The Nuclear Threat Environment Facing the Trump Administration


With Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, the American people can expect the new administration to author a Nuclear Posture Review that is likely to differ significantly from the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. This is primarily because the two men have fundamentally different worldviews. Whatever direction the new administration takes, one thing is certain: The nation’s adversaries pose an increasingly daunting challenge when it comes to nuclear weapons.

While Obama deserves considerable credit for spending more time thinking about nuclear deterrence than any post-Cold War president, competing budgetary priorities have left the United States’ nuclear arsenal older than it has ever been. Both delivery vehicles and warheads are in need of replacement as system components and technology age out. At present, the Long Range Stand-off Cruise Missile (LRSO), B-21 stealth bomber, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) are planned as replacements for existing delivery systems, but these new systems are at least a decade out.

To make matters worse, our adversaries spent the past decade expanding (China and North Korea) and modernizing (Russia, China, North Korea) their nuclear forces. They are fielding both new warheads and new delivery systems that incorporate a number of developments that make their weapons harder to target by, for example, American ballistic missile defenses. Because the United States did not do the same, the American advantage in both weapons science and engineering and delivery vehicle technology has shrunk while other countries – China and Russia in particular – continued to advance the science and technology of their nuclear weapons programs.

While the United States is in the early phases of modernizing its nuclear forces, any discussion of comprehensive nuclear modernization should occur with adversaries in mind. Descriptions of what America’s adversaries are doing to field nuclear forces have been missing in policy and strategy debates.

Contrary to the assertions of some nuclear critics, we should not inherently fear the modernization efforts of our adversaries or see them as the beginning of a new arms race. Just as a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one, modern nuclear forces can and do contribute to strategic stability by making a country feel secure. What matters most is how an adversary intends to use their nuclear weapons.

While the current debate in Washington focuses on whether the United States should modernize nuclear weapons and whether we can afford to spend six percent of the defense budget on a nuclear deterrent, our adversaries are having no such debate. Russia, China, and North Korea are moving forward aggressively as they see advancements in nuclear capabilities as playing a major role in deterring or defeating the United States while they advance their regional interests.


Russia has the most diverse and formidable nuclear arsenal of any nuclear weapons state. In addition to a strategic triad of long-range bombers armed with new nuclear cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as silo, road mobile, and rail mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, Russia possesses a “tactical” nuclear arsenal — estimated at least 2,000 weapons. It should come as no surprise that NATO, which fields an estimated 200 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, is at a distinct disadvantage should Russia seek to engage the alliance in a limited nuclear war. With a stated policy that includes “escalate to deescalate,” Russia seems to believe that it can use its tactical nuclear weapons either to consolidate conventional gains on the battlefield and terminate a war or change the direction of a conflict should it begin to lose..

There is reason to believe that President Putin may view his recent upgrades to his strategic nuclear forces as an effective messaging tool which conveys Russia’s commitment to not only nuclear modernization but fighting and winning a nuclear conflict. Because the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal is superior in both size and delivery options to NATO’s nuclear arsenal, it is not unreasonable to believe Putin thinks he has the advantage and can force the United States to the negotiating table in the event of a conflict. Some of Russia’s modernization efforts are worth noting.

The Strategic Rocket Forces, which operate Russia’s ballistic missile force, fields a number of new intercontinental ballistic missiles as it seeks to replace Cold War era weapons. Russia is currently replacing its remaining SS-18 and SS-19 Mod 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – which were designed and deployed about the same time as American Minuteman III ICBMs –  with SS-27 Topol-M and SS-29 Yars-M ICBMs, which were designed in the 1990s and 2000s. These ICBMs can be launched from silos and road or rail mobile transporter erector launchers (TEL). Locating and targeting mobile ICBMs is particularly difficult and gives the Russians an assured second strike. By 2020, the Russians will field the RS-28 Sarmat which is called the “country killer” because it can hold 15 thermonuclear reentry vehicles and is equipped with defensive countermeasures designed to defeat ballistic missile defenses.

