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Trump Claims To Have Modernized The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal


As concern grows over North Korea's nuclear weapons, President Trump tweeted this morning about the U.S. arsenal. He wrote, my first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. We wanted to fact check the president's statement, so we've asked NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel to take a look. Welcome to the studio, Geoff.


CORNISH: What have you learned so far?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's a lot of questions around some of the facts in that tweet this morning. First of all, President Trump's first executive order had to do with repealing the Affordable Care Act, not nuclear weapons. Although his secretary of defense, James Mattis, put out a statement today saying that one of Trump's first orders to Mattis had to do with nuclear weapons.

In raw megatons, the U.S. arsenal is smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War, although the U.S. still has almost 5,000 nuclear weapons, which is plenty in most people's books. In fact, there really haven't been any perceptible changes to the nuclear arsenal since Trump's inauguration.

CORNISH: But it is true that President Trump has been concerned about the state of the nuclear arsenal going back to when he was a candidate during the presidential debates, for instance. Here he is with Hillary Clinton.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She talks tough against Russia, but our nuclear program has fallen way behind. And they've gone wild with their nuclear program - not good. Our government shouldn't have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We're tired. We're exhausted in terms of nuclear.

CORNISH: Now, Geoff, you also said that the nuclear arsenal is smaller and less powerful. Help us understand the context for the president's concerns.

BRUMFIEL: Right. It is true that Russia is in the process of deploying new missiles and testing new systems to deliver nuclear weapons, and that's cause for concern for sure. It's also true that America's nuclear arsenal has shrunk since the Cold War, and it's aging.

Three years ago, I went out to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and I visited a launch control center where they launch these missiles from - a bunker. And it was full of old floppy disks. Many of the Air Force officers had never even seen floppy disks until they got there. Morale was low. Now, there has been a plan to modernize the force, but Trump can't take credit for that. It started under Obama.

CORNISH: So what would it mean to modernize this force?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the nuclear force is broken into three parts. There's submarines. There's bombers, and then there's these big intercontinental ballistic missiles. And all three of these are set to be upgraded in the coming decades and actually replaced. This is going to be enormously expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost 400 billion over just the next decade. Over 30 years, that could go to well over a trillion dollars. And Trump is going to have to make some hard choices about the program. In fact in January, he ordered the Pentagon to conduct a review of the nuclear arsenal.

CORNISH: In the end, what do you see as the status of this arsenal?

BRUMFIEL: I've been speaking to experts today, and I think Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association sums it up best.

DARYL KIMBALL: The United States has the world's most deadly and formidable nuclear arsenal. There's no doubt about it. No U.S. strategic commander would trade the U.S. arsenal for any other country's arsenal.

BRUMFIEL: Now, that's not an endorsement, by the way. I should say the Arms Control Association is advocating for fewer nuclear weapons, not more. But the bottom line is that the reason there's all this old equipment out there is that it works. And the U.S. knows it works. It's reliable.

Earlier this month, the U.S. fired an unarmed ICBM from California across the Pacific Ocean, 4,200 miles away. And it flew perfectly, and it landed right on target. So I mean I think despite all this talk over the past few days and weeks, the bottom line is the nuclear arsenal is very powerful and very reliable.

CORNISH: That's NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.