Trump says he's made the US nuclear arsenal 'far stronger' and 'more powerful.' He hasn't

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump suggested that his actions have made the U.S. nuclear arsenal "far stronger" and "more powerful."
  • Nonproliferation experts say that claim is unjustified.
  • Trump ordered a review of U.S. nuclear posture, but it has not been completed and no new actions have resulted from it.
Trump on Twitter boasts about US nuclear arsenal after 'fire and fury' threat

President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested that the nation's nuclear arsenal is more formidable today as a result of his actions, but experts say the agencies responsible for the arsenal have not taken any demonstrable steps to strengthen it — at least not on the president's orders.

@realDonaldTrump: "My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before …."

Trump made the claim on Twitter following the disclosure on Tuesday that North Korea has developed a nuclear weapon designed to fit inside its missiles. North Korea has threatened to fire rockets into the waters around Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, prompting Trump to respond with threats to rain "fire and fury" on the hermit kingdom.

The Department of Defense and the Energy Department have indeed undertaken a long-delayed modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and related systems and facilities, but their current initiatives were started before Trump's inauguration, many on President Barack Obama's watch.

"Nothing has changed in the seven months since he took office. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is no more or no less powerful."
Kingston Reif
director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump ordered a comprehensive review of the U.S. military, including conducting a Nuclear Posture Review. That review began in April and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Any improvements that the Trump administration seeks to make to the U.S. nuclear capability will result from that review, said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

"Nothing has changed in the seven months since he took office. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is no more or no less powerful," he told CNBC.

Other nonproliferation experts and defense reporters also expressed doubt over the president's claim.

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"Any decision that the president were to make now, or that he took in January, would take years to implement," Jon Wolfsthal, former National Security Council senior director for nonproliferation and arms control under Obama, told The Washington Post. "I'm very skeptical of the idea that Trump believes that he has modernized or adjusted our arsenal because there have been no visible changes to it."

Aaron Mehta, senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News tweeted, " ... no, the president has not done a single thing to the nuclear stockpile that wasn't already underway."

Modernization was already underway

The Obama administration completed the last Nuclear Posture Review in 2010 and implemented many of the current efforts to modernize the arsenal.

The modernization effort includes updating, rebuilding and developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarines that make up the U.S. strategic delivery system and would facilitate a nuclear strike.

Despite the Obama administration committing to renewing this so-called nuclear triad, these programs will not reach completion for a decade or more, according to Reif at the Arms Control Association.

"These are all in their infancy. These are acquisition programs that are going to take 10, 15, even 20 years to complete. The majority of them aren't going to enter service until the mid-2020s," he said.

Former NATO Ambassador Nick Burns: War with North Korea is not imminent

Updating these systems will also be costly. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost $400 billion to update the nuclear triad over the next 10 years.

The modernization also entails refurbishing nuclear warheads and improving the aging facilities where the work is done. While the work on warheads has been ongoing for decades, it accelerated under Obama, Reif said.

The Pentagon is also updating the command and control systems that facilitate communication with nuclear forces. Additionally, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel set into motion a program to overhaul management within the U.S. nuclear force to address professional and ethical lapses.

The Department of Defense and Energy Department did not immediately respond to inquiries into whether they had taken any steps as a result of any executive action by Trump.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on Trump's tweet.

The tweet also contained a factual error. Trump's first action as president was not ordering the Defense Department to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review.

That executive order followed several other orders and memos, including those related to repealing Obamacare, approving controversial oil pipelines, expediting environmental reviews for infrastructure projects, hiring more immigration and customs officers, and securing the border with Mexico.