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  October 11, 2017

US Nuclear Upgrade Began Before Trump

Trump reportedly asked to expand the US nuclear arsenal tenfold, but a dangerous upgrade already began before he took office, says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists
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Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons. He specializes in using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in his research and is a frequent consultant to and is widely referenced in the news media on the role and status of nuclear weapons.


US Nuclear Upgrade Began Before TrumpAARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. President Trump is denying a report he has sought a massive expansion of US nuclear weapons. NBC News reported Tuesday that this summer, Trump asked top officials for a nearly tenfold increase of the US nuclear arsenal. Trump was shown a chart of the US stockpile over 70 years and he is said to have pointed to a part of the chart showing the arsenal's highest point, about 32,000 warheads in the late 1960s. Trump apparently "told his team he wanted the US to have that many now," officials said, according to NBC.

On Twitter today, Trump called the NBC report "pure fiction," but Trump is no stranger to making alarming statements about nuclear weapons. On top of his threats to North Korea, Trump has openly called for expanding the nuclear arsenal. One thing that has been overlooked is that Trump is not the only one. Under President Obama, the US undertook a major enhancement of its nuclear weapons program. In a recent study for the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists called Obama's program a "revolutionary increase in the lethality of submarine-borne US nuclear forces that boost the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three."

Hans Kristensen is the lead co-author of that study. He is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Hans, welcome. Let's start with your reaction to this report of President Trump asking his top officials for a ten-fold increase of the US nuclear arsenal.

H. KRISTENSEN: It shows that the President operates on another plane, if you will, in terms of facts. Obviously, he can say what he wants but, even if he wanted to, there is no way that the United States could build up its nuclear weapons to that level, or wanted to, today. It's an odd report, but it's consistent with the strange statements that he has been making over the years, for the last many months here he's been in office, but even before that.

It remains to be seen, but my concern is not so much that he will try to increase the size of the arsenal. It's more that he is, he seems sort of pre-positioned for greatness in terms of nuclear weapons and likes to see more, but that could also translate into better capabilities, so to speak, or a few more types or something like that. It remains to be seen what happens, because we now, we're waiting for the results of the Trump Administration's so-called Nuclear Posture Review, which is a study, an internal study of what the US arsenal should look like for the next ten years.

AARON MATÉ: On that point about enhancing the capability of the weapons, this part of the reason why I wanted to have you on, is because you co-authored that study that I mentioned, showing, just quoting it, again, "a revolutionary increase in the lethality of submarine-borne US nuclear forces." This even predates President Trump. This happened under President Obama. Can you talk about what you looked at in your study?

H. KRISTENSEN: Yeah, it even predates the Obama Administration. It was something that started all the way back in the Clinton years and then took off in the Bush years and the program really kicked in during the Obama years and it's going to finish here in two years, I think it is, one or two years. This is a very big program.

Basically what we looked at were reports about indicators we've gotten here and there over the years that something was going on with the warheads that the U.S. was currently producing or reproducing. It's one of the two warheads that's on the Navy's Ballistic Assault Submarines. It has a maximum yield of 100 kiloton, so it has not been particularly useful against hardened underground targets.

Some of the things we heard was that they had fiddled with the fusing component on the reentry body, not changing the warhead nuclear explosive package itself, not the piece that goes bang. It's not like they're increasing the yield or something, but they've changed the way the warhead navigates, so to speak, not by increasing its accuracy, but by being able to detonate an exacting, a more appropriate height over the target than previously.

By doing that relatively cheaply, have been able to increase the capacity of that portion of the arsenal to hold at risk hardened underground facilities, such as ICBM silos and command centers.

AARON MATÉ: You say in your study that that process has thus increased the overall killing power of US ballistic missiles by roughly a factor of three?

H. KRISTENSEN: That's correct. The kill probability of using this warhead against a hardened target, for example, a silo, that's gone up about a factor of three. The point is that you don't have to expend as many warheads per target as you would have previously in order to be certain that the target had been destroyed. The advantage of that, of course, is that as you go to lower numbers in the nuclear weapons stockpile in total, those that are left can be used more efficiently. In a way, it is to compensate for that. You can no longer afford to have a lot of nuclear weapons sort of earmarked for a certain group of targets, so what they'd like to see are that the accuracy and the efficiency of nuclear weapons in general in the future, a modernized nuclear weapons stockpile. That increases so you can do with fewer weapons and those you have are much more efficient.

AARON MATÉ: Just to underline this, while President Trump is brazenly calling for increasing, expanding, the US nuclear arsenal, that in some ways might obscure the fact that previous presidents have done something similar, but just in a more understated way. Even if they can say that they've reduced the amount of warheads, they've quietly expanded the killing capacity of those warheads, so in some ways, offsetting the reduction of the number.

H. KRISTENSEN: To some extent, but the number reduction, of course, is an achievement in and of itself because that relates to, if you could call it the overall arms control process, for example, with Russia, where the two countries are trying to reduce their arsenals, how many nuclear warheads they have. That is what Trump has been talking about in the context of this latest news story. It's sort of the simple way of looking at it, counting warhead numbers. What the military is more interested in now, and has been for many years and increasingly so, is to make the weapons that are left more efficient and more flexible, so they could be used against a wider range of targets and also produce less radioactive fallout by taking advantage of their capabilities.

