Mattis Talks Nukes, But is Trump Listening?


Over the next year, many observers will be closely watching how the incoming administration addresses America’s nuclear arsenal. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, a legislatively mandated review of the U.S. nuclear posture, provides Congress with the administration’s plans to develop nuclear policy, strategy, and capabilities. It is unclear as to whether or when we will see an NPR from the Trump administration. We do know that the next administration’s views on nuclear weapons will differ from those of the Obama administration. However, the recently released advance policy questions for James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, as well as his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, could shed some light on how the Trump administration will approach U.S. nuclear policy.

In the discussing U.S. nuclear posture, Mattis starts off nicely with the statement of strategic priorities. “My view of the Department of Defense’s strategic priorities is that we must first maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent. Second, we must field a decisive conventional force.” Mattis states, “We must maintain a robust nuclear deterrent and lethal conventional forces.” This statement is important for two reasons. First, Mattis clearly states that the nuclear force will be a top priority for U.S. national security. There’s a vocal arms control community that would like to rid the world of nuclear weapons, so establishing this early in his statement is important. As Colin Gray states in his book Weapons Don’t Make War, U.S. national security policy must have a nuclear dimension. The United States cannot bluff its way out of a nuclear confrontation with only conventional capabilities.

Second, this point goes to the issue of affordability. It is an often-stated position that the nuclear modernization program may cost a trillion dollars over the next 30 years. That number is frequently used without the context of what the Department of Defense may spend on conventional weapons during that same period. Using a similar projection, one might roughly estimate U.S. defense spending to run to somewhere near $20 trillion, where nuclear weapons take up five percent of the total defense budget. It is not defendable, in light of current or future defense programming efforts, to say that nuclear weapons programs somehow imperil conventional weapons procurement. But if nuclear weapons are not prioritized above conventional weapons in the budget, we will certainly be forced to live with inadequate and aging nuclear weapons systems.

Assuring NATO Members

Mattis’ answers to the Senate questionnaire get very interesting when the topic changes to NATO. When asked whether U.S. nuclear weapons should be deployed in NATO countries, he answers “Yes. … I support the convention that NATO must maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities.” When questioned about the continued deployment of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb for NATO, he responds, “NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture relies in part on U.S. nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe” and the “current burden-sharing arrangements of which the B61 weapon system is an essential component.” How the United States can assure our NATO allies is a hard thing to calculate and measure. Recent increases in U.S. conventional force levels in Europe are not enough to meet this objective. Even as U.S. strategic bombers fly from Missouri to Europe in exercises, European political leaders want their air forces to work with the U.S. Air Force to maintain an in-theater nuclear capability.

Another essential component of that capability is maintaining a dual-capable aircraft (DCA, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear bombs) in theater as a sign of reassurance to NATO that the U.S. military will respond proportionally to Russian nuclear weapons threats or use. Mattis does not commit to a DCA-version of the F-35 Lightening II but states, “[t]he U.S. must continue to maintain the capability to forward-deploy strategic bombers and dual-capable aircraft as part of its nuclear and extended nuclear deterrence posture.” Certainly, the F-35 could provide that DCA capability in the very near-term. Belgian, Dutch, and Turkish F16s and German and Italian Tornado fighter-bombers — also dual-capable — are already preparing to accept the newest version of the B61 bomb, in the event that their first F-35s are not yet nuclear-capable.

There are two significant points to be made here. First of all, there are numerous debates on the efficacy of NATO’s nuclear deterrent forces as regards to actual use of nuclear weapons or whether they are just Cold War symbols of U.S. commitment to NATO’s security. Those debates will continue. NATO’s continued public statements that alliance members want to keep this capability should be stressed. The rationale is not hard to understand. If Russia uses nuclear weapons against Europe, some European leaders may feel that the U.S. government will not use its strategic forces in response. During the Cold War, this debate was “will the United States sacrifice New York City for Berlin?” Being able to respond with in-theater nuclear weapons offered a step between conventional warfare in Europe and strategic nuclear warfare. Today, while both Russia and Western Europe have significantly reduced conventional forces, the same concern about escalating to a strategic nuclear conflict remains.

Second, there is an idea that, if the United States did not spend so much money on modernizing nuclear forces, there would be more funds for U.S. conventional forces. Anyone familiar with defense programming knows that there is no axiom that reductions in nuclear weapons funding will automatically result in increases for conventional forces. In fact, Congress funded the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative, which is overwhelmingly made up of conventional forces, to the tune of $3.4 billion in addition to approving increases to nuclear modernization programs. In addition, NATO and deployed U.S. conventional forces that are significantly superior to Russian conventional forces and able to at least stop a Russian incursion beyond the Baltic States. These forces would not, however, be an effective deterrent against limited nuclear strikes by Russian forces intended to “de-escalate” a European conflict. And, that is exactly why Putin is modernizing Russian nuclear weapons and making public statements about their possible use in Europe.

