The Trump administration's blueprint for America's arsenal continues the Obama administration's plans to rebuild all nuclear submarines, aircraft and missiles, but also calls for deploying new capabilities. Critics say the plan will spark a new arms race. Nick Schifrin gets two views from Jon Wolfsthal of the Nuclear Crisis Group and Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute.

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  • The Trump administration released its blueprint for America’s nuclear arsenal today. It continues the Obama administration’s plans to rebuild all of America’s nuclear-armed submarines, aircraft and missiles.

    But it also calls for deploying new nuclear capabilities on submarines and ships.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, Pentagon officials say this is a response to what Russia and China are doing. Critics say the plan will spark a new arms race.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: For more than half-a-century, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was designed to deter nuclear attack on America and its allies.

    Today, the Trump administration says the U.S.’ nuclear air, land and sea weapons aren’t strong enough.

    PATRICK SHANAHAN: We cannot afford to let it become obsolete.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. says it’s trying to cope with adversaries increasingly threatening and complex. Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and warns it’s willing to use relatively small nuclear weapons.

    China is expanding its conventional military, and increasing its nuclear capacity. And North Korea is on the verge of creating a viable nuclear weapon that could hit the U.S.

    Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan released today’s Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR.

    PATRICK SHANAHAN: This NPR ensures we can deter any potential adversary, because they are not all alike.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: The review calls for deploying new, relatively small nuclear weapons carried on submarines, and bringing back nuclear-tipped cruise missiles for ships. The review also says the U.S. would consider using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, such as strikes on critical infrastructure.

    John Rood is the undersecretary of defense for policy.

    JOHN ROOD: In the context of a non-nuclear attack on the United States or allies that was strategic in nature, that imposed substantial impacts to our infrastructure, to our people, that we would consider that context in evaluating the appropriate response, perhaps to include nuclear weapons.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: The review maintains the Obama administration goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but sees the world as more dangerous than any time since the Cold War.

    PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Perhaps someday in the future, there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: More than half of the U.S.’ nuclear infrastructure is 40 years old. The Obama era modernization was estimated to cost $1.2 trillion. Today’s additions don’t even have a price tag. But the Trump administration says, whatever they cost, it pales in comparison to a much more costly war.

    So, are the Trump administration’s nuclear plans a good idea?

    We get two views now.

    Jon Wolfsthal was special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for arms control and nonproliferation during the Obama administration. He is now director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. And Rebeccah Heinrichs was a military and foreign policy adviser to Republican Representative Trent Franks, who served on the House Armed Services Committee. She is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

    And welcome to you both.

    JON WOLFSTHAL: Thank you.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Jon Wolfsthal, let’s start with you.

    Do you believe that the Trump administration’s plans for new nuclear capacity actually increases the chances of some kind of nuclear conflict or using nuclear weapons?

    JON WOLFSTHAL: Well, I think the goal of the NPR was to reduce the risk of nuclear war, but I think the new programs that they’re supporting actually lower the nuclear threshold and make the use of nuclear weapons more likely.

    I don’t see how a potential adversary is going to know whether we’re launching a low-yield or a high-yield nuclear weapon or conventional weapon if we’re going to intermix our capabilities this way. And the whole goal of our nuclear policy is to have clarity, but I think what we have ended up with is a lot of ambiguity.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Rebeccah Heinrichs, is there more ambiguity? And is there more likelihood today — or under this plan that there would be nuclear use or less likelihood?

    REBECCAH HEINRICHS: No, the whole point of the nuclear posture review is to lay out the administration’s plan for decreasing the chances of nuclear conflict. It’s a deterrence report.

    And most of the report, much of the report is very similar, has got a lot of overlap from the 2010 Obama NPR, committed to the nuclear triad, committed to eventually seeing the end of nuclear weapons.

    But as long as they exist, we have got to have the ability to deter them. What the report centers on is raising the nuclear threshold that the Russians in particular have lowered. And so that is the goal of the report. It is a necessary response to the exact — to the precise things that the Russian Federation in particular is doing, and that is increasing the number of nuclear weapons, the threats of nuclear — of use.

    And so there’s a gap, clearly, in our current strategic deterrent. And so this report is making a deliberate attempt to close that gap.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Jon Wolfsthal, the specific notion is that Russia has small — relatively small nuclear weapons, and the U.S. needs small, relatively small nuclear weapons in order to deter Russia’s use of that.

