be worth the costs of being hit by even a handful of nuclear bombs in retaliation.

It is possible to attack nuclear-armed countries with conventional forces -- as Egypt and Syria did in the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- but if you do, your aims had better be limited and you must take care not to threaten the survival or independence of the state you've attacked.

Using a nuclear weapon to attack a non-nuclear state would also be very costly to the attacking country's reputation, unless the non-nuclear state had done something truly horrible and seemed likely to continue doing it. The good news is that one does not have to be very smart or perfectly rational to figure these things out.

The extensive efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation have also made nuclear use less likely. Although this campaign could not stop a few additional states from joining the nuclear club, it ensured that this process occurred gradually and allowed other states time to adjust.

Over time, improved command-and-control and other security arrangements made accidental or unauthorized use less likely, and the emerging "taboo" against nuclear use probably reinforced non-use as well.

Instead of thinking of nuclear weapons as just a bigger bomb, both politicians and weapons experts actively worked to place these fearsome weapons in a special conceptual category, thereby increasing the political costs of crossing that particular threshold. And humankind also got lucky, insofar as there have been a few moments since 1945 when things might have gone differently.

I raise all this because nuclear weapons are back in the news. One reason, of course, is the widespread concern about North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile capabilities.

Officials in the Donald Trump administration have repeatedly said it is unacceptable for North Korea to have the capacity to strike the American homeland, and their attempts at saber-rattling -- such as talk of a so-called bloody nose strike -- have raised fears that a real shooting war might break out on the Korean Peninsula.

A second reason is the partial release of the Pentagon's new Nuclear Posture Review, which lays out an ambitious and costly proposal for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal. The modernization plan is not intended merely to ensure that US nuclear weapons remain reliable and secure (which is a perfectly reasonable objective); rather, the Pentagon also wants to develop a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons and more flexible targeting abilities, so that actual nuclear use becomes more feasible. This step is necessary, or so the planners say, to address an increasingly complicated strategic environment and certain low-level nuclear options that Russia is said to be developing.

In short, the Posture Review is recommending not just the prudent preservation of an effective deterrent; it also wants the American taxpayer to pay for a lot of expensive new ways to use a nuclear bomb. Not because its authors want to fight a nuclear war, mind you, but because they believe having this capability will make their country more secure.

Full disclosure: I've always found such discussions slightly baffling. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, and I taught classes on nuclear strategy and arms control at the start of my teaching career.

I don't focus as much on the subject nowadays -- my bad -- but I've kept up with a lot of the literature, and I have yet to read anything that has altered my belief that nuclear weapons have no real political value except as a deterrent against direct attacks against a state's home territory and/or truly vital overseas interests.

They're no good for blackmail or coercion, they don't confer as much geopolitical status as proponents believe, and they certainly don't allow their possessors to dictate terms to weaker and non-nuclear-armed opponents.

If nuclear weapons gave their possessors lots of leverage, for example, dealing with leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad (not to mention the Castros in Cuba or the Kims in North Korea) would have been a lot easier.

Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic.

They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes.

My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.

I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical "escalation ladder" to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that US leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn't have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do?

Would a top advisor really say to the president: "Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they'll think we're wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us.

I guess they've got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we'll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!"

With all that as background, I have a few questions about the new direction the Pentagon is proposing, along with a few provisional answers of my own.

Question 1: Exactly how does the more modern nuclear arsenal proposed by the Nuclear Posture Review make the United States safer?

A Dangerous Turn In US Foreign Policy
Conn Hallinan / Dispatches from the Edge

(February 06, 2018) -- The Trump administration's new National Defense Strategy is being touted as a sea change in US foreign policy, a shift from the "war on terrorism" to "great power competition," a line that would not be out of place in the years leading up to World War I. But is the shift really a major course change, or a re-statement of policies followed by the last four administrations?

The US has never taken its eyes off its big competitors.

It was President Bill Clinton who moved NATO eastwards, abrogating a 1991 agreement with the Russians not to recruit former members of the Warsaw Pact that is at the root of current tensions with Moscow. And, while the US and NATO point to Russia's annexation of the Crimea as a sign of a "revanchist" Moscow, it was NATO that set the precedent of altering borders when it dismembered Serbia to create Kosovo after the 1999 Yugoslav war.

It was President George W. Bush who designated China a "strategic competitor," and who tried to lure India into an anti-Chinese alliance by allowing New Delhi to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting India purchase uranium on the international market -- it was barred from doing so by refusing to sign the NPT -- helped ignite the dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan in South Asia.

And it was President Barack Obama who further chilled relations with the Russians by backing the 2014 coup in the Ukraine, and whose "Asia pivot" has led to tensions between Washington and Beijing.

So is jettisoning "terrorism" as the enemy in favor of "great powers" just old wine, new bottle? Not quite. For one thing the new emphasis has a decidedly more dangerous edge to it.