Russia is also fielding a new class of ballistic missile submarine to replace its fleet of six Delfin-class (Delta IV) submarines, which were launched between 1984 and 1992. The new Borei-class ballistic missile submarine, which is the quietest submarine Russia has produced, can carry up to 16 of the new SS-NX-30 Bulava submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) — a more accurate and deadly weapon. With the first Borei-class submarine entering service in 2009, this latest class of submarines is still entering the fleet. Eight are expected to be commissioned by 2020.

Russia is also modernizing its fleet of Tu-95 Bear-H and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers while it designs and fields a new stealth bomber. The Russians have also begun fielding a new nuclear air launched cruise missile (ALCM). First fielded in 2014, The Kh-102 can be launched by both of Russia’s bombers while still in Russian airspace and reach the continental United States.  Because of the altitude at which they fly and their radar cross-section, the United States may not even see these weapons before they enter American airspace.

Russia has also made significant advances in warhead design, which is important as both the United States and Russia are growing increasingly concerned that the other side could destroy incoming warheads through defensive measures. Russian nuclear weapons designers have focused their efforts on ensuring their warheads detonate at the desired yield and exactly when and where they are supposed to. While open source information is limited, it does appear Russia is making strides in these areas.

Perhaps most concerning is the behavior of President Putin. He has not only acted aggressively against neighboring countries, but has been particularly vocal in letting the world know that Russia will rely on its nuclear arsenal to defend the nation and its interests. The recent Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, abrogation of the “MOX Treaty,” and increasing concern that Russia will not meet its obligations under the New Start Treaty give ample reason for unease. Russia has also said that it will not negotiate the size of its tactical nuclear arsenal, which is of greatest alarm to NATO.


Although China is believed to maintain a nuclear arsenal considerably smaller than the United States and Russia, our knowledge of the Chinese nuclear weapons program is limited because China has purposefully remained opaque. We do, however, know that China maintains a secure second-strike capability that is becoming more robust due to modernization efforts that are designed to provide China a proper nuclear triad with advanced nuclear warheads.

The heart of China’s nuclear deterrent is found in its ballistic missiles. The DF-5 (CSS-4) is a liquid-fueled rocked first deployed in the mid-1980s. This heavy lift ICBM was designed for use with a single large-yield warhead with a range of approximately 7,000 miles and an accuracy of  approximately one-quarter of a mile. As part of its modernization effort, the DF-5 is due to be replaced by the DF-41, a heavy lift, solid-fueled ICBM, which has a considerably improved accuracy and response time.

China also fields the DF-31 (CSS-9) — a solid-fueled ICBM first deployed in 2006. China recently upgraded to a DF-31A variant, which can reach the United States with its three warheads. An additional variant is the DF-31B — a road mobile weapon.

There are an estimated 20 DF-5 and 15 DF-31 on alert in China. If loaded with a full complement of warheads, China is capable of delivering approximately 105 mega-ton class weapons on the United States. With its “counter-value strategy” that focuses on targeting American cities, the Chinese ballistic missile force is deeply concerning and an existential threat to America.

The Chinese are also establishing a continuous at-sea deterrent with the introduction of the Jin-class ballistic missile submarine. The first boat was commissioned in 2010 and a total of five are expected. Open source literature describes the Jin as noisy enough to be detected and tracked by the U.S. Navy, which makes it inferior to American and Russian ballistic missile submarines. Still, it is a clear step toward parity for China because Beijing has never had an operational nuclear sea leg, particularly one that could operate effectively close enough to the U.S. coast to strike the homeland. The new SSBN will carry up to twelve JL-2 (CSS-NX-4) ballistic missiles, which have a range of approximately 5,000 miles.

China also fielded the H-6K bomber in 2009 — a modernized variant of the Soviet-era H-6 bomber — which can carry the CJ-10K cruise missile. Although it is believed that the CJ-10K is loaded with a conventional warhead, China does have the technical capability to field a nuclear variant. With China seeking regional dominance in Asia, the H6-K’s 2,200 mile range provides the aircraft ample distance to hold targets in the region at risk.

