Trump and the Nuclear Triad

Why He's Right to Modernize ICBMs

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, February 2016.  Kyla Gifford / REUTERS

In a national security presidential memorandum signed on January 27, U.S. President Donald Trump promised “a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.” This statement on nuclear policy marks a drastic change from President Barack Obama’s call to “reduce reliance” on nuclear weapons while maintaining a “safe, secure, and effective,” nuclear force. 

The move will be contentious. As Amy Woolf of the Congressional Research Service writes, this may be the first post–Cold War U.S. administration not to seek a reduced role for nuclear weapons as an explicit policy objective. Among the most highly debated aspects will be the decision, also articulated in Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ confirmation hearings earlier this month, to upgrade all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad: bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Such modernization plans have been the subject of intense controversy in recent years. In 2010, the Obama administration agreed, under Republican pressure, to update the country’s aging nuclear forces, but the decision provoked a withering response, with particular criticism aimed at ICBMs. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, journalist Fred Kaplan argued that “the case for land-based ICBMs today is extremely weak” and asked rhetorically, “Why shouldn’t they be dismantled?” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry answered the question in a New York Times op-ed, explaining “Why It Is Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs.” He argued that doing so could save “considerable costs” and reduce the risk of “accidental nuclear war.” And in a Senate testimony in 2015, Mattis himself suggested he was open to the possibility, inquiring, “Is it time to reduce the triad to a dyad, removing the land‐based missiles?”

This is a valid question to ask, but in a world of growing nuclear dangers, the Trump administration is correct: the United States must retain a robust nuclear force, including ICBMs. 


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