President Donald Trump’s February 23 interview with Reuters has understandably garnered much attention.
Among other matters, he advocated a tougher U.S. stance on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and other security issues.
Regarding nonproliferation, Trump reiterated his opposition to the 2014 Iran nuclear pact and maintained that Beijing could “very easily” pressure North Korea into ceasing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs. Trump did not exclude meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to try to end Pyongyang’s provocations through diplomacy, an idea Trump first raised during his presidential campaign.
However, Trump warned that the U.S. government was considering “a lot more” than diplomatic and defensive measures to end the North Korean threat.
With respect to the strategic balance, Trump asserted that the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity.” He stated that it would be his dream to eliminate nuclear weapons throughout the world, “but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
Regarding Russia, Trump labeled Moscow’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty “a big deal.”
The treaty prohibits Russia and the United States from researching, testing, and deploying ground-launched missiles, whether armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
According to media reports, the U.S. intelligence community recently concluded that the Russian military has deployed two battalions of a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile (U.S.-designated SSC-8). Each battalion may have several dozen SSC-8 missiles on multiple road-mobile launchers. One of the two battalions has been moved from its missile test site at Kapustin Yar, located near Volgograd in southwestern Russia, to an unidentified operational base in another part of the country.
The new system may be a ground-launched version of the sea-launched Kalibr intermediate-range cruise missile that Russia has employed with conventional warheads in Syria for over a year. Depending on the version, these missiles can carry a 1,000 pound explosive package up to 2,500km when launched from surface ships or submarines. They can also carry nuclear warheads.
The SSC-8 may be launched from the two-stage mobile 9K720 Iskander-M (NATO-reporting name SS-26 Stone), with which Russia has been reequipping its Ground Forces.
According to Russian News Agency TASS, “the Iskander tactical ballistic missile complex includes a launcher, a loader-transporter, a routine maintenance vehicle, a command post vehicle, an information post, an ammunition equipment set and training aids.” When deployed with its standard 9M728 cruise missile, the Iskander’s stated range is slightly under 500km, but with a different cruise missile or other payload, its reach could extend well beyond that.
Depending on the location of this mobile battalion and any other missiles that Russia deploys, the SSC-8 could hit a variety of targets in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, including U.S. friends, allies, and U.S. military forces deployed or operating in these regions.
For instance, an extended-range version of the Iskander based in Kaliningrad could hit NATO missile defenses, command posts, air bases, and other high-value targets throughout Europe, making it difficult to reinforce the Baltic states and other areas near Russia.
In his Reuters interview, Trump criticized the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as “just another bad deal that the country made,” and promised that under his leadership, “we’re going to start making good deals.”
Trump left open whether the United States would withdraw from the INF Treaty or New START—as the George W. Bush administration did from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002—or try to correct weaknesses in the current agreements through formal amendments or informal agreements, or attempt to secure better deals in future accords.
President Trump’s remarks must be viewed in context.
First, there are many continuities in Trump’s views and those of previous U.S. presidents, though as usual, Trump’s diction differs from that of his predecessors.
For example, former President Barack Obama similarly accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty, unsuccessfully appealed to China to pressure North Korea into curtailing its nuclear and missile programs, strove to secure greater defense commitments from NATO’s European members, and committed to spending billions of dollars to ensure a safe and secure U.S. nuclear force.
Like his predecessor, Trump did not discuss proposals to resume U.S. nuclear weapons testing, deploy space-based missile defenses, or pursue other contested defense initiatives.
Second, in some respects, the global nuclear balance has indeed become less favorable to the United States.
Besides China’s growing capabilities, Russia currently has more strategically deployed nuclear warheads than the United States and has successfully improved its other nuclear capabilities. However, the INF Treaty and New START had little direct effect on this outcome.
Over the past decade, Russia has been steadily rebuilding its nuclear forces, which collapsed after the Cold War, within New START ceilings. Meanwhile, the United States has mainly extended the life of the Cold War-era nuclear systems and warheads that it inherited from the Cold War.
Although new U.S. initiatives will eventually change this situation, at least for the next few years, enforcing the New START constraints will benefit the United States, since the next-generation U.S. nuclear delivery systems currently under development will probably not become operational before 2026.
However, congressional support for nuclear rearmament to address this capabilities gap is broad but potentially shallow, given many members’ desire to spend more on other defense priorities and support effective arms control.
Trump could address congressional concerns about Russian arms control violations through targeted means, such as applying the newly enacted Rogers-Poe provision of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA Section 1290), which sanctions companies involved in arms control violations as well as entities that do business with them.
Most importantly, Trump seems open to looking beyond New START in an effort to put the Russian-U.S. strategic framework on a more positive trajectory.
Obama also saw New START as a transitional arrangement to be superseded by a superior accord that would mandate reduced Russian strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
Given the Trump administration’s openness to rethinking U.S. nuclear strategy, now is the time to reconsider old truths and encourage new thinking about nuclear futures.