    Is that right?

    JON WOLFSTHAL: Well, if you believe that, then you would like the fact that we already have about 500 to 1,000 low-yield nuclear weapons in the arsenal. The air-launched cruise missile and the B-61 bomb in Europe both have lower yields.

    But I think it also ignores the fact that Russia is threatening the use of nuclear weapons because they’re conventionally inferior to the United States. They have no choice but to threaten nuclear weapons because they know that they would lose a conventional war to NATO or the U.S., which is the same thing we threatened during the ’60s, that we would escalate to the nuclear use and response to a conventional attack.

    So, I understand the desire to deter. And I think it’s an important one. And the language in the NPR on deterrence I think is sound. The problem is that Russia is going to look at these new capabilities, and they’re not going to change their strategy. They are going to say, all right, well, they’re going to beat us conventionally and they can beat us on the nuclear front, so we need to take even more asymmetric steps.

    And I think that is going to increase the risk of misinterpretation or accident.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Rebeccah Heinrichs, you’re shaking your head.

    REBECCAH HEINRICHS: No.

    The Russians outnumber U.S. and NATO tactical nuclear weapons 10-1. When the Obama administration negotiated the New START treaty, which cut U.S.-deployed strategic nuclear weapons, the Russians refused to include these tactical nuclear weapons in that arms control deal.

    So, what the United States has to do now, we have got to do something different. What we’re doing is clearly not working. The current tactical nuclear weapons that we do have do not present — they are not ready enough. And so if they were, then the Russians wouldn’t perceive this gap.

    So we have to do something now, immediate that provides an immediate response to again raise that threshold that — it doesn’t matter what Jon and I think would be an appropriate response for the U.S. What matters is what the Russians think.

    And, clearly, they see a weakness there. And so what this report does is it, works to build up that weakness and to provide a deterrence so the Russians actually change their calculus that they might get away with delivering one of these low-yield nukes.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Jon Wolfsthal, Rebeccah Heinrichs said something about making something different, what we’re doing now isn’t working.

    You worked on the last Nuclear Posture Review in 2010. This review specifically talks about how the U.S. should respond to non-nuclear strikes, so-called strategic, but non-nuclear strikes.

    Did what you hear today and what you read in the review, was it demonstrably different than the 2010 version that you worked on?

    JON WOLFSTHAL: So, I think the version — this NPR was designed to look and sound like the Obama NPR, but, in fact, the details are very different.

    So, President Obama said we want to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, we want to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. We’re going to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and we want to reduce the number.

    What this NPR says is, we’re going to increase the role of nuclear weapons. The goal of deterrence is the same, but the circumstances where we may use them are actually much broader.

    We said specifically massive controversial attack, chemical-biological attack, from a nuclear state might require us to respond with a nuclear weapon. This new category of non-nuclear strategic attack against critical infrastructure, against early warning are problems, but they don’t have a nuclear solution.

    My view is that the use of or the threatened use of nuclear weapons in these circumstances simply aren’t credible. They will weaken the credibility of our other deterrence commitments and out assurance commitments. And they’re not going to reduce Russia’s drive into these areas.

    If some these threats that we’re facing in cyber and space are so great, why not invest some of the $1.7 trillion we are going to spend on the nuclear arsenal and actually improve our cyber-capabilities?

    NICK SCHIFRIN: So, Rebeccah Heinrichs, does the talk of non-nuclear strategic strikes and responding to that in the context of Nuclear Posture Review, does that weaken U.S. deterrence, as Jon said?

    REBECCAH HEINRICHS: Of course not.

    It increases our deterrent credibility. The Obama 2010 NPR didn’t preclude the possibility that the United States might respond with nuclear responses in response to non-nuclear attack.

    It even said that they were specifically not going to rule out that possibility, because what we don’t want to do is create an incentive for adversaries to think that they might be able to get away with a slew of non-nuclear attacks against U.S. vital interests.

    Again, the United States is trying to deter nuclear use and, in fact, any kind of attack that could pose a direct and catastrophic threat against U.S. vital interests.

    So, the point here is, it’s not — again, it’s to change the calculus of the adversary. Clearly, the Russians are not deterred. We have got to do something different.

    NICK SCHIFRIN: Rebeccah Heinrichs, Jon Wolfsthal, thank you both.

    JON WOLFSTHAL: Thank you.

    REBECCAH HEINRICHS: Thanks.

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