It is also believed that China is currently increasing the numbers of its stockpile from an estimated 200 to 300 to an unknown number. Since China is not believed to be actively creating additional highly-enriched uranium or weapon-grade plutonium, the ultimate size of its arsenal may be limited well below that of the United States and Russia. However, the opaque nature of the Chinese nuclear weapons program and Chinese nuclear strategy make it difficult for Western analysts to accurately assess the aspirational goals and its use doctrine. From limited glimpses into the program, interaction with Chinese scientists, and publications by Chinese scientists, it is believed that China has a weapons development program on par with the United States and Russia.

North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is designed to provide the Kim regime a deterrent that will prevent an invasion by the United States and South Korea. The Kim family regime is unable to defeat a conventional or nuclear attack. As such, an ability to strike the United States and its allies are viewed in Pyongyang as vital to deter such an attack. The United States would like North Korea to return to the six-party talks and agree to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but such a move is unlikely.

While North Korea has demonstrated the ability to produce a nuclear device and has an active ballistic missile program it is not clear that it can deliver its nuclear warheads atop a KN-08 road mobile ICBM. Currently, there is no open source evidence to suggest that North Korea has attempted to mate a nuclear warhead with any of its ballistic missiles. However, it is unlikely that North Korean scientists and engineers will fail to overcome existing challenges given Kim Jung-Un’s focus on nuclear weapons.

The complete lack of transparency in the North Korean nuclear program makes it particularly threatening. In its nuclear doctrine, North Korea has both claimed a “no first-use” policy as well as threatened a nuclear pre-emptive strike. As he has shown in the past, Kim Jung-Un is difficult to understand and predict, making the North Korean weapons program particularly worrisome for South Korea and Japan.

Final Analysis

There are three points worth remembering. First, America’s adversaries never took a holiday from the development and fielding of new nuclear weapons and delivery platforms. It was only the United States that naively believed nuclear weapons were less important to national security. U.S. conventional superiority made nuclear weapons more important than at any point in the nuclear age. The American victory in the Gulf War in 1991 left little doubt that the United States would dominate the conventional battlefield for many years — leaving nuclear weapons to serve as the great equalizer and deterrent of an expeditionary American military.

Second, in a time of smaller nuclear arsenals and lower-yield nuclear weapons, ensuring that every weapon arrives at its target and is able to destroy that target is central to the stability of nuclear deterrence. During the Cold War, arsenals that exceeded 20,000 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons ensured the stability of nuclear deterrence because of their sheer numbers. Today, however, with the size of the arsenal down 90 percent and America’s adversaries both developing defensive systems that can destroy incoming missiles — Russia’s S-400 integrated air defense system is one example — and moving underground with critical facilities, the United States’ aging nuclear weapons and delivery systems may soon find themselves unable to effectively hold key targets at risk.

Third, counter to arguments made by nuclear critics, the United States will not set-off a nuclear arms race by modernizing its nuclear arsenal. With the American economy five times larger than the ailing Russian economy, sustaining an arms race with the United States is not a viable option for Russia. China is limited in its production of nuclear weapons by its relatively small stockpile of fissile material. Thus, such arguments are hyperbolic rather than demonstrative of how our adversaries are likely to respond to American modernization.

As the United States contemplates spending between six and seven percent of the defense budget on nuclear weapons modernization, Americans should understand that our adversaries never took a holiday from modernization. An aggressive Russia and a more capable China now have arsenals that are more capable than the weapons they replaced. This increases the threat the United States faces. Effectively deterring these threats will require that the United States replace its weapons, which were designed to counter a threat that existed four decades ago. This is not the threat we face today.


Dr. Adam B. Lowther is the Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies (SANDS) at Kirtland, AFB. His latest book is Defending the Arsenal: Why America’s Nuclear Modernization Still Matters. Maj. Angelo Bonavita is the Deputy Director of SANDS and hold a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the views or positions of SANDS, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Image: Vitaly V. Kuzmin