Real drivers behind the US nuclear arsenal expansion

Posted on January 24, 2018

Jędrzej Nowakowski
Jędrzej Nowakowski
Analyst, Research Products

This blog originally appeared on GES International’s website and has been republished following Sustainaltyics’ acquisition of the company on 9 January 2019. See the press release for more information.

During the course of 2017, it seemed as if no month passed without breaking news of North Korea’s latest development in the field of nuclear weapons, followed by angry tweets from President Trump. The rhetoric was simple: the US will not back down and is ready to use the full might of its arsenal, leaving the nuclear option on the table.

The past restraint on the side of the US when talking about nuclear weapons gave way to openly unabashed verbal exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington, and on the surface, swift decisions by the US to bolster its nuclear weapons capability.

Since 2016, the US Department of Defense has announced contracts for new ballistic missile submarines: the Columbia-class, a new long-range strike bomber: the B21 Raider, new cruise missiles: the Long Range Stand Off Weapon, and new ground-based strategic deterrent ICBM’s.

All of the above developments have one common denominator: they are future delivery systems of US nuclear weapons. To a casual observer it might seem that under Trump America is preparing for a major nuclear offensive, flexing its muscle for the world to take notice. In reality, that is not the case, as most of these processes were put into motion years ago, some under the Obama administration.

Military experts may even say that these decisions are long overdue, as America’s nuclear arsenal is ageing rapidly, and is in dire need of a major overhaul.

The US, like the other four nuclear weapon states recognized by the Non Proliferation Treaty (including the UK, France, Russia and China), pledged not to produce any new nuclear weapons. However, the Treaty does not outlaw possession of what already is in stock, neither does it forbid the upkeep of safely maintaining such weapons, up until their eventual disposal and nuclear disarmament, which is the overarching goal of the Treaty.

It is here that the US found an exploit. In the 50 years that the NPT has existed, not only has the US maintained most of its stock, but it has also managed to enhance it, by developing various new, non-nuclear components. At the same time, some of the older warheads have been phased out, so in theory, America was doing its part in global disarmament. In reality though, while the number of nuclear warheads decreased, the ones that remained have become more powerful than ever, equipped with more sophisticated guidance systems, stronger rocket motors, and enhanced warheads.

Most of these advancements were developed during the Cold War, and now the US is primed to once again conduct a major overhaul of its nuclear deterrent, which coincides with the increased tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Whatever the outcome of this conflict may be, it can be said with a dose of certainty that neither Mr Kim nor Mr Trump will get to see their devastating potential, at least not while they are in office, as the US Department of Defense estimates that it will take years, if not decades, for the new systems to be deployed. For instance, the B21 Raider bomber is expected to take to the skies around 2025, and the first of the Columbia submarines is expected to enter service after 2030. Taking into consideration the delays that usually plague such massive projects, the Korean conflict may be in the history books by the time they arrive.

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