It's an ongoing process, it's been underway for a long time and it's slated to continue. We will see. The Air Force is underway with an upgrade of one of its warheads on it's Minuteman III ICBM, that will also get this capability. I predict that in the future, once they're done with all these upgrades, we would probably have a hard target kill capability on all the ballistic warheads on both the sea-based and the land-based...

AARON MATÉ: The question becomes, then, which you do explore in your study, what are the implications here for global security? How does this enhancement of the U.S. arsenal factor into Russia's thinking? Russia, who has the other major nuclear stockpile.

H. KRISTENSEN: Russia, of course, is making its own dirty work, its own modernization of its nuclear arsenal. We've just recently seen here some examples of Russia testing new types of warheads or new types of reentry vehicles to go on their ballistic missiles. They're upgrading their systems as well, but they're doing it for their reasons. You could say in a way that's part of what's going on here, that those countries are modernizing their forces based on what they want to see, they want to be able to do with their military forces. That is not just a question of nuclear, it's a broader issue of strategic capabilities. This nuclear upgrade fits into a broader enhancement of US offensive capabilities.

For an adversary, that was paramount, and convinced that the United States is out to conduct a surprise first attack and decapitate their nuclear forces or something to that effect. These would be some of the signs they would be looking for and that would reaffirm, probably, in their mind, that the US has intentions like that. I don't think the US, certainly not at the nuclear level, is interested at all in conducting sort of broad, first decapitating strikes at all. I think it's a totally different form of planning today, but it appears to an adversary that is already convinced that the United States is using advanced nuclear forces, plus advanced conventional forces, plus ballistic missile defense, plus cyber attack capabilities, to get the upper hand in a major war. These things have a nasty way of reaffirming what countries perhaps already fear.

AARON MATÉ: Right, and part of the big problem with nuclear weapons is that if a mistake is made, if there's a miscalculation, if there's a misreading what the other side is doing, that also raises the threat of some sort of mistaken decision that threatens annihilation, right? And this modernization would seem to increase that risk.

H. KRISTENSEN: One of the things that all countries are very fearful about is sort of what I call this surprise first attack that could, if not entirely decapitate, but certainly put out of business, a significant portion of their retaliatory capability. For the Russians, it would be particularly concerning that these are capabilities that increase the capability of the warheads to kill their quick-launch ICBM's. The US already has more than enough capability to hold at risk all the Russian ICBM silos. That can push, of course, a development where the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia is kept on an artificially high readiness level, because both sides will have to fear that the other side is out to get them in a surprise attack. If you want to increase international stability, you want to move away from forces that have the capabilities to conduct these kind of decapitating or disabling strikes, if you will.

The land-based ICBM's have traditionally had that role. Now, with this capability and also because of another warhead that has been on the submarines for a while, this is now a capability that, at least in the US nuclear arsenal, is very, very potent at sea. For an adversary, that's an extra step, because unlike the ICBM's on land, the submarines can move and they can sail close, relatively close, to an adversary's territory, which means that you can launch missiles against their targets, hypothetically in a surprise attack, where these warheads will land on their target in about half the time it otherwise would take to get a warhead on target from an ICBM.

AARON MATÉ: As we wrap, you mentioned before that the US is undergoing a review of its nuclear posture. Seeing as how the nuclear arsenal, the capability, has been enhanced, even if the number of warheads has been reduced, what do you see as the optimal solution to deal with the lethality, the danger of the nuclear arsenal, of both US and Russia, especially at a time when tensions between the two sides are so high?

H. KRISTENSEN: There's several steps that have to be taken. First of all, on the arms control level, if you will, where the New START Treaty like we talked about, will be implemented or enter into effect, next year in February, the two countries are on track to meet that treaty, but the treaty expires three years later in 2021. It can be extended for five years, so the least that the United States and Russia should do, of course, is to make an agreement to extend that treaty. Doing anything but that would be very problematic for international relations in general because of the support that's needed from countries around the world to do a lot of stuff on non-proliferation policies in general. Too complicated to get into now, but I think that's a must.

The other thing they have to do is they have to fix the INF Treaty, where Russia apparently has violated it by deploying a ground-launch system with an INF range, intermediate range. Now what's happening is that the White House, apparently, is favoring the United States also conducting research and development of such a missile, not necessarily testing and deploying it, but certainly taking the step toward that. Both sides need to get back in sync with the INF Treaty and stop doing these types of either clear violations or steps toward a violation.

That's sort of the arms control issue, so I suspect what they could do very quickly, they could very quickly make an agreement where they would agree to change the New START Treaty to reduce the deployed nuclear forces by another third. The United States military has already, several years ago, concluded that even when the New START Treaty enters into effect and is implemented, the United States will at that point have more than one-third nuclear weapons more than it actually needs for its military strategy. But they want to see Russia come along with that, so I think it's important to engage the Russians directly and try to move this forward.

On the fore-structure developments in general, I think what's really needed is that the two sides continue to modify their requirements to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in general. We have seen an uptick recently in the role that nuclear weapons are said to play in their strategies, both Russia, of course, is doing that, and that's concerned in NATO, but also the United States in response to that has also started to tweak its nuclear operations. It's very important that the two sides, on those two levels, begin to calm things down and trim these operations and fore-structures, etc., etc., and maybe use that as a way to break through some of this very negative atmosphere there is between East and West today.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, thank you.

H. KRISTENSEN: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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