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Potential Major Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Posture Changes Under a New Administration
A US B-52 Stratofortress (R) is escorted by a South Korean F-15K fighter jet (L) as it flies over the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, on January 10, 2016. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Potential Major Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Posture Changes Under a New Administration

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

Good afternoon, I’m pleased to be participating on this panel and am grateful for the opportunity.

What I’d like to do is briefly discuss what I think will be the guiding principles that will inform the Trump administration’s nuclear deterrence policies and the Nuclear Posture Review. My views on this are based primarily on the president’s public comments as well as the statements of secretary of defense James Mattis.

I’ll then move on to what I think will be an important and ongoing discussion over the next several years, and that is how the United States should think about arms control with the Russians.

First, the Trump administration appears to be adhering to a commitment to a threat-based approach to nuclear deterrence, moving away from the policy of parity and replacing it with superiority, and this includes at the very least modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Recall the Obama administration’s NPR was crafted within the context of the President’s aspirations to bring the world down to lower numbers of nuclear weapons, as laid out in his Prague speech in 2009.

In contrast, President Trump does not share the same desire to lead the world down a path to fewer nuclear weapons or to look for ways to degrade our nuclear weapons’ qualitative edge or their quantity as a matter of principle;1 rather, this administration seems to be beginning from the premise that the United States must do what it can to avoid a catastrophic military conflict and then it is working back from there. In sum, the Prague Agenda is dead.

Practically, there has repeatedly been public commitments to the nuclear triad, right away eschewing even the possibility of moving from a triad to a dyad, something contemplated but also rejected by the Obama administration. Even more specifically, a commitment to the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent, which is crucial for ensuring the land-based leg of the triad is truly supported.

General Mattis was a bit more circumspect about LRSO during his confirmation hearing. In response to a question by Senator Cotton he said LRSO “made sense to him” but that he would need more information about its deterrent value.

As for affordability, the GBSD and the LRSO combined account for just over 1 percent of the Air Force’s acquisition funding over the next five years (or the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP)).

Another difference between this administration and the previous one is on the matter of arms control. Arms control was significantly elevated in the previous administration; in my view, treaties and agreements were goals in and of themselves, rather than serving larger goals aimed at achieving a more stable and secure environment to benefit, primarily, the American people and our allies.

President Trump has made crystal clear his aversion to “bad deals.” Who could be opposed to bad ones, right? Even President Obama said regarding the Iran deal that no deal was better than a bad one. But I think President Trump will have very different metrics for determining a good deal than our previous President had.

If it does not clearly advantage the United States, if it is not objectively and assuredly verifiable, and if the party to the treaty does not demonstrate good faith in its commitment to the parameters of the treaty, the United States will not move forward with such an agreement.

The Times of London reported that then President-elect Donald Trump signaled he would consider a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Russians. As I wrote in an article for Breaking Defense, it would be ill-advised for the Trump to move forward with a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Russians until the following conditions are met:

One, the Russians are found to be in compliance with current treaty obligations. This is perfectly consistent with goals outlined in the testimony provided by Mr. Tillerson, who repeatedly pointed out that the Obama administration failed to enforce agreements, which had the unintended effect of welcoming further violations. As of now, the Russians are above New START Treaty limits. This was discussed on the previous panel, and thoroughly covered by Dr. Schneider of the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP). They must comply with the treaty by its deadline of February 2018 and, while it’s still technically possible, the trends of a Russian nuclear build-up do not build much confidence that they will be.

Additionally, the New START Treaty has major accounting loopholes that the Russians have taken advantage of. Most egregious is the bomber-counting rules.

The Russians are also in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Obama administration publicly admitted to the violations (the Russians were testing weapon systems prohibited by INF) in 2014, but now we know the Russians have deployed INF prohibited cruise missiles.

Second, the United States must do exactly what President Trump said it ought to do, and that is to expand and improve its nuclear arsenal. This does not mean the United States must expand its numbers beyond the treaty limits. But it does mean it should expand in number within the boundaries of the treaty.

It should also expand in capability, just as the Russians are expanding the capabilities of their nuclear weapons. Obama Energy Secretary Moniz characterized the difference between how the United States updates its deterrent with the way U.S. adversaries update theirs: “We refurbished our weapons to make them safer and more reliable. We didn’t ‘modernize.’” Modernization, he said, “is what Russia is doing and China is doing.” Indeed, while U.S. policymakers debate whether or not specific programs provide the country with new and improved capabilities that might be “destabilizing,” the Russians are moving forward with increased capabilities without hesitation.

Because of this, the United States should move forward with the Obama administration’s current nuclear “refurbishment” plans, without delay—and should build on them.

Third, the United States must recommit to the missile defense mission and expand its capabilities. Since the Cold War the Russians have tied missile defense to offensive nuclear armaments, and claimed that U.S. defenses negated Russian offensive missiles and, therefore, must be restricted within the context of nuclear arms reductions. Congress amended the 1999 National Missile Defense Act (NMD Act) by striking the word “limited”, thereby clearing the path for the Trump administration to expand missile defense, and to remain restricted only by technological and resource limitations, not policy. The United States must remain steadfast in its commitments and plans to develop and deploy missile defenses, both in Europe, the Middle East, at home, as well as non-terrestrial components to missile defense, will remain unfettered by Russian objections. There are also promising developments between Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States. It is wise for the three countries to further cooperate on missile defense as part of a coherent response to North Korea’s provocations.

Last, it would be wise for the Trump administration to make very clear that any future nuclear reductions treaty would restrict tactical nuclear weapons. The Russians have refused to include tactical, that is, “battle-field” nuclear weapons, in negotiation talks because they are believed to have approximately 10 tactical nuclear weapons for every one of NATOs.

And with that, I look forward to a conversation and answering any questions the audience may have.

1 Then President-elect Donald J. Trump’s statement via Twitter on December 22, 2016: “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

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