WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has begun to put a price tag on its growing arms race with Russia and China, and the early numbers indicate that restoring nuclear weapons to a central role in American military strategy will cost tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
In the 2021 budget released Monday, the administration revealed for the first time that it intended to create a new submarine-launched nuclear warhead, named the W93. Its development is part of a proposed 19% increase this year, to $19.8 billion, for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that maintains the nuclear stockpile and develops new nuclear warheads. More tellingly, that is a jump of more than 50% since 2017, President Donald Trump’s first year in office.
There is $15.5 billion scheduled for development and deployment of new space assets — part of the new Space Force created by Trump — that are central to detecting incoming launches and for the command and control of American offensive weapons.
Buried in the budget is a significant new effort to develop intermediate-range missiles — largely conventional weapons — that were prohibited by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Moscow that Trump withdrew from last year.
The budget also proposes $3.2 billion for hypersonic weapons, a 23% increase in research and development meant to compete with a growing number of similar Russian weapons. The missiles are particularly hard to defend against because they follow an unpredictable path to a target, at tremendous speed. But there were few specifics about whether the American versions would be fielded around the time that Russia’s weapons roll out, now scheduled for later in this decade, or whether they would follow by a number of years.
The increases reflect more than budget priorities. They reveal a significantly different philosophy, rooted in Trump’s own belief that the United States should maintain the world’s most powerful nuclear force — and perhaps enlarge it.
When President Barack Obama’s administration signed the New START agreement with Russia nearly a decade ago, Obama declared that it was U.S. policy “to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and focus on reducing the nuclear dangers of the 21st century.” At the same time, he pledged to maintain a “safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.”
As Obama struggled to reconcile those two goals, he did not authorize new weapons. Instead, he renovated the weapons laboratories — part of the political deal that resulted in passage of the New START treaty — and deferred decisions about new bombers, ground-based missiles and nuclear-equipped submarines.
“This started under President Obama, but they consciously made no choices because the bill wasn’t due yet,” said Stephen Young, the Washington representative of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Now the Trump administration has put new projects on the table.”
The Trump budget also proposes putting significant funds into reinvigorating old systems.
For years, strategists have debated whether the United States could abandon its ground-based nuclear missiles, spread out in silos across the West. They are considered highly vulnerable and so old — many of them date to the 1970s — that they are a hazard.
But Trump has produced a base budget of $1.5 billion in 2021 to prepare for deploying a new generation of missiles in the late 2020s. That is a nearly threefold increase from last year.
In fact, the administration has put so many new projects in front of the Energy Department and the Pentagon that it seems unlikely many of them will get done, at least on the schedule Trump envisioned in his budget plan. The W93 weapon would not go into production until 2034, or nearly a decade after Trump would leave office if elected to a second term. Another new nuclear warhead, called the 87-1, a redesign of a 40-year-old thermonuclear weapon made for ground-based missiles, would not begin production until 2030.
“The bottom line is that NNSA has more work on its plate than it can perform,” Young said of the National Nuclear Security Administration. “They are attempting to rebuild the entire nuclear stockpile, while building new components. And their history is that they do not perform big projects on time and on budget.”
It is possible that Trump’s plan could be upended by the next president, or the president after that. But for now, the message being sent abroad is that the United States is back in the nuclear weapons business, either because it wants to bolster its arsenal or because Trump wants a stronger hand in negotiations.
At the same time, U.S. allies are going in the other direction. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said in a speech Friday that his country’s arsenal had dropped below 300 weapons, and that he would seek other cuts.
“These decisions are in line with our rejecting any type of arms race and our keeping the format for our nuclear deterrent at a level of strict sufficiency,” he said. He also called for “an autonomous and competitive industrial defense base,” so that France is less dependent on American technology.
The key decision over the next year will not be what weapons to manufacture, but whether the restraints on creating a new, larger arsenal will expire a year from now.
That is when the New START treaty is scheduled to expire, unless Trump and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, decide on a five-year extension, a move that would not require a Senate vote. So far, Trump has said he would take that step only if China — which did not sign the accord — joins it, along with other nuclear powers.
China has expressed no interest in doing so, and notes that its arsenal is one-fifth the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s, each of which is limited to 1,550 deployed weapons under the treaty. The administration has not explained whether it envisioned allowing China to significantly expand its arsenal to match the Russian and American levels, which seems unlikely, or to diminish the arsenals of the two largest superpowers, which is also hard to imagine.
“Time is critical,” a former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and a former Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed column on Monday. “Doing nothing while waiting for a ‘better’ agreement is a recipe for disaster: We could lose New START and fail to replace it. The treaty’s agreed limits on nuclear arsenals are too important to be put at risk in a game of nuclear chicken.”
But many of Trump’s advisers appear to disagree. They believe that the threat of a nuclear arms race will force Russia and China into a new negotiation, one that will result in a broader treaty.