US nuclear arsenal stronger? No, say analysts

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, US, on Aug 2, 2017.
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, US, on Aug 2, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump says the US nuclear arsenal has been beefed up since he took office in January. Not quite.

As the world digested his remarks on Tuesday threatening to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea, he said in a tweet on Wednesday: "My first order as President was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before... "

Nuclear policy and military analysts say nothing of the sort has taken place, and the only plan in the works - initiated by former president Barack Obama - has a 30-year timeline and an estimated US$1 trillion (S$1.37 trillion) cost. Most of that spending would come after 2022.

"Nothing has changed with our nuclear warheads or bombs in any significant way that makes them more powerful," said Mr Todd Harrison, a defence budget analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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The upgrades are driven by the age of systems such as the Minuteman III missiles, first deployed 40 years ago, and the fleet of 14 Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines, which already had their service lives extended to 42 years from 30 years.

The air force last year chose Northrop Grumman Corp to develop and build a new nuclear- capable bomber at a projected cost of US$80 billion as a successor to the Eisenhower-era B-52.

Mr Trump showed interest in the nuclear arsenal before taking office, tweeting in December that the US "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes". But his fiscal 2018 Budget proposal largely continues the nuclear modernisation programmes begun during the Obama administration.

NO CHANGE WITH WEAPONS

Nothing has changed with our nuclear warheads or bombs in any significant way that makes them more powerful.

MR TODD HARRISON, a defence budget analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"President Trump was informed of the growing threat last December, and on taking office, his first orders to me emphasised the readiness of our ballistic missile defence and nuclear deterrent forces," Defence Secretary James Mattis said in a statement on Wednesday.

Mr Trump's own review to start thinking about how to upgrade the air-land-sea nuclear triad is not complete, much less the turning of wrenches to modernise it, according to a Senate Republican aide who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Pentagon began a nuclear posture review in April, but it is not expected to be completed until the end of the year, according to Mr Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association.

For now, at least, the arsenal is shrinking. The New Start treaty limits the US to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 long-range delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine- launched ballistic missiles and bombers. Those treaties must be met by next year.

"The size of our ICBM force has gone down under this administration" not because of the President's efforts, but because it was already under way, said Mr Harrison.

"It has gotten smaller, not larger."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'US nuclear arsenal stronger? No, say analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe