Yesterday U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed that America’s nuclear arsenal must be at the “top of the pack.” For the record, America is already a leading nuclear power, but Trump has made so many ill-informed and flat-out wrong comments about nukes that his words should come as no surprise. The fact is, most nuclear weapons experts will tell you that America’s arsenal is already the best in the world, despite the age of many of the missiles currently deployed and stockpiled.
“I can’t imagine anyone in our country or any other country who doesn’t think we’re at the top of the pack right now,” Greg Terryn, a policy analyst at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Foxtrot Alpha. “We have one of the most expansive [arsenals]. We have three legs of the triad. We do a good job of keeping it updated and we’re going to be spending up to a trillion dollars for the next 30 years to maintaining this arsenal.”
With 7,000 warheads in the Russian Federation and around 6,800 in America, according to the Ploughshares Fund—an anti-nuclear weapon foundation—the two countries have more nukes than the rest of the world combined. And while America arguably has the best missile defense systems in the world, no system can stop a full-scale nuclear attack. And as I wrote in Foxtrot Alpha previously, even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan’s 250 warheads would destroy the earth. So, building more of these dangerous weapons would be pretty moot.
Trump’s ignorance on nukes takes me back to a presidential debate in September when he told Lester Holt that America hasn’t kept up with Russia in modernizing its stockpile. “Russia has been expanding their—they have a much newer capability than we do,” he said. “We have not been updating from the new standpoint.”
His words were false then and it is very clear that nearly five months later he still hasn’t learned much about how America’s nuclear program was conceived and why it can’t be compared to the one Russia manages. Indeed, Russia has newer ICBMs, like the RS-24 Yars Intercontinental ballistic missile, introduced in the 2000s. It can reportedly carry 10 nuclear warheads.
In comparison, America has the older Minuteman III that can only carry one warhead. Whether you think one is better than the other largely depends on your ICBM strategy. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, the founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk, explained to Business Insider that newer doesn’t necessarily mean better. Lewis said that the Russians build weapons that would require incremental improvements every ten years or so. Americans tend to build their nukes to last decades.
Here’s his breakdown, per Business Insider:
“Russia’s nuclear weapons are newer, true, but they reflect the design philosophy that says ‘No reason to make it super fancy because we’ll just rebuild it in 10 years.’”
The philosophical differences don’t end there.
“Russians love to put missiles on trucks,” said Lewis, while the US prefer land-based silos, which present a reliable target and lack mobility. During the height of the Cold War, the US did at one point try a truck-launched ICBM, but US safety and durability requirements far exceeded that of the Russians rendering the platform unreasonable.
“[The US] like things that are reliable, things that can be maintained, things that you have to really train people to do,” explained Lewis. This difference stems from the people who comprise the US military, and how they differ from the Russians.
“Non-Commissioned Officers are the core of [the US] military,” said Lewis. “They’ve been around a long time. That’s why we’re way better than the Russians, who still have conscripts.”
It’s that professionalism at the core of the US military that makes America a different kind of world power. We prefer accuracy over destructive capability.
Context matters, folks. Trump’s remarks can be read as America having an aging stockpile of weapons that don’t work, and that is simply not the case.
And by the way, being “on top of the pack” doesn’t equal winning a nuclear war. Everyone is screwed if that happens. If America and Russia launched nuclear weapons, both sides would suffer enormous losses.
Terryn said that every president since Ronald Reagan has worked towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and that Trump’s words could trigger an arms race profile that focuses on nuclear expansion and who will be the biggest and toughest in a nuclear scenario. That would make the world far more dangerous than before Trump entered office.
“You can’t win an arms race,” Terryn said. “The only way to win an arms race is not to race at all. I’d be concerned that once you start, it would be really hard to put it back into Pandora’s Box.”