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Trump Administration Plan Would Reverse Trend, Add More Nuclear Weapons

The Tomahawk Ground Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile -- now displayed at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona - was an important part of the U.S. arsenal during the Cold War.
Kelly Michals
The Tomahawk Ground Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile - now displayed at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona - was an important part of the U.S. arsenal during the Cold War.

As part of a recently released plan, the Trump Administration is proposing an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

The Trump Administration wants to add smaller tactical weapons to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, reversing a recent trend in which the U.S. reduced the number of weapons and sites where they are stored.

The proposal was contained in the recently released Nuclear Posture Review, a government document updated every few years that sets the tone for military planners. It calls for a renewed emphasis on low-yield weapons that once were common during the Cold War.

Though the low-yield weapons are still destructive enough to flatten a city, they're less powerful than the strategic nuclear weapons that make up the bulk of the U.S. arsenal.

The U.S. retired almost all of its low-yield weapons after 2010. But experts say the Trump Administration wants to bring them out of storage, in part to match Russia's capabilities. Russian leaders have maintained their stash of tactical weapons.

"The threat of a small scale nuclear weapon might intimidate NATO and so that's the kind of card [Russia] is willing to use," said Erik Gartzke, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California San Diego.

On the other hand, Gartzke fears that the availability of the smaller weapons might make nuclear war more likely.  The theory goes that no one uses the big strategic weapons because they fear massive retaliation. But leaders may not feel the disincentive to order a smaller nuclear strike.

"What tactical nuclear weapons do is allow us to go past the point of nuclear war in places that we're not willing to risk the fate of the nation," he said.

During the Cold War, California was among the top four states housing nuclear weapons. Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego was one of the last places that the Navy housed nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. The smaller weapons were placed on attack submarines.

After the Cold War, the number of sites with nuclear weapons began to shrink. In the last Nuclear Posture Review, under the Obama administration in 2010, the number of sites dropped, said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists.

Today, the Air Force runs a few bases with bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles in Wyoming, Missouri and North Dakota. The Navy arms submarines in Georgia and Washington. Kristensen said most of the rest of the weapons -- including weapons waiting to be dismantled -- are in an underground facility, barely visible from the air, across from a golf course outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"In that storage facility you have several thousand nuclear warheads," Kristensen said.

The storage sites are intentionally easy to find - partly because of nuclear arms agreements, and partly to serve as a deterrent.

"You have to tell people you have them," Kristensen said. "You need to demonstrate and visualize that you have forces operating that are credible."

Gartzke said the fastest way to return the tactical weapons to service would be to put bombs on board aircraft carriers, as the U.S. did during the Cold War. The bombs could be carried by the new F-35 stealth fighter.

"We could see the carriers based in San Diego, possibly in the future, carrying nuclear weapons out to sea,"

Another route would be to put them on attack submarines like the ones ported in San Diego and Norfolk. Kristensen said those may be the most likely places for new tactical weapons.

Because of the potential cost, a new missile system could take a decade to produce, he said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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