There is no question in my mind that nuclear policy issues — from the shape and composition of our own nuclear forces and nuclear policy to the multiple challenges of nuclear deterrence and reassurance — will be as important in the Trump Administration as they were in the Obama years. Yet despite these pressing challenges there has been very little attention paid or information released from key players in the new Administration about their plans, points of view, priorities and objectives for U.S. nuclear policy.
I, for one, have stopped paying attention to what President Trump has said and is saying on the issue. He is on all sides of many issues and is clearly, despite now having received the nuclear employment briefing from his military advisors, not experienced or prepared to address these issues in a serious way. Few new Presidents are. This leaves his senior advisors — Secretary Mattis, Secretary-designee Tillerson and NSA Mike Flynn — as key voices that will help set and guide this policy over the coming months. Yet from them, too, we have heard little and should be asking more.
Aside from the potential for a crisis to emerge at any time from North Korea, South Asia or elsewhere, there are three key indicators I will be looking for as we assess the direction of American nuclear policy under President Trump. These are not the only three, or the most important, but they are the ones to watch for early that may give us a sense of where things are headed.
First is whether the Trump Administration will prepare a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). President Obama was required by law to do so, and wisely made it a whole-of-government effort with important input from not only the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs, but also from the Departments of State, Energy, NNSA, the White House and Office of Science and Technology Policy. President Trump has no legal obligation to prepare an NPR. Whether and how the Trump team decides to pursue a public statement of nuclear policy will be telling. Given the tendency of the President to tweet first and think second, it would be stabilizing for the team to have an agreed template to help guide our military and diplomatic efforts. Will this be a whole-of-government effort or limited only to the Department of Defense? It is worth nothing that this work is usually led by the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, a position for which no one has yet been named.
Second is whether and when the Trump Administration decides to revisit U.S. nuclear weapons employment guidance. Every president — and only the president — is responsible for when and how nuclear weapons are used. However, the uniformed military needs to have guidance well before such decisions are made to ensure they are organizing forces, conducting planning and investing the resources needed to give the president the options he believes are necessary. Current guidance was set in 2013 and does not necessarily need to be updated. It allows for but does not require significant reductions below current levels. The new team may leave well enough alone. But they may conduct another review if they believe current guidance does not provide the president with the options he wants or organizes our forces to effectively deter our adversaries, reassure our allies and achieve military outcomes should deterrence fail. It is possible, given that the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford and his Vice Chairman General Selva both approved of the 2013 guidance as recently as last year, that no changes are required from a military perspective, but again it is the president’s choice. If there is a desire to adjust guidance, that in itself may also be insightful. There is no obligation that the White House announce the start of such an effort, but again this is a question that should be asked.
Lastly, the nuclear budget remains a critical question. There is no way that the United States Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration will be able to do all they plan to do over the next 30 years with the amount of money they are asking for at this point. As we said in the previous Administration, either we need more money or have to buy less. Budgets will need to go up (perhaps way up) or expectations will need to come down (either buy less or buy the same amount over a longer period of time). When the White House submits its first budget we will have some inkling of their priorities on a range of issues, but what I will be watching for are the nuclear numbers and whether they go “all in” early on the current plan to replace all three and one-half legs (subs, missile, bombers and cruise missiles) of the nuclear triad. If they do, but don’t increase the 5-year defense budget projections, we will know they still have not confronted the reality of the modernization bow wave on the horizon.
As mentioned above, these are not the only issues to watch for, but how the new team approaches them will tell us both about how they work and where they intend to lead on nuclear policy. The answers may determine whether we have a period of stability and predictability, or one where many long-standing assumptions about deterrence, reassurance and nonproliferation are challenged, with unpredictable consequences.