Modernizing the Triad

So what is Mattis’ view on the role of nuclear weapons? Here, the arms control community might find a little bit of comfort. Mattis says that the role of nuclear weapons is “[t]o deter nuclear war and to serve as last resort weapons of self-defense.” While this does not rule out first-use of nuclear weapons, he emphasizes the need for “robust, flexible, and survivable” U.S nuclear forces that can support conventional operations, provide credible deterrence, and support “U.S. nonproliferation goals by extending deterrence to allies.” It should not be a surprise that he then goes on to say, “[w]e must continue with current modernization plans for all three legs of the Triad, and for associated command and control systems.”

During Mattis’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) asked Mattis to elaborate on the targeting challenge posed by the ICBM force. He noted that the U.S. silos were situated such that it would take three or four enemy weapons to take one ICBM silo out, thus providing a “cost-imposing strategy on an adversary” and ensuring such a stance with the triad that these weapons would not be launched. Many critics of the U.S. nuclear enterprise target the ICBMs for disestablishment, if one had to cut one leg of the triad. Mattis seems to disagree with that view, and Congressional language in the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act also seeks to protect the ICBM from any further cuts.

How Mattis saw the role of nuclear weapons was open to some debate when he testified before the Senate Arms Committee last year. He seemed to suggest that the U.S. government needed to reexamine  how its nuclear posture supported U.S. national security policy. At the least, this more recent testimony by Mattis suggests that he is closer to outgoing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on nuclear weapons modernization. The only nuclear capability he chose to not openly endorse was the controversial Long Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile. He explained,  “I will carefully examine the utility and advisability of this program within existing nuclear doctrine and report back to the Committee with an informed answer.”

This response may have been metered to defuse anticipated Democratic push-back on funding the LRSO in the future defense program. While the B61 mod 12 is fully funded and well on its way to procurement, the LRSO is still many years away from production. However, it is a safe bet that, if Mattis bases his views on nuclear modernization based on existing nuclear doctrine, the LRSO will have a future. As the LRSO is replacing an existing nuclear cruise missile, there should be no significant change in doctrine or plans. The Air Force has made a strong case for why it wants a replacement to the AGB-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, and it would be very hard to believe that this program would be rolled back by a Republican administration.

Of course, Mattis is not merely focusing on Air Force nuclear programs. He expressed support for the replacement of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, despite the high cost that this program is anticipated to have. He calls the Ohio-class replacement program “an essential element of a credible and safe nuclear deterrent.” His written response states that that sequestration has “forced choices that have reduced our conventional naval capabilities while still not permitting modernization of our nuclear deterrent.” While not endorsing a separate special fund for procuring this program, he promises to “determine the best way to manage and exercise responsible stewardship of funds allocated for this program.”

A Warrior for the Nuclear Enterprise

During the Senate hearing, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked the nominee as to his view on the importance of the nuclear deterrent. Mattis responded that he saw the nuclear deterrent to be a critical priority “because we don’t ever want those weapons used. And so either the deterrent is safe and secure, it is compelling or we actually open the door to something worse [a nuclear accident or incident].” That should comfort some in the arms control community that Mattis will bring a calm and rational demeanor into the Pentagon as he reviews the U.S. nuclear posture. At the same time, he has clearly expressed his support for maintaining the nuclear force.

But is Trump on board?

What does it mean when the president-elect offers to further reduce nuclear stockpiles in return for relieving sanctions on Russia? Is this daylight between Trump and Mattis on nuclear weapons policy? Trump’s offer seems to run counter to his previous statements during the campaign. Conservative national security advisors certainly did not suggest this option, and Russia does not show any interest in dropping its arsenal below New START levels. While Russia may expect to dialogue with the Trump administration on strategic stability, nothing in Russia’s current security situation suggests an interest in any substantial cuts in nuclear weapons.

Of course, there could be cuts in the overall nuclear stockpile, in particular those older nuclear weapons that are no longer operational. One of the selling points of the Obama administration’s nuclear program was that it focused on both modernizing existing nuclear forces and cutting the number of total nuclear weapons. While their statements could indicate differing opinions on U.S. nuclear policy, there is simply no way to know yet.

We should not forget that the Obama administration supported nuclear modernization and laid the groundwork for getting these programs into the U.S. defense budget. Nuclear weapons modernization has long been a bipartisan effort between the two national parties. The chaotic process of developing U.S. policy and implementing defense programs should not be confused with the lack of resolve. Certainly, there will be differences between the incoming and outgoing administration with respect to nuclear weapons modernization and nonproliferation agreements. But in the cold light of day, it may be that the two are more similar than dissimilar. And, continuity of effort can be a good thing for the U.S. national security, especially given the significantly critical nature of nuclear deterrence.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies and author of the new book, “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy.” The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.