“We now know why Tillerson called Trump a moron.”
President Donald Trump asked his top national security officials to build tens of thousands of new nuclear weapons during a July 20 meeting, according to an NBC News report published on Wednesday morning. The president’s request, experts say, is simultaneously impossible and terrifying.
“The insanity and folly of this … cannot be overstated,” Kingston Reif, the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, tweeted in response to the report. “Increasing [the US] arsenal would constitute [a] radical departure from U.S. policy and likely lead to [a] full fledged arms race with Russia and perhaps China,” he added.
There is no strategic reason for the US to increase its nuclear arsenal by such a large amount: The current US nuclear stockpile, around 4,000 nuclear devices, is more than enough to deter attacks from any hostile power. Building 32,000 more, the precise number Trump requested, would take many years and cost trillions of dollars.
And indeed, there is no indication that such a buildup is going to happen in real life. The president’s comments appear more grounded in Trump’s almost childlike fascination with military hardware — he has repeatedly requested a military parade in his honor in Washington, despite the fact that such a parade would destroy DC’s streets — than anything else.
“I do not think it is worth even analyzing this as any kind of realistic policy proposal. It is impossible,” writes Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “It is just a sign of his lack of understanding of the issues, and perhaps a window into his own insecurities.”
Trump denied the NBC News report in a Wednesday morning tweet. “Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal,” the president writes. “Pure fiction, made up to demean.” And, later in the day, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis denied the report as well in an official statement.
“Recent reports that the president called for an increase in the US nuclear arsenal are absolute false,” Mattis said. “This kind of reporting is irresponsible.”
Yet NBC News’s report is was sourced to three officials who were present during the president’s remarks. NBC also reports that the July 20 meeting where Trump asked about building more nukes also precipitated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s now-infamous description of Trump as a “moron.”
The big question about the “moron” comment, prior to Wednesday’s report, is why Tillerson was so disgusted by the president. As Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists puts it, “we now know why.”
Trump’s reported proposal is bonkers
According to NBC News, Trump’s comments during the July 20 briefing came after his advisers showed him a chart similar to the one above. It shows the total number of nuclear warheads in the US arsenal over time. It seems that Trump basically just pointed at the biggest number and asked for it.
“The president referenced the highest number on the chart — about 32,000 in the late 1960s — and told his team he wanted the U.S. to have that many now,” NBC News’s Courtney Kube, Kristen Welker, Carol Lee, and Savannah Guthrie write.
But there are good reasons why the US has been cutting its nuclear stockpile since the Cold War. The purpose of the US arsenal weapons is, somewhat paradoxically, not to be used. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that no one would win a full-blown nuclear war. The goal instead is to deter attacks, nuclear and nonnuclear, by other countries. And 32,000 nuclear weapons is much, much more than would be necessary to inflict devastating consequences on any attacker.
This became clear to both the US and the Soviet Union as the Cold War went on. The two biggest nuclear powers signed a series of arms control pacts designed to reduce and limit their nuclear arsenals, and thus the risk they pose to humanity’s survival. The US and Russia have since expanded on those efforts, most notably through the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or New START). The result is that the total number of nuclear weapons in existence is at the lowest point it’s been in decades:
12. The downward trend in warhead numbers is a pillar of international stability. A radical reversal of this bipartisan policy is folly. pic.twitter.com/nU9oAzk2MO
— Adam Mount (@ajmount) October 11, 2017
Experts disagree on what the optimal number of nuclear weapons for the US would be. Some think it’s in the thousands, some in the hundreds, and some believe that America could secure itself without any nuclear arsenal at all. But pretty much everyone agrees that going back to Cold War levels of nuclear weapons would be absolutely absurd.
It would terrify rival nuclear powers, like Russia and China, who would quite understandably wonder what the US wanted all of those nuclear weapons for, risking a Cold War-style arms race at a time when tensions between these great powers (over issues like Ukraine and North Korea) are already high.
“Literally nobody in the military or government probably thinks that a 10X increase is feasible or a good idea,” Wellerstein writes.
It also isn’t clear how the US would even go about building all the new nuclear weapons that Trump requested.
Cheryl Rofer, a scientist who studies nuclear policy, explains that the US only has one facility that can “manufacture the fissile parts of nuclear weapons”: Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Los Alamos, per Rofer, “can maybe produce 80 a year.” It would take Los Alamos at least 350 years to put together the stuff necessary to fill Trump’s request.
The cost of building new facilities like Los Alamos is, in her estimation, in the trillions. and that’s just for one part of the construction of a working nuclear weapon (you also have to assemble a working nuclear device, put them …read more