Trump's Nuclear Boast Is Obama's Modernization Plan

Enough, already.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There's no good place to start a nuclear arms race -- and Twitter is an especially bad venue. So it's unfortunate that President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday tweeted his desire for the U.S. to "greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability," then followed up on Friday morning by saying, "Let it be an arms race."

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

It's hard to know exactly what Trump means -- such are the limitations of communication via 140 characters or off-the-air phone calls to morning-TV hosts -- but it's possible he is simply referring to the need to continue the U.S.'s nuclear modernization program. In the 2016 federal budget, President Barack Obama laid the groundwork for a $1 trillion overhaul of the nation's nuclear arsenal: warheads, missiles, bombers, submarines, targeting systems and the Department of Energy's huge research and development system.

The plan has some flaws. Not all three legs of the "nuclear triad" (missiles on subs, planes and buried in the ground) are in need of an upgrade, for example: Intercontinental ballistic missiles are part of a Cold War deterrence strategy based on mutually assured destruction. Meanwhile, the accuracy of submarine-based missiles has vastly improved in the last several decades. And a plan to create a new nuclear cruise missile that could be launched from a bomber and directed at a target up to 1,500 miles away may be too risky.

For the most part, however, the plan is well conceived and necessary, to deter both major powers such as Russia and China and hostile smaller nations intent on joining the nuclear club such as Iran.

It would leave the U.S. with 700 deployed ICBMs, subs and bombers capable of delivering nuclear warheads -- the maximum allowed under the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which is set to go into force in 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to Trump by saying that, if the U.S. started an arms race, Russia would respond. Yet he, too, is already embarking on a rebuilding of what were the Soviet Union's nuclear forces.

One tweet does not official U.S. policy make -- at least not yet. When Trump does begin to translate his statements about nuclear weapons into actual plans, he could do worse than staying the course that Obama has set.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.