In the immediate post Cold War period, regular United States Nuclear Posture Reviews have been relatively restrained, emphasising no first use and no attacks against non nuclear weapons states which are signatories of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. With his 2018 Review, however, President Trump has thrown circumspection out the window. Citing new emerging threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, he has blurred the distinction between usable and non-usable nuclear weapons and the situations in which they can be applied. To pay for an enormous expansion in the US nuclear arsenal he wants a colossal annual defence budget increase of three to four percent per annum over existing levels over ten years.
Trump’s NPR requires a root and branch renewal and expansion of the American nuclear arsenal. He wants to replace all heavy weapons and their land, sea and air launch vehicles in the nuclear triad with new models, modernise all dual-capable fighter bombers, multiply forward deployment among NATO partners of tactical nuclear weapons such as cruise missiles and re-build all US-based nuclear laboratories and manufacturing plants. He wants to deploy smaller and ‘more usable’ tactical nukes.
Defence Secretary Mattis says Trump’s NPR is based on ‘the bedrock truth’ that nuclear weapons will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack. But Trump’s plan discounts painfully negotiated post Cold War strategic arms reductions agreements such as the 1991 START treaty, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty and New START of 2010. A new Cold War arms race has begun.
As reasons for such an expansion in America’s nuclear arsenal, Trump cites dramatic increases in nuclear weapons expenditure and technology by Russia and China, North Korea’s nascent weapons program and his suspicions that Iran continues to have a secret program to develop nuclear weapons, despite it sticking to the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He also cites new tensions following Russia’s move into Crimea and its aggressive military manoeuvres in the Baltic, China’s occupation of islands in the South China Sea and tensions on the Korean peninsula generated by North Korea’s nuclear program.
At no stage does Trump provide evidence that existing United States nuclear deterrent capabilities are insufficient to contain these threats. He just claims that more nukes are better. His NPR is a spruced up Cold War document which does not address specific ways of dealing with the changing characteristics of modern warfare or deal with civil war, terrorism, asymmetry or technical advances and cyber warfare, let alone the security implications of global warming, in which he does not believe.
His NPR also flagrantly ignores the lessons of history. The Cold War is full of examples where the United States repeatedly exaggerated the nuclear capacity of the Soviet Union to galvanise public opinion to support huge increases in American defence expenditure. This led to the obscenity of the 1960 Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) which targeted each and every Soviet city with a population of more than 25,000 with at least one thermo-nuclear weapon. (Moscow was targeted with at least eighty.) Chinese cities would get the same for no particular reason. As Daniel Ellsberg notes in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury 2017), US military planners, like the psychically-numbed Dr Strangelove, coldly calculated that over the six months following the initial strike, half the populations of Russian and China would die of radiation effects alone – then 380 million people, but in today’s terms closer to one billion.
Today, as during the Cold War era, Trump’s bombastic and self-regarding claims to make America ‘great again’ through overwhelming nuclear force will motivate at least two of the other established nuclear powers (Russia and China) to emulate it. And for North Korea, the ninth and newest nuclear power on the block, it will provide unassailable proof of the deterrent value of having nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system. From Pyongyang’s point of view, it cannot be difficult to convince the people of the hypocrisy of Washington’s demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program while expanding and making more sophisticated its own.
During a major speech at the November 2017 annual symposium of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Canberra, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop failed to acknowledge the fact that the Melbourne-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. This was symptomatic of the Turnbull government’s insistence that any attempts to ban nuclear weapons is ‘premature’ and ‘irresponsible’ and that Australia’s security continues to rest on dependence on the ANZUS Treaty and the United States nuclear umbrella. Any moves to outlaw nuclear weapons are to be belittled or ignored. But this is becoming harder to do as 468 partner organisations in 101 countries now support ICAN and a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, support that continues to grow. Disappointingly, the Labor Opposition, while congratulating ICAN on its achievement (at least Penny Wong claims she did so on her website), takes an equally timid line about abolishing nukes.
Meanwhile, an Australian defence correspondent confirmed to this writer on 13 February that there has been absolutely no observable discussion among parliamentarians in Canberra about Trump’s dangerous NPR, nor much if any interest shown in the Canberra press gallery. Barnaby Joyce’s peccadilloes are much more news-worthy.
Richard Broinowski is the author of Fact or Fission: the truth about Australia’s nuclear ambitions (Scribe 2003), and Fallout from Fukushima (Scribe 2012).