In speaking at Johns Hopkins, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, "If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day," a remark aimed directly at Russia. NATO ally Britain went even further. Chief of the United Kingdom General Staff, Nick Carter, told the Defense and Security Forum that "our generation has become use to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War," but "we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia," adding "The parallels with 1914 are stark."

Certainly the verbiage about Russia and China is alarming. Russia is routinely described as "aggressive," "revisionist," and "expansionist." In a recent attack on China, US Defense Secretary Rex Tillerson described China's trade with Latin America as "imperial."

But in 1914 there were several powerful and evenly matched empires at odds. That is not the case today.

While Moscow is certainly capable of destroying the world with its nuclear weapons, Russia today bears little resemblance to 1914 Russia, or, for that matter, the Soviet Union.

The US and its allies currently spend more than 12 times what Russia does on its armaments -- $840 billion to $69 billion -- and that figure vastly underestimates Washington's actual military outlay. A great deal of US spending is not counted as "military," including nuclear weapons, currently being modernized to the tune of $1.5 trillion.

The balance between China and the US is more even, but the US outspends China almost three to one. Include Washington's allies, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and that figure is almost four to one. In nuclear weapons, the ratio is vastly greater: 26 to 1 in favor of the US Add NATO and the ratios are 28 to 1.

This is not to say that the military forces of Russia and China are irrelevant.

Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide against the anti-Assad coalition put together by the US. But its economy is smaller than Italy's, and its "aggression" is largely a response to NATO establishing a presence on Moscow's doorstep.

China has two military goals: to secure its sea-borne energy supplies by building up its navy and to establish a buffer zone in the East and South China seas to keep potential enemies at arm's length. To that end it has constructed smaller, more agile ships, and missiles capable of keeping US aircraft carriers out of range, a strategy called "area denial."

It has also modernized its military, cutting back on land-based forces and investing in air and sea assets. However, it spends less of its GDP on its military than does the US: 1.9 percent as opposed to 3.8 percent.

Beijing has been rather heavy-handed in establishing "area denial," aliening many of its neighbors -- Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan -- by claiming most of the South China Sea and building bases in the Paracel and Spratly islands.

But China has been invaded several times, starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, when Britain forced the Chinese to lift their ban on importing the drug. Japan invaded in 1895 and 1937. If the Chinese are touchy about their coastline, one can hardly blame them.

China is, however, the US's major competitor and the second largest economy in the world. It has replaced the US as Latin America's largest trading partner and successfully outflanked Washington's attempts to throttle its economic influence. When the US asked its key allies to boycott China's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with the exception of Japan, they ignored Washington.

However, commercial success is hardly "imperial."

Is this a new Cold War, when the US attempted to surround and isolate the Soviet Union? There are parallels, but the Cold War was an ideological battle between two systems, socialism and capitalism. The fight today is over market access and economic domination. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin America about China and Russia, it wasn't about "Communist subversion," but trade.

There are other players behind this shift.

For one, the big arms manufacturers -- Lockheed Martian, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- have lots of cash to hand out come election time. "Great power competition" will be expensive, with lots of big-ticket items: aircraft carriers, submarines, surface ships, and an expanded air force.

This is not to say that the US has altered its foreign policy focus because of arms company lobbies, but they do have a seat at the table. And given that those companies have spread their operations to all 50 states, local political representatives and governors have a stake in keeping -- and expanding -- those high paying jobs.

Nor are the Republicans going to get much opposition on increased defense spending from the Democrats, many of whom are as hawkish as their colleagues across the aisle. Higher defense spending -- coupled with the recent tax cut bill -- will rule out funding many of the programs the Democrats hold dear.

Of course, for the Republicans that dilemma is a major side benefit: cut taxes, increase defense spending, then dismantle social services, Social Security and Medicare in order to service the deficit.

And many of the Democrats are ahead of the curve when it comes to demonizing the Russians. The Russian bug-a-boo has allowed the Party to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton's loss to Moscow's manipulation of the election, thus avoiding having to examine its own lackluster campaign and unimaginative political program.

There are other actors pushing this new emphasis as well, including the Bush administration's neo-conservatives who launched the Iraq War. Their new target is Iran, even though inflating Iran to the level of a "great power" is laughable. Iran's military budget is $12.3 billion.

Saudi Arabia alone spends $63.7 billion on defense, slightly less than Russia, which has five times the population and eight times the land area. In a clash between Iran and the US and its local allies, the disparity in military strength would be a little more than 66 to 1.

However, in terms of disasters, even Iraq would pale before a war with Iran.

The most dangerous place in the world right now is the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration appears to be casting around for some kind of military demonstration that will not ignite a nuclear war. But how would China react to an attack that might put hostile troops on its southern border?

Piling onto Moscow may have consequences as well. Andrei Kostin, head of one of Russia's largest banks, VTB, told the Financial Times that adding more sanctions against Russia "would be like declaring war,"

The problem with designating "great powers" as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog. wordpress. Com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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