COMMENTARY: Trump’s nuclear message – Don’t tread on us

President-elect Donald Trump’’s in-kind reaction [“Trump: US must ‘greatly strengthen’ nuclear capability,” Associated Press article, Dec. 23] to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that his nation intended to strengthen its nuclear capability was viewed by some as rash and by others as calculated. Whichever, there is nothing wrong with taking stock of American nuclear weapons policy at the outset of a new presidential administration.

Trump’s tweet that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” until the rest of the world “comes to its senses” was explained by a spokesman as referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation, particularly emanating from terrorist organizations and rogue regimes. Evidently, future President Trump’s strategy is using peace through strength as the best deterrent.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Another interpretation of Trump’s nuclear statement is the need for modernization of America’s nuclear forces. That is not only necessary, but was recently initiated by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who proposed a five-year, $108 billion improvement of nuclear forces. In 2010, the Obama White House and Congress agreed on a 30-year, $1 trillion upgrade of the country’s nuclear arsenal, but there has been little action taken to follow through on that commitment.

At home, Trump and his team may want to revisit the idea of a mobile land system of nuclear weapon launchers. Abroad, the nuclear triad needs re-examination in all three areas.

In terms of land-based systems, the United States could certainly revisit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, originally signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. Through NATO authorization or unilaterally, the need to assist allies in Europe may necessitate following through on the previous proposal to install intermediate-range armaments in nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia’s implication that it may want to renegotiate the NEW START Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreement is not surprising. The current agreement could actually be called START IV, after the second-generation agreement which was initiated by the United States and Russia following the relatively successful Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty process. Though the original START treaty was ratified, two successor agreements were not.

The NEW START regime was signed in 2010, became effective in 2011, and is in force until 2021, with an option to extend the agreement five years. It limits deployed missiles and bombers to 700 each and deployed warheads to 1,550 each. The Russians can ill afford to engage the United States in a reversal of previously agreed-to reductions.

Pertaining to air-based systems, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, referred to as THAAD, continues to show promise as an effective anti-ballistic-missile system. Already deployed domestically in Texas and Hawaii and at overseas bases in Guam, Turkey, and Israel, the THAAD system is being used by the United Arab Emirates and Oman in the Middle East and is under consideration in Japan. South Korea, which previously demonstrated interest in the U.S. system, had decided to build its own version of THAAD. That prospect has angered China, but an effective ABM presence could ultimately prevent aggression by China, as well as North Korea.

The sea-based equivalent to THAAD is the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, a Missile Defense Agency program designed to enable warships to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles. At present, the system is utilized by the United States and Japan. The goal of future development of this system is the capability to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Given the timing, stakes, and nonchalance of the current administration, Donald Trump’s nuclear pronouncement should not be viewed as starting a new arms race, but as a stern message to American antagonists: don’t even think about it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. A past recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he has taught and published extensively on foreign, military and national security issues.

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