The US President has the authority to launch the US nuclear arsenal at any time and without reference to any other authority. During the Presidential election Democrats attempted to discredit Trump's ability to handle the grave responsibilities of office that come from control of the country's thousands of nuclear warheads. US nuclear posture and doctrine is now set to remain a high-profile, contentious issue in the first year of the Trump Administration. And not just because of the President's disdain for the landmark new START that limits Russian and American strategic warheads and launchers. Recent initiatives are in play to expand the American nuclear enterprise and its capabilities, and to restrict it.
Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) 2017
President Trump has blown hot and cold on his policy approach to the nuclear arsenal, communicating his readiness to engage in an arms race, whilst at the same time offering hope of a nuclear arms control deal with Russia.
Now, Trump has ordered a root-and-branch 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'. It is likely to consider the intersection with space and cyber capabilities. The timeline for the review is unclear, but could yet be published in the summer or even the spring.
The NPR will be led by the Defence Secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis. Like the President, Mattis may yet be a wild card in this process. In oral evidence to Congress in 2015, he questioned the need for a full Triad (land-based ICBMS, bombers and submarines), and spoke of the dangers associated with the ICBM leg in particular. During his confirmation hearings in January, he appears to have quietened his curious scepticism.
The Trump narrative would have us believe that the Obama Administration allowed the nuclear infrastructure to atrophy; the truth is that plans have been underway since 2011 to spend up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade warheads, platforms and delivery vehicles, a figure far greater than the rest of the world combined in the same period.
In London last July Parliament agreed to the start of construction of the new fleet of Dreadnought submarines, due to enter into service in the early 2030s. This programme will be heavily dependent upon the parallel US programme to replace the Ohio-class submarines with the Columbia class.
Even the massive US defense budget will come under severe cost pressure to accommodate these plans to replace the submarines and the rest of the Triad in the 2020s and beyond. Obama officials were already expressing their concerns in late 2016 that their recapitalisation plans were unaffordable. This could turn out to be the most effective brake on ambitions. Nevertheless, many commentators expect the Trump NPR to essentially endorse the Obama Administration's strategy, with some high profile amendments.
The review reopens opportunities for sections within the nuclear enterprise to propose new pet projects. One such, involving the design and production of more usable 'mini-nukes', was proposed by the Defense Science Board in December and reported this week.
Such proposals have form. The 2001 Bush NPR contained ambitions for a variety of new missions for nuclear weapons, such as the bunker buster, partly as a way of offsetting what was seen as the declining salience of nuclear deterrence in the context of a growing taboo on nuclear use. Yet the Administration failed to convince Congress of the need for new missions, and the review ended up a paper exercise. It remains to be seen whether those with nuclear ambitions in this Administration can persuade a Congress likely to be in conflict with Trump on a number of fronts.
Meanwhile, initially in response to the possibility of a Trump victory in the election, Sen.Ed Markey and Rep. Ted Liu drew up a bill late in 2016 to constrain the authority of the US President to launch a nuclear first strike without a prior declaration of war by Congress. This would not affect any US response to a nuclear attack, but would prevent first use early on in any major conflict.
This concern over the dangers of a single individual initiating a nuclear war ought to be independent of the particular individual in the White House, but Trump's personality and approach warrants added urgency. Campaign groups are busy mobilising around this bill, though its chances of passing appear slim.
This begs a similar question of other nuclear-armed states. India and China have well-established no first use policies, but as in the US, most other heads of nuclear states are able to launch a first strike with minimal or no consultation. BASIC is considering similar Parliamentary action in the UK to contain the powers of the Prime Minister in launching a nuclear first strike without reference to Parliament.
This could be based upon recent precedent when Prime Ministers have sought authority from Parliament prior to military action in the Middle East over the last 15 years. It was David Cameron's failure in August 2013 to convince Parliament to support air strikes against Syria that led to a major shift in the US/UK approach.
The British decision to enter into the nuclear club was originally made by secret Cabinet sub-committee, but we have come a long way since. Both the decisions to start the Trident renewal project in 2006 and to begin construction of the Trident submarines ten years later were confirmed by Parliamentary votes. Yet many Parliamentarians do not even realise the UK consciously leaves open the option for the Prime Minister to launch nuclear weapons first, even against a state that does not possess them (if they are not in compliance with their NPT obligations).
The salience of the nuclear weapons debate in the United States and further afield has risen dramatically in recent months, with much to play for.